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At universities, tenure track goes off the rails

This is the Shelby Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where a faculty member who was denied tenure is accused of killing three fellow faculty this month. The tragic event, of course, was extreme, but it’s a warning to us all.

Associated Press

This is the Shelby Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where a faculty member who was denied tenure is accused of killing three fellow faculty this month. The tragic event, of course, was extreme, but it’s a warning to us all.

A faculty member at the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville is accused of opening fire at a department meeting, killing her chairman, two colleagues and injuring three others. Her denial of tenure was the supposed reason behind the rampage.

What happened was a tragedy for those killed and injured and their families.

Perhaps it's also a warning for every university in the country.

It was not an academic Armageddon, but a lot of us inside universities feel the shock of recognition. Has tenure become so important that someone would kill when it was denied?

It has.

To most new faculty members, tenure is all they think about. It drives their every move.

Try to explain tenure to someone in the business world: "See, after this person works for you for a few years, you are forced to decide if you want to have coffee with them for the rest of your working life. And if they get this tenure thing, there's nothing you can do to get rid of them, even if they do a lousy job."

Of course it makes no sense. The concept hasn't found foothold outside the cloistered world of academia. A corporation or even a small family business could not function with employees who revel in aggressive incompetence. (Tenured faculty members are fired once every geologic age, but it usually requires photographic evidence of unwanted genital contact with a student.)

The philosophy behind tenure is good. It's tied in with another frequently misunderstood university totem, academic freedom. The idea is to protect faculty members whose areas of study might lead them into uncharted areas in genetics, fine arts, medicine or some other legitimate academic pursuit. Protecting those on the frontiers of their discipline from legislative whim is a good idea, particularly in a volatile political environment.

But tenure has come to mean "lifetime job" and academic freedom means "I can do whatever I want." I once suggested to a colleague at a faculty meeting that we needed greater focus in a course she taught. She shot back, "I don't tell you how to teach your course." I was stunned — and further stunned that none of the 20 colleagues in the room backed me. I always think of the great comebacks too late. I should have said, "It's not your course. It's our course."

I'm chairman of the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida. I've been tenured by two universities, but in both cases I didn't feel that not receiving tenure would end my life. I'd get a job elsewhere. Having worked in the field, I felt the way I always felt: that I needed to earn my job every day.

I deeply respect serious scholars — physicists, botanists, philosophers and others — who teach and do research in our great universities, and I doubt they are in danger of losing their positions because of their research.

Tenure has outlived the valid reason for its inception. It has become nothing more than a lifetime contract based on insufficient evidence. What other area of endeavor offers such a deal? (And if you are denied tenure, you keep your job for an entire year while you try to find another.)

Tenure has displaced educating students or conducting useful research as the end goal for many faculty members. From the moment new hires hit campus, they are indoctrinated by elder members of the tribe: This is how you get tenure. This is how you play the game.

To get tenure, faculty members must distinguish themselves in two of these three: teaching, research and service.

Alas, service has been pushed aside because it's not rewarded by the university, so only misguided faculty members look past the campus walls with an eye toward helping the community or the profession they serve. If it does not help achieve tenure, what's the point?

To prove distinction in teaching, a professor seeks high student-evaluation scores. The university provides few other ways to measure teaching, so faculty members do everything they can to make students happy. They beg their department chairmen to teach classes in the coveted 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. window, so as not to anger sleepy students. To remain popular, many instructors rarely challenge students by asking them to write research papers, for fear that they will get dinged at evaluation time. Though there are strict procedures to follow — faculty members are not supposed to be in the room when evaluations are handed out — some faculty members nevertheless serve cookies or wine (I'm not making this up) and hover while students fill out the forms.

Instead of truly earning distinction in teaching, faculty members demonstrate popularity with students ("Easy course, you should take it," reads one online rating. "Plus, she cancels class a lot.") or how uncomfortable and intimidating they can be.

Faculty members whose evaluation scores are low might actually be the best teachers. I know that as a student my finest teachers were rigorous and demanding in the classroom.

And though universities produce research that improves our quality of life and deepens our understanding of the world, much of the work is profoundly insignificant. Consider my area, for example: As the news business founders, are any of the big journalism and communications programs suggesting new economic models for the industry and figuring out how to make money off the Internet? This just in: The answer is no.

In my area — and so many others — there is a disconnect between the academy and the profession. But the path to tenure includes "distinction" in research, and young professors are encouraged to carve out severely esoteric areas for study, so they soon paint themselves into a corner of irrelevance. Yet as long as their work gets published in an academic journal read only by a handful of similarly arcane professors, it is regarded as the scholarly grail.

As the new generation of faculty members descends on campus, I'll wager that the will-this-help-me-get-tenure issue overrides every decision they make. Tenure is the be-all end-all and is seen as a right, not a privilege. After all, this is the generation that grew up getting trophies for participation, not achievement. Those of us in administration are told to suckle the untenured, not taxing them too much with committee work or other assignments while they go through their seven-year "ordeal" of auditioning for the lifetime contract. Then, when they have achieved tenure, there's little motivation for them to participate in any part of university life not in their scholarly back yard. What reason do they have to achieve? They've already earned the trophy, just by showing up.

Deny the trophy and see what can happen.

Raise these questions on campus and you are put down as some traitor to the tribe. Tenure is accepted as a divine right and faculty members who bow and scrape before the gods of equality and egalitarianism cling to tenure as their membership card for a privileged class. "All animals are created equal," George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, "but some animals are more equal than others."

And this is the result: Students pass through the university and are rarely challenged to learn anything. Many professors produce research that is of no consequence, and are rewarded for selfishness. The system of tenure and its guarantee of lifetime employment assures mediocrity. And universities fail to perform their mission of educating the next generation of leaders and philosophers.

That's the real academic Armageddon.

Professor William McKeen is chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida. His most recent book is Outlaw Journalist, The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson.

At universities, tenure track goes off the rails 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 3:30am]
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