I visited a loved one sometime ago in college. In the dorm I noticed an economics book lying around. This made me think about a popular economist I had come to love reading, who was also a faculty member at that college. So, I asked about him. The impression I got was that he was not the best teacher. This made me think about the intricacies of the politics of tenure in academia.
When candidates are hired to faculty positions in higher education they are required to do research, most often original research, and then publish papers, monographs or books. Through this process the candidate in a couple of years gets prompted associate and the full professor achieving tenure – the holy grail of academia. These days, promotion to associate professor means you get tenure. Tenure basically means job security. That is, one cannot be fired unless one does something really, really bad.
This has led to the detrimental culture of publish and perish. Hence, those in academia, especially younger individuals who are just beginning a career, have to rapidly and continually publish works to further their careers. Now, as with most things, the quintessential inverse relationship between quality and quantity is becoming a staple of today’s academia, with most academic papers reading like their authors just want to say something because they have nothing to say.
This is because achieving success in academia is almost entirely built on doing research and publishing findings. To achieve tenure at the University of Washington, some expectations for its faculty include a high scholarly record. On its website, the University goes on to state that quantity is not as important as quality, but then shoots itself in the foot by saying “there must be sufficient quantity to provide evidence of a significant level of scholarly productivity.”
The Appointments, Promotion and Tenure section of the University of Southern California website states: “The promotion to full professor is based on achievement rather than promise. The candidate should have made additional substantial contributions that have had a significant impact in the field, beyond the contribution that earned tenure. The post-tenure body of work should be examined alongside the pre-tenure body of work to discern the candidate’s career trajectory and to evaluate whether he or she will continue to produce research at a rate and of a quality commensurate with leaders in the field”.
As one would notice, publishing large bodies of work is the major to success in academia.
It is important to note that this is not a critique of tenure. I think tenure is important. There needs to be a set of people in every society that have the liberty to be politically incorrect and call out nonsense wherever they see it no matter how unpopular to public opinion it may be.
This race to achieving tenure, almost entirely dependent on scholarly work, disregards the fundamental unit of the entire academic machine – the student.
Students attend university to seek knowledge and in many cases, learn a skill. Hence the need for good teachers from the faculty cannot be overstated. Without students the entire academic machine cannot exist. Hence, faculty members are there to serve the students.
Teaching is a skill; the same way research is. Hence, lumping them together and giving the latter an edge over the former is, putting it mildly, unfair. Many students know of that professor, who is terrible at teaching, sometime is even truant, but is world renowned and therefore untouchable by the University administration.
Instead of lumping these two skills together in one faculty member, there should be teaching and research faculty members. Evaluation for a research and teaching faculty should be different. Committees that review promotion applications should be different for teaching and research faculty. Those faculty members who love and can do both, must go through the necessary processes of being a teaching faculty and research faculty.
The same way doctors, after grueling years of medical school must be board certified in a discipline to work in that discipline. If a board certified internal medicine practitioner wanted to see patients that have cardiac issues, such a person would have to undergo the process of becoming a board-certified cardiologist before seeing patients with cardiac problems.
College education is expensive. When one decides to go to college they decide that they want to learn certain skills that make them standout from those who don’t go. Students want to acquire skills like critical and lateral thinking, the dialectical method, consensus building, etc. to have the capacity to understand and survive the nuances of the real world. It is the responsibility of the faculty to impart these skills. But when all the faculty members care about is doing research and publishing research, which in no way benefit the students, a discrepancy of these skills, in students, can be observed.
Today, students can’t make arguments on its own merits without ad hominem attacks. Today students don’t know the difference between a constitutional argument and a political one. Today students fall into the trap of false equivalency. Today students de-platform speakers. Today, free speech in under attack and colleges are leading the vanguard.
Today, in part, because of a rigid research – publish or perish – metric-based tenure system for faculty, the very essence of the academic machine has become bankrupt.
Tam Kemabonta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org