Loading icon

The Truth About Tenure: Does Our Voice Even Matter?

News & Features | October 20, 2010

From the moment a professor starts teaching at Tufts, he or she has the option to pursue a tenure track. This track, designed to bring prestige and greater academic integrity to each department, stipulates the amount of research, number of articles written, and number of papers published a professor must have before he or she can be considered for tenure review. From day one, a professor is focused on gaining that tenure spot, contractually, and not necessarily focused on improving the quality of student life in the classroom. Especially in light of the recession, a lot of us are beginning to question whether or not a system designed to keep professors stagnant after a certain point in their career is really helping the student population.

The process of gaining tenure seems foreign and mysterious to most students, yet it affects our everyday lives, our ability to learn, even the career paths we might choose. Our teachers are extremely important to our development as intellectuals, and as adults emerging into the world. We are shaped by what we learn. This begs the question, though: why don’t we have a greater voice in the tenure process? Why does this process lack a real transparency within the student body? How can we find out and how do we know the information we’re receiving is reliable?

A yearly committee made up of the provost and six tenured faculty members from different departments within the university reviews tenure at Tufts. All tenure cases go before this committee, who vote on whether or not a candidate will receive tenure. Though the system was designed to be apolitical, it stands to reason that this committee is composed of professors with their own prejudices and beliefs concerning their peers, making the process much more subjective than it should be.

Tenure started as a way to ensure freedom of speech and promote academic inquiry on campus. It was a process that really became common practice in the 1950’s as the returning GIs graduated college and flooded the academic community. This occurred concurrently with McCarthy era communist hysteria, which made it necessary for universities to demand loyalty oaths from their faculty. Similarly, professors saw the need for freedom of research without worrying about whether delving into their area of specialization would suggest they had communist sympathies and result in their dismissal.

With the Red Scare just a chapter in our US history books and the Cold War decades over, the concept of tenure seems less like a necessary oath of loyalty and more like an excuse for university faculty to fall into the cliché of professorial apathy (recycled syllabi, TAs teaching lecture, outdated teaching styles, etc). One argument is that tenure protects faculty members that are politically unpopular from unfair termination. Professors who research unappealing topics, who are known for harsh grading, or who cause waves within the department as a result of their ideas are granted a certain security with the tenure process. This, however, seems like ensuring the security of a minority at the cost of the academic experience of an entire generation of students.

Although any student can understand the concept of tenure and the basic requirements Tufts faculty must fulfill in order to be considered for review, truly understanding the process of tenure here at Tufts is not made readily accessible or clear to the student body. There is an obscure document that exists online called Statement #11 Tenure and Promotion Process that outlines the entire process a professor must go through to receive tenure. If someone were to find this document, read, and comprehend it, they still wouldn’t truly understand what role the student plays in considering which professors will gain tenure. This, we feel, is a huge problem.

One area of tenure at Tufts where students are actively involved takes place through the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate Education Committee. These students receive a list of all candidates who will be reviewed for tenure in the next academic year from the Secretary of the Faculty. The TCU Senators review and summarize commentary and data on the candidate’s teaching and compile a report for the Department. These students at least have a peripheral knowledge of who is being considered for review, but at the end of the day don’t offer any input or opinions of their own.

Some individuals do get to offer opinions on the candidate, but these are primarily related to research and seldom written by undergraduates. The candidate and his or her department work together to compile a list of students who will provide letters of evaluation. These typically include students with whom he or she worked closely in one-on-one or small-group settings, such as PhD advisees, master’s thesis advisees, senior honors thesis advisees, Summer Scholars, lab and research collaborators, participants in directed performances and creative projects. The candidate also seeks letters from senior scholars in his or her field from prominent research universities. These letters are meant to “assess the candidate’s scholarship and research,” according to Statement #11, so they are understandably written by individuals who have worked closely with the candidate. Still, where do we come into the picture? We, the masses who will mostly likely not interact closely with the professor. We, who value good teaching above “scholarship and research.”

Enter in-class evaluations. We fill them out at the end of every class, every semester. In order to evaluate the student response to certain professors, students rate the course and professor on a scale of 1-5 on a scantron form, which each department compiles as a quantitative way to evaluate a professor’s performance. What this loses, however, is the qualitative aspect of teaching. Departments strongly encourage professors to maintain ratings of 3.5 or above from the students in their classes, and disregard almost entirely the handwritten comments on the back of the form. Arguably, it is hard to summarize individual comments in a concrete way, but by reducing professors’ impact to a number from 1–5, we also reduce the ability to laud professors who are truly making a unique impact.

According to the 2010-2011 Tenure and Promotion Committee, “Faculty, whether or not they have tenure, are reviewed each year on teaching, research and service for that year and their salary is set by the Dean based on that review.” That review includes (but is not limited to) the teaching evaluations for that year.

This is our voice in the tenure process. Is it an accurate one? What about those students who so abhor a class that they stop attending- their voices are never heard. What about those students who don’t put any thought into the evaluations, or those that try to flatter professors with their rankings? Are once-a-semester handouts really enough to evaluate our perception of a professor’s teaching?

According to the Committee, teaching is a very important consideration in the decision for tenure. “No one receives a positive vote on tenure from the committee unless he or she has proven that he or she can teach reasonably well, that he or she can do that consistently and that he or she has an expressed interest in teaching,” the committee said. This phrase, “reasonably well,” is not defined and has no clear parameters. If professors are only expected to live up to the vague standard of “reasonably well,” why should we perform any better?