Must the tenure process really be like this?

Like a lot of people in higher ed, I’ve been following Friday’s deadly shooting at the University of Alabama-Hunstville. (Click the link for background in case you missed the story. I have no idea how much press it is or is not getting in the national mainstream media.) It’s known that Amy Bishop, the UAH biology professor being charged with the shooting, was denied tenure in April and had made an unsuccessful appeal regarding her tenure denial. It’s not clear that the shooting was related to the tenure situation, but the speculation — especially in the article at the second link — is that there’s a connection.

What is clear, at least from my perspective as a professor and as somebody in the fourth year of a five-year appointment to my college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, is that something is really badly wrong with UAH’s tenure system, and perhaps with tenure as a concept. Listen to this description of Prof. Bishop’s situation from William Setzer, chemistry department chair at UAH:

As for why she had been turned down for tenure, Mr. Setzer said he had heard that her publication record was thin and that she hadn’t secured enough grants. Also, there were concerns about her personality, he said. In meetings, Mr. Setzer remembered, she would go off on “bizarre” rambles about topics not related to tasks at hand — “left-field kind of stuff,” he said. […]

While there were those who supported her tenure and promotion, Mr. Setzer said, he didn’t believe she had any friends in the department.

There was no doubt, however, about her intelligence or pedigree. “She’s pretty smart,” said Mr. Setzer. “That was not a question. There might have been some question about how good of a [principal investigator] and mentor she was. Yeah, she knows her stuff, and she’s a good technical person, but as far as being the boss and running the lab, that was kind of the question.”

Mr. Setzer might not be giving an accurate description of how people get tenure at UAH, but is this really what tenure is all about? Publication records? Grants? Personalities? Whether or not you have enough friends, or the right friends?  UAH does state up-front that it is a research-intensive university, but where is teaching in all of this?

Now look at the depressing remarks of  Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, about the realities (?) of tenure:

“The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching,” said [Nelson]. “You probably can’t get another job.”

Nelson, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the review is a period of great stress for even the most likely candidates. They feel judged. Denial can lead to isolation.

“If you have underlying problems,” Nelson said, “then there’s a good chance that they will surface during the tenure process because you are under so much stress.”

We do not know, yet, just how much Prof. Bishop’s tenure denial contributed to her actions, which (I stress) are not justifiable under any circumstance. But honestly — if this is what getting tenure is like at your school, then your school is doing it wrong.

The tenure process can, and should, be an open and transparent process whereby junior faculty are guided in their professional development by senior faculty with a view towards making positive contributions to their institution for 30 or 40 years or more. Done right, tenure can be a transformative and powerful experience for faculty, institutions, and students alike. Done as it is described above, though, it is bound to be petty, political, focused on all the wrong things, and producing professionally unbalanced faculty who have merely learned to play the game properly. No wonder so many schools are considering dropping tenure. But isn’t there some middle ground where tenure can be redeemed?

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Tenure

8 responses to “Must the tenure process really be like this?

  1. Great article!! I have to agree that UAH might have the wrong system but this particular professor has had a habit of shooting people when things don’t go her way. She also shot and killed her brother. Tenure should be handled differently. But tenure should NOT be given to those who shoot anyone who gets in their way!!!

  2. I don’t know anything of the particulars of the process there, but the description (publications, grants, letters etc) seems fairly standard in how tenure cases are evaluated, from what I’ve heard.

  3. This article has more about her tenure situation. Sounds like a great big mess. It appears that this individual may actually have other things in her past. However, I tend to agree with Robert, does the tenure process really need to serve as a massive stressor in this way? Of course, maybe it’s not totally a problem with the UAH system here. If someone’s hard to work with and thinks she’s better than others, it may be really hard to mentor her.

  4. Daniel

    Maybe she didn’t get tenure because she was batshit crazy.

  5. Will Farris

    As I sit here in my company office in Huntsville at the Cummins Research Park looking over into the UAH campus across the way, where I have been a graduate student for the last 3 years, I am sadly reminded of my 4 years as an undergraduate student in microbiology at a larger, more prestigious university. In practically every class it was either explicitly or implicitly communicated that human beings are just highly evolved animals subject to random evolutionary forces for which there are no absolute or meaningful purposes. We are essentially pieces of meat bent on making money while destroying the environment in the process. That was the party line and that is what I was taught and was is still being taught. It is no secret that academe is one of the most highly politicized endeavors in existence where there is no true academic freedom (ask pro-lifers or other religious scientists and academics who have been shunned from participation in the great debate, especially in secular biology departments and you see clear evidence), and yet with tenure the Peter Singers of the world are protected in their insane efforts to potificate the most pernicious intellectual garbage imaginable.

    It is incredible to see all these moral values coming to the fore in the midst of an academic department (biology worldwide not just UAH) most known in spreading the gospel of materialism, naturalism, and all the other depreciating scientistic claims tenured (and non-tenured) folks get away with in our society. Morality in such an environment is just a convenience factor, but without an absolute basis for it, be ready for more of this in the future, and don’t be surprised when it happens. We are all just a sack of indeterminate protoplasm, right?

  6. Gee, I hadn’t realized until reading the above that the reason this clearly sick woman, who’d shot her brother “accidentally,” who may have tried to blow up her dissertation director at Harvard (hmm, now there’s an intriguing approach to getting a doctorate), and whose track record as a professor suggests she wasn’t very good at communicating much (kind of a handicap for a teacher), was connected with Peter Singer (not a fellow I agree with on anything off-hand, by the way), or the theory of evolution. I guess this tragedy is due to Charles Darwin, eh?

    I realize that there is always a deep-seated need in some people to blame anything and everything bad on the folks they dislike or disagree with, no matter how distant the connection. Elsewhere, on ABC-NEWS’ web-site, I saw a poster trying to vaguely pin this crime on Obama. Make as much sense as blaming it on Charles Darwin or Peter Singer.

    As for the tenure process itself: unless the terms of the process were not followed (and I see no reason to believe they weren’t here), this crazy woman had no legitimate gripe. I’ve seen friends get screwed on tenure in ways that were shameful, but this doesn’t appear to be such a case.

    Further, not everyone earns tenure for good reason. If tenure is close to a guarantee of employment for life, it can’t be something handed out automatically (otherwise, the whole concept is meaningless). I’m not saying that the need for tenure (and I believe there is such a need) means that the process needs to be cruel or arbitrary. However, at high-level research universities, it’s quite clear that teaching is the least important consideration in the process. It’s one reason I would never advise students to attend such universities as undergraduates given that there are often smaller or “lesser” schools where teaching is valued. Graduate school is the time to go for the prestigious schools/ departments where it’s possible to actually work closely with mentors (and maybe blow them up if need be. ;^)

    I have long advocated, however, for departments to consider having research faculty and teaching faculty, with those suited for and interested in both eligible to engage in each area, but those who either prefer teaching and are good at it, or who loathe teaching (or aren’t effective at it), and are good at getting grants and doing research kept doing what they do well and prevented from mucking up what they’re not suited for or inclined to do.

    Naturally, I say this because I value teaching and recognize that the modern research university is not oriented in that way. But I also know this is a mere pipe-dream. Money will call the tune and prevent such an idealistic and potentially expensive notion from coming to fruition. And it’s probably Charles Darwin’s fault. And Obama’s.

  7. Will Farris

    I am only showing the irony of this tragic situation as it unfolds in my own backyard.

    It is just this simple:

    A – Higher (and lower) public eduction a long time ago threw out religiously-based viewpoints from among its faculty members ex officio.

    B – Basis for any morality and ethics therefore necessarily comes from collective of individual sentiment, social contract theory, Hobbesian convenience, etc.

    If I decide to commit felonies or other madness it is a reflection on my particular sentiments flowering forth in part to what I have been taught as truth, namely, cultural relativism and survival of the fittest (a Darwinian postulate if there ever was one).

    If you believe you are a naturalistically evolved piece of meat, as most biologists do, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that it is absolutely wrong to murder another human being regarding tenure denial – and tenure is all about survival in the academic herd is it not? To not be able to base an absolute concept – Thou shall not kill – on anything else, dare I say it, God, then all things are indeed permissible.

  8. One of the stressful aspects of the tenure process is, I think, the fact that so much of it seems out of one’s control.

    There’s the department T&P committee, which may or may not be transparent in its processes. There’s the school or university T&P committee, which also may or may not be transparent in its processes. There’s the need to secure external grant funding (in the sciences as well as in other disciplines), which involves a selection process that can seem somewhat random. There’s the need to obtain good student evaluations, which can be especially frustrating for some junior faculty. Why should a bunch of 18-year-olds determine my career options?

    As Cary Nelson says in your quote, getting denied tenure has serious implications for one’s future career. Given that there’s so much riding on the process, when it seems largely out of one’s control, it’s natural for junior faculty to experience high levels of stress.

    (I’m speaking of junior faculty in the abstract here. From the reporting, it sounds like there were other factors involved in the Amy Bishop case.)