Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bad Oklahoma Bills, Part 2: An Excuse to Talk About Tenure

In my series on “bad bills” submitted to the Oklahoma legislature this legislative season, it would be remiss to leave out one that touches close to home: Republican Corey Holland’s bill, HB 2598, which would abolish the institution of tenure at state colleges and universities (at least for new hires).

From the little I've been able to find on the issue that speaks to Holland's motivations, it appears that Holland is worried about college and university faculty who have light teaching loads but do no research (and are poor teachers in any event), take home big salaries, and can’t be fired because they have tenure. That is, he invokes the tradition bogey of tenure opponents: the lazy professor sitting in his cushy job, doing little to nothing and getting paid a hefty sum for it. To this he adds a concern about students. He claims universities exist for the sake of students ("not faculty"), and that the institution of tenure does the students a disservice by lining the pockets of tenured professors who don’t contribute to their education.

There are oodles of problems here. First of all, the bill is premised on some false assumptions about what actually happens in colleges and universities when it comes to the assesment of tenured faculty. Second, Holland's case for the bill is premised on a mischaracterization of the mission or purpose of institutions of higher education, especially universities. Third, Holland has no clear sense of how academic freedom and the tenure system that protects it relate to the purpose of a university. Fourth, Holland has no clear understanding of how tenure actually works to prevent the "lazy professor" cliche of which he is so worried. I will consider each of these issues in turn.

Existing Post-Tenure Faculty Review Processes

First, Holland does not seem to be aware of the rigorous post-tenure review processes that are in place in Oklahoma colleges universities, or the fact that while tenure guarantees due process before someone is terminated, it is not a guarantee of continued employment. Tenured faculty can be fired, but only if their performance can be shown to be substantially deficient (not for unspecified reasons or vague considerations that could obscure politically motivated employment decisions such as an authority feeling threatened by the critical arguements). Furthermore, evidence relevant to determinations of deficiency are constantly being collected.

Speaking for OSU specifically (although other colleges and universities have similar policies), every course that every professor teaches is reviewed by the students at the end of the term using evaluation forms that solicit both quantitative and qualitative feedback. In many if not most departments, untenured faculty are additionally evaluated by classroom visitations from tenured faculty. All faculty are subjected to yearly review by their department head in terms of research, teaching, and service work, and faculty performance in each area is “graded” on a scale from inadequate to highly meritorious. These Assessment and Development reviews serve as the basis for determinations of raises—and there are no cost of living raises. You get a raise only based on merit, which means that to keep up with inflation you have to perform above and beyond the minimum requirements of the job.

Furthermore, OSU has a cumulative post-tenure review process (as does OU, the other major state university in Oklahoma). Every five years the faculty member’s total body of work is assessed as a whole for the purpose of identifying any substantial deficiencies, and if deficiencies are found a corrective plan is implemented. Failure to follow the plan can trigger the process whereby a tenured faculty member loses his or her job.

In short, Holland seems to have no comprehension of the scope and systematic character of the evaluations that college and university faculty undergo, formally and repeatedly, after earning tenure. It's true that once you have tenure you cannot simply be fired at will. You have more job security than is typical in business. The granting of tenure is a contract in which termination requires compelling evidence of incompetence, dereliction of duty, criminal behavior, or the right sort of financial necessity. But in exchange, faculty are subject to a level of ongoing, formal, systematic scrutiny that is rarely seen in other occupations. 

The Purpose of the University

Another false assumption Holland makes is that public higher education’s mission is mainly to teach a range of subjects to students--and that, as such, a professor is first and foremost a kind of teacher. As he puts it, “Colleges and universities exist for the benefit of the students not the professors.”

Now teaching is a very importand dimension of a university and a professor's job, but to define the mission of a university in terms of teaching mischaracterizes its more comprehensive function. Universities are centers of scholarly research, humanistic and artistic creativity, and critical (but constructive) reflection on social norms, practices, and institutions. They are places where such scholarly and creative endeavors are pursued by the most talented and innovative faculty that the university can attract, and the fruits of their work and learning are disseminated to the broader public—in part by enrolling and educating students, but also by reaching out in various ways to the broader community and bringing their expertise to bear on issue of public concern.

In the original conception of the university, it was an institution where students who wanted to become scholars could go in order to essentially apprentice themselves to established scholars. Apprenticeship is not quite the same as classroom teaching. For an apprenticeship to exist, the teacher/mentor has to actually be an active practitioner of what the apprentice seeks to master.

An apprentice blacksmith doesn't apprentice himself to someone whose profession is teaching; he apprentices himself to a professional blacksmith who also teaches. Likewise in the various fields of academia, the profession of the apprentice's mentor is to be a practitioner of the scholarly discipline that the apprentice seeks to master. The apprentice learns the discipline by working with a practitioner, by being given the chance under the practitioner’s supervision and critical guidance to try his or her own hand at doing the kind of work that the practitioner engages in.

This vision remains clearly in place at the graduate level, where graduate students learn to be philosophers or historians or research biologists or mechanical engineers by working with accomplished philosophers, historians, research biologists, and mechanical engineers--professionals who are busy doing philosophy, history, biology, and mechanical engineering. This same vision also remains in place in a more attenuated way in relation to undergraduate students who major in a given field.

But the scope of faculty responsibility has expanded beyond this role of active-scholar-mentoring-apprentice-scholar (and rightly so, I think, but I won't go into that here). Now, faculty are called upon not merely to do scholarship and take on apprentices, but to teach the basics of their discipline to those who have no intention of becoming apprentices but who would benefit from a broad, general understanding of a diversity of disciplines. In this capacity, they are acting mainly as teachers of philosophy, history, etc., as opposed to operating mainly as philosophers, historians, etc. But they remain more than teachers of the discipline. They are also practitioners of it. In fact, the university is built around the idea that best teacher in a given field, at least at the level of higher education, is a practitioner.

The point is that Holland is formulating his legislation without any clear sense of what colleges and universities are about. To regard the faculty as teachers by profession is to miss something important. The members of the philosophy faculty, for example, are philosophers by profession--but philosophers who teach. They teach about their profession to those who are interested, and they take on apprentice philosophers at various stages of development. Likewise for historians and biologists and mechanical engineers.

To summarize, a university is a center for scholarship, research, and original creative and critical work in humanistic and artistic fields. Faculty are practicing scholars, researchers, artists, etc., who teach others about what they do in addition to producing original work in their field. Universities are centers not only for teaching about but also for expanding human knowledge and wisdom and for producing creative and critical works of diverse kinds. They are centers for intellectual pursuits that often challenge existing ways of doing things, existing cultural presuppositions and standards.

The importance of academic freedom—and the role of tenure in preserving such freedom—is best understood in the light of this understanding of what universities and colleges are about. Insofar as Holland displays no understanding of this sort, it is no surprise that he displays no appreciation for academic freedom or the tenure system that furthers it. But that is the issue I want to explore here.

Tenure and Academic Freedom

Academic freedom refers to the substantial freedom of the scholar to develop a comprehensive scholarly program in the light of his or her own interests, passions, and commitments, without the range and substance of that scholarship being restricted by the fear of termination. The heart of any comprehensive scholarly program is the scholar’s research; hence, in its essence academic freedom entails that there are no restrictions on the direction or focus of a scholar’s research.

But a comprehensive scholarly program includes not only research, but also teaching and community outreach activities that are integrated with and complementary to that research. A true scholar’s research shapes his or her teaching; and insofar as much scholarship has implications for public life, the best scholars are often vitally engaged in civic discourse, public policy decisions, community service activities, etc. In fact, the relevance and importance of scholarship depends on its capacity to reach beyond the “ivory tower” and into the world, via the classroom and public outreach. Thus, the scholar’s academic freedom, to be authentic, must extend into these areas as well. The best scholars convey their research findings in their teaching and pursue the practical implications of that research in public life. Academic freedom entails that they be free to do these things without risk of termination.

The crucial importance of preserving and promoting academic freedom cannot be underemphasized. Academia is, in its purpose and mission, the place in which scholarly and artistic excellence, in all its rich diversity, is valued and promoted for its own sake. Originality and creativity are crucial components of such excellence, and guarantees of academic freedom are essential for fostering this creativity and originality.

One reason why this is so is because academic creativity and originality is often bound up with an openness to criticizing the status quo. Academia is often if not usually the primary institution within society that operates as society's "gadfly"--the prod that discourages complacency and encourages critical reflection on existing social practices. But as demonstrated by Socrates, the original "gadfly," this role can produce enemies among the beneficiaries of the status quo--namely those in positions of power. If faculty can be fired for the substance of what they say and the uncomfortable social implications of their research, then soon enough only those without the courage to serve the "gadfly" role will remain in the academy. Not only will this undercut an important social function of academia, but it will diminish academic creativity in general. Creativity depends on the willingness to push against existing boundaries, and tenure is a tool for keeping such creativity alive.

In sum, one dimension of academic freedom—and the version that typically receives the most attention—is the freedom to pursue work that may be unpopular with established authorities or the broader public without fear of being terminated. Without such freedom, fewer scholars would dare pursue the kind of boundary-challenging research that is often a prelude to the most important intellectual developments. Scholars won’t risk critically examining the assumptions that underlie existing social practices if doing so leads to conclusions likely to be unpopular with the wider public or their leaders.

But with respect to promoting academic innovation, there is another dimension of academic freedom that deserves attention as well: the freedom to risk the pursuit of ground-breaking research that might not bear fruit, or whose fruits might not be immediately appreciated. Very often, the ground-breaking research that has the highest payoffs when successful also has the greatest chance of proving unsuccessful. Furthermore, even when such research generates important results, it may take time for the value of these results to be understood and embraced within a discipline (especially if accepting the results would force a paradigm-shift within the discipline).

Such research, in short, faces a higher risk of not finding the level of peer recognition that more modest research enjoys, at least within a short time frame (say, six or seven years). This is why many scholars wait to pursue this kind of potentially momentous work until after they've received tenure. Scholars who, in order to keep their jobs, must show a consistent level of research productivity as measured by publication in peer-reviewed outlets, and who cannot afford to wait a dozen years for their insights to be appreciated (because they are likely to have lost their job in the meantime), are far less likely to pursue the riskier but more important and potentially ground-breaking lines of research.

There is a reason why, prior to tenure, scholars are measured in terms of their capacity to produce work that is well-received within their discipline. That, after all, is an important preliminary measure of a scholar’s promise. Universities are therefore prepared to limit the academic freedom of scholars for a short time (six or seven years) for the purposes of ensuring that these scholars are capable of meeting the standards of success that currently prevail in their discipline.

But giving scholars the freedom after tenure to pursue research that risks not being well-received is equally important for the sake of promoting intellectual excellence. If continued employment after tenure is made contingent on producing a steady stream of scholarly work that is generally well-received within the discipline, few will risk the kind of paradigm-shattering scholarship of which greatness is made. In a university where drops in scholarly productivity (as measured by conventional standards) pose a risk of termination, there will admittedly be fewer incompetent scholars on the faculty. But there will also be fewer great ones. Perhaps worse, some of the greatest scholars, who brilliance defies conventional measures of competence, and who might one day help to redefine those very measures, will be prematurely fired before their greatness is appreciated.

The best way to promote genuine scholarly excellence is therefore to hold scholars to conventional standards for a probationary period, temporarily limiting academic freedom for the sake of being able to evaluate the capacity of scholars to work to conventional standards. But once this probationary period ends, these restrictions of academic freedom must be lifted. If not, the university imposes constraints on scholarly creativity and originality that seem to be a recipe for institutional mediocrity. There is a reason why the tenure system, in which a probationary period is followed by the conference of a strong presumption of continued employment (barring evidence of substantial deficiency in meeting basic job requirements), has become the dominant model around the world. It has become dominant because it has proved through the generations to be the very best way to promote academic excellence.

Creating the Self-Motivated Academic
Speaking of academic excellence, there is another way tenure works to promote this besides giving proven scholars the freedom to experiment and explore new territory that might not bear fruit. Specifically, the entire academic system, of which the tenure process is an integral part, helps to cultivate the kind of inner virtues, the dedication and self-starting motivation, that is essential for genuine academic achievement.

Here’s how it works: First, you make those who want to work in the profession go through years and years of schooling in which they are tested over and over (and over and over) again by experts in the field, have to create a major original contribution to the field called a dissertation, have no guarantee of a job at the end of it, and if they do find a job won’t be paid nearly as much as less-educated people in the private sector. This step in the process helps to make sure that only those who have strong internal motivation to work in the field—those who do it out of love—end up in the running for academic careers.

Next, those who do find entry level positions in academia have seven years to prove themselves worthy of the chief “carrot” the academy offers (in lieu of high salaries): tenure. To earn tenure, they have to show a consistent record of achievement as a teacher and scholar. They don’t just have to pass muster with their immediate colleagues. No. Their scholarly work is sent to a slate of chosen experts in the field (from other institutions) to be evaluated, and those third-party evaluations play a crucial role in the tenure decision. To earn tenure, you must prove yourself to be really, really good at what you do—and if you don’t succeed in doing this, you are not only out of your current job, but you’re unlikely to get another job in academia. You will have devoted years—even decades—of your life to a career path that you must now leave behind.

This process ensures that those who do get tenure are not only qualified and knowledgeable in their chosen field. It also ensures that before they ever get tenure they will have developed solid work habits, inner motivations, and deep personal investment in their chosen field. In other words, they will be people who for reasons having little to do with external reward are deeply committed to pursuing excellence.

Before getting tenure, I wrote dozens of professional articles, but I didn’t write my first book until after I got tenure. It was an enormous investment of time and energy. So why did I do it?

I wrote my second book after I was promoted to full professor. That’s the highest rank you can achieve in academia, and there really isn’t much in the way of promotion or raises you can enjoy after that. But I still wrote another book. Why?

Because I cared about the topics of those books. Because, based on my body of learning and intellectual training, I had something of significance to say about those topics. And because by the time I had tenure, I’d become one of those people who, when they care about a topic and have something significant to say about it, can’t rest until they’ve communicated that as clearly and rigorously as they can.

Science faculty develop habits of curiosity, skills in the laboratory, and deep intellectual investment in the controversies and puzzles that dominate the world of science. Creative writing faculty develop habits that drive them to obsessively craft their poetry or prose, to produce the best poems or stories they are able to produce.

You get the idea. This long vetting process described above—of which tenure and promotion is the capstone—shapes the character and passions of those who go through it. If they pass through it successfully, they don’t just become scholars and teachers and researchers in name. These things become a defining element of who they are. They become the kind of people who do this sort of work passionately, even compulsively.

There are, of course, exceptions—scholars who burn out, or who suffer something in their personal lives that impacts their professional performance. But in all the years I’ve been involved in academic life, I’ve met a bare handful who fit this description. And I have never, not once, personally met a tenured professor who fits the stereotypical “lazy professor” portrait that operates as the motivator for the kind of legislation Holland is proposing. The reason is clear: people who do a certain kind of work passionately, even compulsively, are the very opposite of lazy. And the tenure and promotion process is specifically designed to help build potential scholars into people who do that kind of work passionately, even compulsively (and to weed out those without the disposition to become such scholars). Those too strongly motivated by laziness just don’t make it through the tenure process.

And Representative Holland’s solution to the non-existent lazy professor problem? Eliminate the process that is responsible for the non-existence of the problem.

I suppose he imagines that fear of unemployment will then prevent the laziness he imagines to exist but which doesn’t really exist. Arguably, fear of unemployment can prevent laziness. So can inner drive and passion for what one is doing. And as motivators go, when it comes to the kind of work that scholars do, the evidence is overwhelming that intrinsic motivators--passion for what you're doing, the autonomy to choose and direct your own work, and the desire to build on your talents to achieve excellence--are far better at producing results. In fact, with the kind of work that scholars do, the evidence reveals that an emphasis of extrinsic motivators--"carrots and sticks"--actually interferes with higher accomplishment. You want higher accomplishment, you take carrots and sticks out of the picture (in the way that tenure does at least to an important extent) but give someone the freedom to autonomously choose meaningful, creative work that challenges them (as tenure gives scholars the academic freedom to do).

Skeptical? Just think about how much time people are willing to spend, with no compensation, engaging in the complex problem-solving and dexterity challenges we call "computer games." Or if that doesn't convince you, check out this compelling and engaging summary of current research in a TED talk by Dan Pink.

Tenure is a well-spring of intrinsic motivation for scholarly achievement. Holland wants to do away with it.


  1. I certainly do not agree with this bill nor his assumptions. However, many professions are under scrutiny and not just professors. In fact, in this zero tolerance society, even a single misdemeanor for something as benign as tresspassing during a political protest can render one unemployable, particularly in this economy. These are very dangerous times. A bill like this one smacks of the McCarthy era when intellectuals were weeded out by an intrusive and bizarre government. Stay strong!

  2. "trespassing" I meant. I need spell checker in my old age.