Faculty petition calls for changes to the tenure process

by Carter Brace | 5/26/16 5:49pm

A group of roughly 20 faculty members have drafted and circulated a petition calling for a review of the tenure process, which 113 faculty members signed as of press time. The petition cites concerns about candidates being recommended for tenure by their departments ultimately being denied by the College’s Committee Advisory to the President. The petition also raises questions of unconscious bias and a lack of transparency in the tenure process. In particular, the petition’s authors raise the use of quantitative metrics as a concern.

The authors, who call themselves Concerned Faculty, prefer to remain anonymous to preserve their collectivity and because some of the members have not been granted tenure yet, art history professor Mary Coffey said.

History professor Bethany Ellen Moreton, a member of the Concerned Faculty, echoed Coffey saying that she has heard some faculty did not sign because they disagree with the remedies put forward in the petition but agree that there are issues in the tenure system. Moreton has also heard from junior faculty concerned with the mixed messages they are receiving regarding standards for tenure but who nonetheless are uncomfortable putting their name on a petition.

The petition was catalyzed, in the opinions of several professors interviewed, by the denial of tenure to English professor Aimee Bahng.

However, some noted that the signatories of the petition represented only one portion of the Dartmouth faculty.

In an email, anthropology professor Sergei Kan wrote that the petition was mainly signed by humanities professors.

Biology professor Lee Witters, who signed the petition, said that people should not read too much into the fact that most signatories were in the humanities, attributing the preponderance of humanities faculty to the catalyzing event of Bahng, a humanities professor, being denied tenure. Moreton also noted that, as Bahng was a scholar with appointments in multiple humanities programs, her denial of tenure would have reverberated more in the humanities.

“If this tenure decision had been made about someone in the sciences, there would have been science faculty signing it,” Witters said.

Multiple professors in the social sciences supported the general tenure system as it is and what they saw as its system of checks and balances.

Economics professor Doug Irwin said that he did not know of any particular flaws in the tenure process and did not think the petition addressed specific problems. Irwin, as well as psychology professor David Bucci, speaking at a faculty meeting on Monday, said that the CAP disagreeing with departments was an intentional part of the system of checks and balances.

Irwin also noted that College President Phil Hanlon has pushed for a higher level of scholarship, suggesting that tenure denials may be the result of more rigorous standards.

At the faculty meeting on Monday, Dean of the FacultyMichael Mastanduno said he believed the tenure system was still working, but announced that the Committee on Priorities would conduct a review of the tenure process in the next academic year. One potential change to the tenure system that Mastanduno raised was an extension of the period a professor teaches at the College before they are up for tenure review. The change would extend the period from six to eight years, in line with some other institutions, a change that Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel said she was interested in.

Coffey said many are wondering whether Dartmouth should hire any faculty directly out of graduate school due to the increased standards for tenure that are expected to be completed in the same six-year period. Coffey noted that those who held postdoctoral fellowships had more of an opportunity to work on their scholarly output before they came to the College. Coffey said faculty in some departments were not expected to have made significant progress on a second book by the time they came up for tenure.

Coffey also said the College should be concerned about the impression outside of Dartmouth that “the system is rigged” in tenure evaluation, as evidenced by the CAP overturning departmental recommendations and the expert judgments of outside scholars.

“Nationally, its considered unusual and a cause for concern when unanimous departmental recommendation gets overturned,” Moreton said.

Junior faculty’s mentors should more heavily emphasize the tenure requirements, Heschel suggested, as a potential improvement to the tenure system.

Coffey noted that the tenure standards in the faculty handbook, which faculty are referred to when they have questions about the process, are vague. When Coffey came to the College 13 years ago, she said there was an informal culture of deans telling candidates verbally what they needed for tenure, which Coffey said has become less common in the past five years.

At the faculty meeting, German and comparative literature professor Irene Kacandes said that while reviewing the tenure process is good, action was needed now to reassure and inform junior faculty about the standards needed for tenure.

“We feel like we are not being respected when decisions that seem very, very clear to us come back differently,” she said.

At the faculty meeting, Bucci noted that there were already some resources available to mentor junior faculty but that they were not necessarily taking advantage of them. He cited a workshop on faculty mentoring attended by only three people.

Another proposed method of helping junior faculty was to burden them with fewer service commitments, which Kan suggested at the faculty meeting.

The petition also raised concerns about the use of quantitative metrics in evaluating tenure candidates, mentioning the College’s contract with the metrics company Academic Analytics.

Coffey made it clear that the petition did not suggest that Academic Analytics’ services were used in tenure evaluation at Dartmouth. In addition, at Tuesday’s town hall, Hanlon denied that Academic Analytics was used in the tenure process.

However, Coffey said the use of Academic Analytics may speak to a more general culture in the administration that is interested in a quantitative approach to measuring people’s value.

Anthony Olejniczak, co-founder and chief knowledge officer of Academic Analytics, confirmed that Dartmouth is a client of Academic Analytics but said he was unable to comment on what a specific university does with resources the firm provides.

Coffey said that it seemed that many denials of tenure have been made on the grounds of productivity. Coffey said that quantitative metrics cannot convey a lot of work in the humanities, which may not appear in journal articles but rather in anthologies or as creative works, such as directing a play or curating an exhibition. These scholarly outputs cannot be measured in citations. In addition, senior researcher for the American Association of University Professors John Barnshaw said that there is a lot of faculty work such as teaching commitments, mentoring students or junior faculty and serving on committees, that cannot be easily quantified.

Olejniczak agreed that it was difficult to attribute citations to books, anthologies and translated works. However, he added that it was only a concern if one compared citation counts across disciplines.

Olejniczak also said the weights given to different quantitative metrics, such as determining the field-specific prestige of a university press, are decided by Academic Analytics’ clients.

The service of Academic Analytics was controversial at Rutgers University, whose faculty senate denounced the service and the university’s contract with the company, saying its data was inaccurate and not transparent.

Barnshaw noted that there are many technical problems with attribution for quantitative metrics such as misattributing articles to a different author with a similar name to another scholar, databases lacking certain relevant journals or co-authors not always getting credited for their work.

Olejniczak said that he had never heard dean or provost who only looked at one number to evaluate a faculty member.

“We want them to make sure they understand our position that we’re one tool when it comes to making any decisions that administrators need to do,” Olejniczak said.

He added that he thinks in some cases, Academic Analytics has been painted as less transparent than it really is.

Coffey said that the Concerned Faculty group wanted more transparency after tenure decisions so that people, or at least the person being evaluated, can be informed as to why a candidate did not receive tenure.

However, Witters said the process could not be totally transparent, as faculty have to be able to evaluate their own colleagues.

Moreton said that one of the motivations in making the petition was to find a pattern in CAP overturning the tenure recommendations of departments.

Coffey similarly noted the desire of the Concerned Faculty to generate public data on promotion and rates across departments.

Mastanduno and the members of the CAP did not respond to requests for comment.

Correction appended: (May 29, 2016)

The original version of this article identified Michael Mastanduno as the Dean of the College. He is, in fact, the Dean of the Faculty.