Blog Post

Respecting the Meaning of Tenure

During my tenure as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke, one of our projects was to reform our tenure rules to ensure that interdisciplinary scholarship was treated respectfully, rigorously, and creatively.  A pattern we were finding was that some interdisciplinary scholars would receive good marks within their home department but then departmental colleagues would vote negatively on their tenure insisting that their interdisciplinary work really didn't hold up to the highest standards of the innovative, interdisciplinary field.  This was so often based on fantasy, on a projection from outside and not really based on knowledge, that we decided it would serve interdisciplinary scholarship, in the long run, to have a mechanism by which not only disciplinary but interdisciplinary work could be judged by those most in the know.  It took five or six years, because we ended up changing the faculty handbook as it applied to all of our schools that participate in our university-wide Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure process, but we ended up with a small change that has made a significant difference.  It is now the responsibility of deans and chairs to ensure that any scholar who claims their work is interdisciplinary has a mechanism by which the interdisciplinary work can be judged.  We did not specify the method.  Sometimes it might be two entirely separate committees, filing separate reports and verdicts, sometimes one committee with members from both the discipline and interdiscipline, sometimes a co-chaired committee.   Everyone involved, including the faculty member, signs off in advance on the respresentative nature of the committee.


And, guess what?  At least during my tenure (when I had access to this information and thus reason to know--which I do not any longer), we found that often the discipline really didn't have a clue what was or wasn't great work in the interdisciplinary field.  Being more rigorous helped in the fairness of the judgment.  There was less room for imputing lack of standards when the judgment was being made by those who knew the standards of the interdisciplinary field.


I start with this long digression because we are very excited that HASTAC will be working with the MLA and, ideally, other professional associations as well to rethink tenure guidelines in many fields.  Tim Murray of Cornell and Laura Mandell of Ohio State are taking the lead on this, and we will be reporting from time to time on how it is all going and, at some point, we hope to make the process of compiling a document open so that others may contribute insights as well.


In the meantime, I offer our Duke experience with interdisciplinarity because I suspect, in the end, the issue is really not about whether one has or does not have a university-pressed book and, in the end, is not about electronic or paper publishing.  In the end, I suspect that changing tenure rules really will mean finding structural mechanisms by which, at any university and in any field, one can evaluate "contribution to the field," structural mechanisms by which we can determine collectively whether a scholar measures up reputationally, in quantity and quality, to the standards of those peers within the scholars' main area of expertise.   


The basic question is not have you published that book.  The fundamental question is, based on one's first six or seven years in the profession, is one likely to be a lifelong, energetic, idea-filled, responsible, creative, innovative contributor to the profession, even when the Damocles' Sword of tenure is no longer swinging above. 


The Whole Monograph Thing seems to me, in the end, to be a Trojan Horse in which our profession has hidden a lot of warriors in a battle whose outlines are vague and whose outcome uncertain.  By that I mean, tenure is precious, folks.  How many people anywhere are guaranteed a job once they have passed a basic threshold of entry?  Tenure is an amazing privilege and gift--and a necessary one if our society is ever going to have a place where ideas are supported regardless of either politics or profitability.  


But, if we believe tenure is precious, then what in the world are we doing having a silly, reductive quantitative rule for what allows tenure?   Tenure is basically the profession's "best bet" on who, if fortunate to be awarded career-long job security, will deliver on the promise of fresh ideas, without regard to politics or profitability, and will continue to contribute to the profession over the next decades, including to those generations of future young thinkers known as students.   


Awarding tenure is  making a best professional bet on which people are most likely to contribute to our vitality for a lifetime.   Is a one-size-fits all requirement the best way to do that?   


I don't think so.  How in the world can a "floor" requirement ever predict future performance?  That is, if you establish a quantitative measure, such as one book for tenure, two books for full professor, what in the world are you saying about future contributions?   You achieve the measure and then you stop?  Really?  Is that the ideology of tenure?  Who wants that!?  


If tenure is meeting an arbitrary and artificial minimum threshold, then I'm against tenure.  Please know that is an "if, then" statement.  I am a huge, die-hard committed proponent of tenure because I believe a civil society requires one place where ideas may be pursued without politics or profit.   If academe is that designated place, then we need to grasp what our role is in society, grasp what it means to be politics-free, profit-free idea-makers, lifelong disseminators of learning (not just education), lifelong inspirers of free-thinking creativity.  We need standards commensurate to our mission.


Those standards should not be quantitative but rather flexible measures that might predict  who is most likely to have the zeal, passion, commitment, and (face it) intellectual ability to contribute creatively and productively when tenure and promotion are no longer the rationale and the guaranteed result.  This is a quality of mind, not a quantity of production.


You are going to tell me that is difficult to do?  Really?  You can't tell me who in your department contributes to the intellectual life of the department and who does not?  You can't tell me that for your profession?  I don't believe you.  You don't make a syllabus for every course where you make such choices? Given the quantity of information and limits of time, you don't make choices about who you are going to read?  Of course you do.  All the time.  Who inspires you?  That's the question.  


Nor do I believe that a university-press book is the only measure of inspiring ideas.  Very often it is, but not always, not exclusively.  This is not the place to defend university publishing; I've done that elsewhere.  But I am not one of those people who is cynical about university presses.  Quite the opposite.  I think the quality of books produced from our scholarly presses is very high and competitive. I've served as a reader to just about every press there is, and remain impressed by the rigor, the quality, and the general fairness.  There are exceptions, of course, as there are in all things, but my general view of the process is a positive one.   But it is a very, very tough process--few people recognize how tough. My partner is editorial director at Duke U Press and I know that he alone (not all the editors at the Press but he alone) turns down thirty book proposals a week.   Among those book manuscripts that go out to reviewers the process continues to be incredibly rigorous.   All told, the scholarly book peer  review process is as rigorous as the process is competitive.   In fact, I have argued that we need to do far more to support the incredible labor (on all ends from writing to reviewing to designing and producing) that goes into the production of a university press book.  It is a sacrilege that now library budgets are so taken up with paying price-gouging fees by commercial science publishers like Elsevier that they can no longer afford to purchase our own university press scholarly books.  And we academics are just as bad---requiring a book for tenure, then teaching a course pak that robs our colleages and mostly our presses of any revenue that can support them.  THAT is another system that needs fixing.  


But, even with all of that, do I believe a university press book is the only standard?  Not at all.  We need an equally rigorous way of judging other contributions, one where peer review is as carefully calibrated.  For simply giving up standards mean that you grant lifelong employment to whomever comes next and freeze out a next generation of scholars from havng the opportunity.  An argument for better and more diverse standards is not an argument on behalf of no standards.  Quite the opposite.  I think the present one-book-for-tenure and two-for-full-prof is an impoverished way of measuring one of the most important features of academic life:  tenure.


There are so many ways to contribute richly, originally, and well.   The university press book, it seems to me, is one of many excellent measures.  But it does not comprehend a large range of other ways.  And tenure should be based on all the ways people contribute, including by producing books.  


Those are some preliminary thoughts.   I am grateful to Tim and Laura for taking the lead in generating other thoughts and will happily receive comments to this provocation from anyone and everyone.  






Thanks for this interesting response, Laura.


Thanks for a post that frames important issues about how we assess work as meritorious for tenure. Like any good provocation, it also begs even more questions. Your re-thinking of tenure comes from working at the intersection of disciplines. Thinking like a humanist, the first thing that comes to my mind is a certain kind of combination: history + anthropology; literature + art history; philosophy + cartography; in short, any kind of combination that requires a scholar to be proficient in multple literatures and methodologies.


Cathy, You are, as always, a beacon of light. My institution doesn't have tenure, but does have many other arenas of evaluation of faculty, courses, programs, etc. where one suspects that the evaluators of x, y, or z "really [don't] have a clue what was or wasn't great work." I am wondering if you might be able to share any of the mechanisms that must have been used to effect so momentous a change as convincing folks that they might not know what they think they know? I'm not surprised it took several years.

Celeste Fraser Delgado