Tenure process explored
Tenure is a concept that has been traced back hundreds of years and has existed in higher education for a number of years. However, according to tenured Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC), tenure has been questioned the last few years “in ways it never used to be.”
The point of tenure in academia, he explained, is not only job security but also speech protection. “It means that anybody can say anything that they believe is correct … and not fear repercussions for it.”
However, not all faculty members at Brandeis currently have tenure. In addition, despite the security that tenure is said to provide, tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty alike fear repercussions for their speech.
Eighty-five percent of Brandeis faculty, or 359 employees, were considered full-time during the 2013 to 2014 academic year, according to statistics Provost Lisa Lynch provided to the Justice. The statistics included only tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty and faculty on multi-year contracts as full-time faculty.
Of the full-time faculty, 58 percent, or 202 employees, were tenured. The rest were either on the tenure track but have yet to be considered for tenure—14 percent, or 49 employees—or are on multi-year contracts—28 percent, or 98 employees.
The remaining 15 percent, or 61 employees, were non-tenure track faculty. Among non-tenure track faculty there are a number of ranks, including visiting professors, adjuncts and lecturers.
With the fate of tenure-track faculty in the hands of both their department and the University and of non-tenure track faculty in the hands of the University to be rehired when their contracts expire, these professors do not enjoy the same privileges that tenure ensures. Professors on multi-year contracts are also eventually up for renewal.
Still, tenure-track faculty members who have yet to be brought up for tenure endure an arduous process without protections.
Some tenured faculty, such as Prof. Mary Baine Campbell (ENG) said that they do not believe that even tenure is enough to keep a professor protected.
Prof. Jacob Cohen (AMST), a tenured professor who helped to draft the first Faculty Handbook, described dismissal for speech as highly unlikely. Campbell said that while there are only a limited number of circumstances under which a tenured professor may be terminated, these are “subjective.” Recently, Campbell has received hate mail and said she has felt isolated by the University following leaked comments about the University’s decision to grant Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree last April prior to rescinding the degree.
Coming up for tenure
The process of being considered for tenure, as outlined in the current Faculty Handbook, involves a number of deliberations and decisions, which differ based upon ranking within the tenure system. In general, tenure-track professors can spend about six years at the University prior to being considered for tenure. Although a professor may request to be considered before this time with his or her department’s approval, a professor only has one chance to earn tenure.
Each professor being considered for tenure must have a compiled dossier, which includes all information deemed relevant to be considered during the tenure process. Research and letters of recommendation are included.
The dossier first goes to the professor’s department for consideration. The department provides a negative, positive or split recommendation to the “appropriate” academic dean. The dean then chooses whether or not to put together an ad hoc review committee which also reviews all materials and provides a recommendation. The dean can then concur with or reject the committee’s recommendation. The decision must be sent directly to the provost.
If the provost recommends promotion, he or she sends a recommendation and all relevant materials to the president for submission to the Board of Trustees. A decision by the provost to deny the award of tenure terminates the process.
The Board of Trustees must then vote on whether or not the individual in question will receive tenure.
There are a number of ways to be denied tenure with this process. Discrepancies between departments and administrators have led to tenure denial in the past. Even an overwhelmingly positive departmental recommendation is not enough to guarantee tenure.
Negative departmental recommendations based on politics and other factors have also had a history of preventing individuals from receiving tenure. The process remains a secretive and confidential one and, according to Cohen, “very little has changed with proceedings” since the University’s inception.
“No one knows what’s said,” he said, adding that a professor coming up for tenure “can’t know what comes up against you” in the confidential discussions. Cohen said that this process makes it difficult to tell when politics are involved in a particular case.
Prof. Elliot Feldman, a politics professor who was denied tenure in the 1980s, filed a $4 million lawsuit with the Middlesex County Superior Court against the University due to the isolation from colleagueship he alleged to have encountered within the Politics department, according to a Feb. 22, 1984 Justice article. Feldman eventually reached an agreement with the University.
More recently, Prof. Julie Nelson, who taught in economics, claimed that she was denied tenure in 1997 due to gender discrimination. She noted that colleagues took issue with her course on gender and economics. She also said in an April 20, 1999 Justice article that the department found her research to include “too much critique.” Nelson found this surprising considering she had already received tenure at the University of California Davis, which she noted had a “considerably high” status, in a recent interview with the Justice.
According to an online fact sheet that Nelson published and provided to the Justice, she was told by then-Chair of Economics Prof. Trenery Dolbear that the senior faculty of the department “did not feel that reviewing me for tenure would be worthwhile.” The stated reason, she wrote, is that she did not fit the needs of the department.
Nelson proceeded to file charges with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination against the University. Nelson said the investigation and process spanned over three years, during which she lost her job at Brandeis, lost her earnings and was forced to take a temporary job elsewhere.
“I figured my chances of getting real personal satisfaction out of this were low, but my major motivation to keep at this for three pretty ugly years was to create enough of a problem that they would think twice about doing this to the next woman that came along,” she said.
The commission did find probable cause, meaning that there was sufficient evidence to prove discrimination. Nelson said the situation was “resolved to my satisfaction,” but could not address the specific terms of the deal. Nelson went on to receive a tenured position at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The situation is similar to a recent incident at Harvard University. According to a June 13, 2014 Boston Globe article, despite Harvard anthropology professor Kimberly Theidon’s numerous academic achievements, she was also denied tenure. Theidon believes that this was due to both gender discrimination and retaliation for her support of students victimized by sexual assault and sexual harassment. She filed a claim with MCAD in March.
Campbell noted that in the faculty petition against granting Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, which circulated last April, the signees were primarily tenured professors because “nobody wanted to be punished.”
Campbell noted that full professors did not want to ask associate or assistant professors to sign the letter, either.
“[W]e didn’t want to ask anyone to put themselves in a situation to be punished, although some people voluntarily did, which was very brave of them, and noble, and I think added to the impact of the letter, but you don’t even want to ask somebody—you don’t want to put them on the spot that way,” she said.
In addition to a number of other factors, tenure may also be denied by the provost with prior approval from the president solely “on the basis of exceptional institutional need,” the handbook reads. “It is expected that this authority will be exercised only in rare instances and, prior to acting, the Provost must provide the department with a written justification for the decision, and send a copy thereof to the Faculty Senate.”
However, Cohen said that when coming up for tenure in a department that no longer exists, the University is not supposed to deny tenure based on that fact. The employee has the right to be placed accordingly, even if his or her initial department does not exist.
If an individual is denied tenure, he or she is employed for just one more year at the University but is no longer eligible for tenure. Many seek tenure-track employment elsewhere, despite the multiple years spent at Brandeis trying to earn tenure. Cohen also noted that a tenure denial makes it more difficult to find tenure-track employment elsewhere. Cohen said that this “all-or-nothing” issue is a direct result of tenure as an institution.
Fellman said, however, that tenure denial has been occurring less at the University over the years. He said that one of the factors causing this decrease is, simply put, that less professors are coming up for tenure.