Tricia Serio

Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Massachusetts Amherst

The Unintended Consequences of Seeking Tenure

Full full drevil and henchmen

Image: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

By Melanie Hingle and Tricia Serio

“You don’t really know how much of an asshole someone is until they have tenure.” So said a tenured professor in reference to an assistant professor who wasn’t shy about contributing to faculty discussions. The implication? If a junior faculty member is already viewed as a “problem,” it’s not a good sign.

The debate over tenure has come full circle. Originally established to protect scholars from reprisals for advancing new ideas in research or in the classroom, tenure itself now comes under regular fire for limiting how quickly institutions can respond to change in the short term and tying up budgets in the long term. But there is another, equally important yet unintended consequence that has received comparatively little discussion: the limitations that the pursuit of tenure has on the contributions that assistant professors can make to their own institutions. The tenure process discourages junior scholars from sharing their ideas for fear of how that will affect their prospects for promotion. That is a loss for both young scholars and our institutions.

Tenure represents the ultimate prize of academic freedom — or the ability to pursue our scholarship on our terms. Our success in this self-directed endeavor is assessed during the tenure review. In scholarship, independent thinking can lead to recognition in one’s field. But that same independence of mind — when applied to campus governance or departmental debates — can ruffle the feathers of many a passionate, tenacious, and already tenured colleague.

It’s happened to us as junior scholars. For example, one of us thought better of contributing our viewpoint on a curricular matter because two tenured faculty members vigorously voiced opposing ideas, and we didn’t want to be seen as taking sides against people who will eventually vote on our tenure cases. Likewise, we’ve both felt and seen others be concerned about rigorously testing graduate students in comprehensive examinations for fear of upsetting their tenured advisers. After all, it’s “common knowledge” that research gets you tenure, but everything else can hurt you.

To be sure, assistant professors have less experience than their tenured counterparts, especially in areas of academic administration. However, junior scholars bring valuable and diverse perspectives that are more likely to be underrepresented in the tenured ranks. For example, assistant professors are closer to their own educational experiences than many of their tenured colleagues, and therefore likely to hold unique viewpoints on the challenges and opportunities students face and on innovative ideas in use at other institutions. In addition, assistant professors are more ethnically and racially diverse (25 percent of the professoriate) than their tenured counterparts (18 percent) and have achieved gender equity in their rank in comparison with the tenured professors, who are only 37 percent female.

Assistant professors are a significant population on campuses, comprising a third of tenure and tenure-eligible faculty in U.S. degree-granting institutions. To leverage that often untapped potential, we must employ strategies that create an environment for assistant professors to share their points of view freely without fear of reprisal. Here are some strategies that we find particularly effective:

Ask assistant professors to speak first. Working toward consensus in a faculty meeting can often feel like a battle. The exploration of ideas through debate — while effective in highlighting the strengths and weakness of options — can also be isolating for those who have not yet progressed to the security of tenure. We have found that starting discussions by inviting assistant professors to speak first not only avoids their concern of taking sides on already expressed opinions but actually “turns the tables.” When tenured professors are then invited to contribute, they tend to present their ideas as options rather than convictions, acknowledging the ideas already expressed by the assistant professors.

Take the floor away. Meetings that invite faculty to speak one at a time create a forum where one opinion can quickly dominate by its merit, by the strength of the presentation, or by the hesitancy of others to offer different ideas. By structuring discussions as interviews — participants are divided into small groups with members questioning one another, and then those groups report common responses — the points of consensus emerge first. New ideas can then be offered as tweaks on the strong foundation that’s already established, with the goal of taking the decision to the next level.

Strip away the details. Decision making is often strongly influenced by our specific experiences of the topic under discussion. It’s human nature to tell our own stories, but the relevance of those details can often be lost on people approaching the same issue from their own perspectives. By shifting the discussion away from specific options to values — i.e., the important concepts to consider — a framework for making the decision can be built. With that anchor in place, the discussion can be focused on ranking those values and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each option relative to them.

Use anonymous voting. After an open and robust discussion structured to ensure that diverse perspectives are shared, an open vote can still introduce unintended restrictions on freedom because everyone looks around the room to see how everyone else is voting. Paper ballots or electronic voting, although more time consuming, allows everyone to vote on the matter at hand without peer pressure.

At their core, these strategies parallel the active-learning approaches that many of us are already using in the classroom to transform higher education. They can be equally effective when applied to academic decision-making. Given the time, resources, and enthusiasm needed to recruit new faculty members, it seems shortsighted to then allow the pressures of the tenure process to keep their ideas and contributions under wraps. Instead, let’s be aware of the challenges faced by assistant professors and strive to give voice to their unique perspectives.

Melanie Hingle is an assistant professor of nutrition science and public health at the University of Arizona and a fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

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