A Higher Bar for Earning Tenure

Junior faculty members find that they must publish more and publish quickly

By ROBIN WILSON

Cathy Shuman's first book is due out next month. It's being published by a big-name press, Stanford University, and it's on a topic near and dear to academics -- the test as a literary motif. She and her husband may hold a small book party, but she doesn't have any academic colleagues to celebrate with.

Last spring, Ms. Shuman was denied tenure and cut loose by Ohio State University. Her crime? Publishing too little, too late, even though she had produced a scholarly article and had the book contract in hand. The English department supported her tenure bid, but a committee in the College of Humanities overruled the department, and both the dean and the provost agreed that Ms. Shuman didn't deserve tenure.

"The administration felt the English department's criteria were not strict enough, and they were out to make an example," asserts Ms. Shuman, who now works in New York as an editor for the Modern Language Association. Though university administrators do not discuss specific tenure cases, they agree that they are making the process more selective. Remarks James Phelan, chairman of English at Ohio State: "Five years ago, she would have been fine."

The bar for tenure is rising at major research universities and teaching institutions alike. Most departments demand more published research -- either articles or books, or both. Some institutions even accelerate the whole procedure, sizing up young scholars years before tenure time and showing them the door if it looks as if they won't eventually measure up.

"What's happening is that the process has become much more formal and demanding and terrifying," says Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University and president of the Organization of American Historians. "The pressure is not just coming from faculty, but from administrators who are trying to raise the status of the entire institution on the backs of a new generation of young people."

Gaining tenure has always been daunting, and every year some young scholars miss the mark. Most administrators say they continue to grant tenure to roughly the same proportion of junior professors as they used to. And they claim that their decisions are still based on three components -- teaching, research and publishing, and service, although research is now a key factor at many institutions that previously focused almost entirely on teaching and service. The process of judging a tenure candidate varies widely from place to place -- and from discipline to discipline -- but whatever an institution expected 10 years ago, it now expects more.

The most significant change, people say, is the overwhelming pressure on young professors to publish early and publish frequently. At some institutions, that shift has come at the expense of teaching and service, professors say.

At Ivy League universities like Columbia, where one book used to be standard for gaining tenure in departments such as history, senior faculty members are pushing the threshold toward two. And at the University of Richmond, where professors once could earn tenure without publishing a thing, young biologists need research grants and several scholarly articles to feel secure about their futures.

"There shouldn't be anyone on campus anymore who thinks they can get tenure without publications, even though that was once possible," says Peter D. Smallwood, an assistant professor of biology. "And one article is not enough. Whether it's three or five or seven, I don't know." Just to be safe, Mr. Smallwood is shooting for eight by the time he comes up for tenure next year.

The depressed job market in some disciplines has made it easy for universities to demand more. It's largely a buyer's market, and universities are giving more entry-level jobs to young scholars who have already spent a couple of years in academe, either as adjuncts or on the tenure-track at lesser-known institutions. Some may already have published articles or even a book. If new hires have C.V.'s like that, come tenure time their departments will expect even more.

Worries such as declining undergraduate enrollments are no longer a top concern for universities. Today's administrators are preoccupied with the competitive market for students' tuition dollars, and so universities seek to pump up their profiles by hiring professors whose reputations are already stellar -- and refusing to promote those whose aren't.

Richmond is an institution that believes it is "on the fast track to the top of the quality ladder," according to William E. Cooper, who took over as president there two years ago. Although Richmond traditionally has emphasized undergraduate education, Mr. Cooper speaks enthusiastically about putting it on a par with Princeton University, which he says is a model for an institution that puts equal emphasis on teaching and research.

Even before Mr. Cooper arrived at Richmond, senior faculty members had begun demanding that assistant professors do more research. In 1997, the political-science department turned down the tenure bid of Patricia M. Patterson, who hadn't published much but had won the university's distinguished-educator award.

Ms. Patterson is now at Florida Atlantic University and declined to comment on the situation. But another professor at Richmond confirmed that "she didn't have as much of a publication track record as people wanted her to have."

Mr. Cooper's Ivy League aspirations were quickly brought to bear at Richmond. In 1998-99, his first academic year on the campus, four of eight people up for tenure in the School of Arts and Sciences were approved by their departments but rejected by a schoolwide tenure-and-promotion panel. The dean eventually overturned two of the four rejections.

Elisabeth R. Gruner, one of those who eventually won tenure, is now an associate professor of English and women's studies. By 1998-99, she had published five journal articles and several book reviews, so she was stunned when the tenure-and-promotion committee rejected the English department's approval of her bid. The committee's members, she later learned, thought "there could have been more" to her C.V. But Ms. Gruner says she was never advised to churn out publications, and she had devoted a lot of energy to coordinating the women's-studies program. What does she tell young scholars following in her footsteps? "I tell them to write a book."

Raymond F. Hilliard, chairman of the English department at Richmond, acknowledges that the department now demands more. "It's been possible to get tenure here if you have three substantial articles published in very good journals with evidence of more in the pipeline," he says. "But there is a growing expectation now that if you don't have a book, or at least a contract by the time you come up for tenure, you'd better look extremely good in all other ways."

Richmond's new expectations are personified by the two standout assistant professors its history department hired this academic year. One, a medievalist named Joanna Drell, won the American Academy in Rome's Rome Prize this year. She is now finishing up one manuscript and starting work on a second while on leave in Rome. The other new hire is Woody Holton, whose first book, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (University of North Carolina Press), won the Organization of American Historians' award last year for the best book in social history.

By contrast, Hugh West, chairman of the history department, has never published a book in his 22-year career at Richmond. Before he earned tenure, in 1987, he translated some essays and published two articles and three book reviews.

Mr. West points out that while the university now demands more scholarship of young professors, it is reducing other burdens. When he came to Richmond, in 1978, professors taught four courses each semester. The load has gradually declined, and within the next couple of years it is expected to dip as low as two courses a semester.

This year, for the first time, the School of Arts and Sciences has also begun offering junior faculty members semesterlong leaves for research. "We are trying to provide more and more support for what we say we want faculty to do," says David E. Leary, the school's dean. He says Richmond still emphasizes good teaching, but now wants active researchers as well. "If you're going to show students how to do research, you can't show them what you learned in graduate school 20 years ago," he says. "It's not the same.'

Some faculty members believe the changes at Richmond are cheating students. Even Mr. Leary acknowledges that the shift in faculty workloads will mean fewer courses for undergraduates. But he says he expects professors to spend more time with students outside the classroom, collaborating with them on research, for example. "We want more and more discussion to revolve around intellectual matters, not just what goes on in the classroom," he says.

Besides demanding that young scholars produce more, some universities are picking up the pace of the traditionally seven-year-long tenure process. Five years ago, Ohio State adopted a policy aimed at weeding out young scholars who don't look promising.

The policy requires a substantial review during a junior professor's fourth year. The university had always evaluated young scholars then, but typically the review was completed by only a department chairman or a handful of professors. Now, all tenured faculty members in a department must vote on whether to continue employing a young scholar after the fourth year, and a college-level review committee must concur if the department votes yes. Departments are encouraged to reject faculty members who look as if they'll fail to clear the hurdle at tenure time.

"Before, people were given false hope," says Nancy M. Rudd, vice provost for academic policy and human resources at Ohio State. In the last four years, 15 assistant professors have been dismissed before making their tenure bids.

Ohio State let Mary Pat Martin go after her fourth-year review in 1997. At the time, Ms. Martin, who taught English, had one article published, had another accepted for publication, and was working on a book about the English novelist Samuel Richardson. She believes her book would have been finished by the time she was up for tenure, a year and a half later, but she wasn't given the benefit of the doubt. "Unless a university thinks it will be bad for students to have someone on campus for another year, it should give them a chance," says Ms. Martin, who earned her Ph.D. from Yale University. She has been home with her two young daughters since she left Ohio State, and doubts she'll ever have a "conventional academic career" again.

Indiana University at Bloomington instituted an "enhanced" third-year review for assistant professors several years ago, and even requires them to solicit outside letters of recommendation -- just as they do at tenure time. Only a handful of young scholars have been forced to leave early. What's common, though, is for departments to quietly counsel assistant professors who haven't produced enough to leave the university of their own accord.

That's what happened to Clark Burdick in 1997, after his third year in the economics department. He acknowledges that he hadn't published at all by that point, but he cites extenuating circumstances. He went through a divorce during his time at Indiana, and at the request of his department, he says, he served on several committees and taught large introductory courses.

Mr. Burdick is still bitter about what he considers the inflated standards for tenure at Indiana. To be safe, he says sarcastically, "you had to have a publication in a top-tier journal every year, you had to be quoted on the editorial pages, and you had to go to church." But he admits: "Clearly, I should have spent more time on research." He now works as a senior economist with the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Mary Burgan, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, says the accelerated pace at some institutions is unwise."Seven years is the time it takes to prepare oneself, and to think that the process can be finished in three or four years seems to me to be a very narrow view," she says. "There is already too much pressure on new faculty."

All of the pressure to publish has had a trickle-down effect on graduate students. They now enter the race to publish on Day 1.

"It is a very different enterprise than 10 years ago, when as a graduate student you could be a scholar in the garret and only think about your marketability when you had to write a cover letter," says Scott J. Juengel, an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. "Now it's imperative that students start thinking in those terms the minute they step into their first seminar."

Eric Grekowicz originally wanted to focus his dissertation at Michigan State on Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. But after learning that the field was becoming flooded with work on Rushdie, Mr. Grekowicz worried that his dissertation would never be published. So he switched gears, choosing instead to examine writings during the closing years of British rule in India. "I have definitely chosen a topic which is publishable in the current trendy atmosphere," he says. "I've fallen in love with the topic, but I also feel a little bit cheated that I could not guide my education as I saw fit."

The pressure only intensifies after young scholars get their first academic jobs. Many learn that being named an associate professor is largely a numbers game. By the time Sandra G. Velleman earned tenure in animal sciences at Ohio State last July, she had chalked up 43 published articles and had more under review. Although she's been successful, she says the pressure to publish has a downside: "You are less likely to take a high risk if you don't think you can get a big return."

Daryl Michael Scott decided the pressure just wasn't worth it. He left Columbia's history department for a job at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, last fall, after it became clear that he'd never finish his second book in time for tenure.

After joining Columbia's department, in 1993, Mr. Scott turned his dissertation into a book and started on a second project, about displaced American cotton workers, before realizing it was too big to finish. He then chose another topic that he considered important but also more manageable -- the history of white nationalism in the South. But that project, too, grew out of control. That's when Mr. Scott jumped ship, accepting a tenured post as director of African-American studies at Florida.

He worries that young scholars may choose book topics not because they are worthwhile, but because they can be finished quickly. "This is something that has the potential of killing scholarship," he comments.

Understandably, young scholars are seeking advantage at every turn. Some restart their tenure clocks by moving from one institution to another. Mr. Juengel spent three years as an assistant professor of English at the University of South Alabama, but he set his tenure clock back to zero last fall, when he took the job at Michigan State. Ideally, he says, he'd like to finish his book within three years and bid for tenure then. But knowing that he'll actually have six years -- or a total of nine since he started working in academe -- reassures him.

Another sign of mounting anxiety is the burgeoning size of dossiers. "People are putting in more and more documents and supporting background evidence, until all of the sudden you have to move the whole thing in a crate," says Robert A. Becker, chairman of economics at Indiana. Young professors, he says, are "under more pressure to get more contacts, to get more letters" from outside reviewers. Tenure candidates in his department must have as many as eight letters from outside scholars, whereas when Mr. Becker himself came up for tenure, in 1983, the number was closer to five.

Some long-tenured scholars wonder whether they could even earn tenure by today's standards. Jean Richardson, a professor of environmental studies and geography at the University of Vermont, believes that in her case the answer would be no.

Ms. Richardson, who is now president of the Faculty Senate at Vermont, had written only one peer-reviewed article before she earned tenure, in 1987. "I would probably have to have four or five more now," she comments. But she questions the wisdom of that trend. "We're forcing young 27-year-olds, who really don't know much yet, to generate publications they're going to be embarrassed about later -- only to keep a job," she says. "Ninety percent of the tenure decision rests on the production of articles, most of which shouldn't have been written in the first place."

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