This fall, at the request of the Provost, the USF Tampa Faculty Senate is composing recommendations for new tenure and promotion guidelines (applicable only to the Tampa campus as USF Sarasota / Manatee and USF St. Petersburg have the authority to determine their own tenure and promotion criteria and processes). Meanwhile, the United Faculty of Florida and the USF Board of Trustees are bargaining a new contract, and tenure is on the table. So this fall, and possibly this year, will see a lot of discussion about tenure.
What Tenure is for
Scholars, judges, sages, jesters, and prophets have long enjoyed extraordinary freedoms to "speak truth to power," and they have long endured violations of those freedoms. Jeremiah was thrown into a pit, Galileo was put under house arrest, and a century ago, several American teachers and professors got fired for irritating boards of trustees or local politicians. Losing one's job is not as bad as being sent to Siberia - that's happened, too - but losing a job is bad enough. American faculty picked up an idea from the trade unions arising in that era: tenure.
Unions proposed tenure as job security for employees who had been on the job for many years. Academics proposed tenure as protection for teachers who would be otherwise fired for, say, teaching evolution (it's happened). Tenure was originally intended to protect teachers, although the fundamental proposal, the American Association of University Professors' 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, does mention research in passing. Considering the views of some politicians on research in climatology, cultural anthropology, paleontology, political science, and religious history, it's probably just as well that tenure apply to scholarship, too.
Then researchers discovered that tenure allows them to take risks. Suppose that a researcher thinks that a certain multi-year project will produce great things; even if the outcome is risky, the researcher isn't risking her job pursuing it.
But what is tenure? American judges have recently grown rather indifferent to the old immunities - except as they apply to judges - and several decisions have limited tenure protections. For example, in 2006, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor could be disciplined for reporting police misconduct to a superior who didn't want to hear it (this was a California case, even if it sounds like Florida). Two justices on opposite sides of the issue agreed that the ruling should not be applied to academics, but ...
UC Irvine couldn't resist the temptation. Chemical Engineering Professor Juan Hong expressed his opinion on personnel matters while serving on a committee; he suffered in a merit pay increase and filed suit, the District Court ruled against him, and the Ninth Circuit ruled against Hong, noting that "It is far from clearly established today, much less in 2004 when the university officers voted on Hong’s merits increase, that university professors have a First Amendment right to comment on faculty administrative matters without retaliation. See Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 425 (2006)." (Richard Ceballos was the prosecutor who was upset about police mishandling affidavits.)
Hong v. Grant was only one of three cases that alarmed the Modern Language Association into warning that "until Garcetti v. Ceballos and its progeny are overturned, we recommend that all faculty senates at public colleges and universities revisit their institution’s definition of academic freedom, and we recommend that all public colleges and universities reaffirm the right of their faculty members to speak on matters of public concern—and matters pursuant to their official duties—without fear of retaliation."
UC Irvine has no faculty union. We do. Not only are tenure protections defined by the contract, but academic freedom for all faculty is protected by the contract. If an academic freedom case comes up, faculty are protected by contract law, and (let's face it) judges are a lot more respectful of contracts than they are of tenure. (Except, of course, for the tenure of judges.)
Florida is, of course, more bizarre than California, and a recent Florida example shows the value of faculty standing together. Last year, an adjunct at Florida Atlantic University who had been teaching a standard course using a standard text for years, faced an unhappy student who interpreted one of the class exercises as "stomping on Jesus." The student subsequently went to the press, politicians were outraged, and the FAU Administration promised never, ever, to permit this exercise to be conducted again, and put the adjunct on leave. Even though the teacher was only an adjunct, he was supported by the United Faculty of Florida and the FAU Faculty Senate, and FAU rehired him.
And there lies the reason why administrators should seek tenure for all teachers. It allows them to respond to a hyperventilating politicians with a regretful explanation that the administration can do nothing (which is frequently the best thing to do when politicians are hyperventilating). But this case is a reminder that this sort of thing can happen to any teacher at any time, and that administrators can panic in a crisis.
But all faculty in the UFF USF Bargaining Unit, tenured and untenured, have their academic freedom protected by the contract. That and the political clout we can wield by standing together is what will protect our ability to serve our students and our community with honest teaching and honest counsel.
Many assistant professors fail to gain tenure at research universities because of thin research / scholarship / creative works. The traditional view was that those who failed just didn't make the cut because they weren't good enough. But now that the study of academic performance has itself become an academic field, psychologists see tenure denial as a result of failure to perform to one's potential. And some see such failure as being as much a result of habits and skills as of intellectual ability. There is a spectrum of advice, increasingly based on empirical evidence. Here are two extremes:
Getting it done may require some experimentation.
- After interviewing successful people, from artists to entrepreneurs, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi concluded that the trick was to do work in large blocks of time while in a state of Flow. Think of Anthony Trollope spending three hours a day, every day, same time each day, writing his immensely large and immensely popular Victorian novels. (And that was in the early morning: he had a full-time day job.)
- After conducting a study on why graduate students fail to get doctorates, and why assistant professors fail to achieve tenure, Robert Boice concluded that the problem was Procrastination and Blocking, often arising from unsuccessful attempts to get large blocks of time - or frittering them away when they appear. He recommends snatching an hour here, half an hour there. Think of Benjamin Franklin working on scientific and social issues while waiting in some French official's anteroom during the American Revolutionary War.
In addition, since scholarly performance is measured by how much (and what kind) of attention one is getting, publications should be composed with an eye towards ... marketing. Compare, for example, Hermann Grassman and Willard Gibbs: Grassman developed something very close to what we call "vector algebra" and published unreadable and unread books, while decades later Gibbs presented his "vector algebra" in a series of articles largely aimed at his numerous correspondents. It is not enough to be published; one must be read. Indeed, nowadays, evaluation committees don't just count publications and weigh the prestige of the publishers; they also go to online databases and count citations and compute impact factors. It may be wise to learn some data mining and devote a little time to ... market research.
Considering the stakes, assistant professors may consider taking advantage of workshops offered at USF on various aspects of teaching and research. If you are an assistant professor, talk to colleagues and your chair; if your chair hired you, your chair has a vested interest in your success, and in addition, your chair is as familiar as anyone with the formal written (and, ahem, informal unwritten) criteria for tenure.
One major source of information is the annual evaluation, which comes out within thirty days of the end of the term in which the evaluation was made, which usually means by the end of June. This evaluation must provide information on progress towards tenure. Never be shy about asking a chair about an evaluation and its impact.
In addition, the tenure track has a major landmark. Section 15.3(B) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement provides for a mid-tenure review on the third or fourth year, and this serves as an important heads up on an assistant professor's progress towards tenure. One should not wait until then to review how one is doing - the university has been known to non-renew tenure-track faculty as a result of a poor mid-tenure review - one should track one's progress towards tenure starting on the first year.
And if there are any difficulties - if your annual evaluations are weird or missing, or something odd is happening in the mid-tenure review, or if something odd is happening with the tenure application - that's what UFF is here for. But join today, for UFF will only represent an employee who was a member at the time that the grievance occurred.