Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Implicit contracts to not do research 

While our deans are engaged in petty flattening of the adjunct payscale, down at the University of North Texas they are into full bloodletting. K.C. Johnson reports that 12 of 32 faculty up for tenure were denied in 2003-04, after granting it to all but one applicant the previous two years. Looks like a new provost decided to start looking more at research than his predecessor.
[The provost] looked at several criteria. They included what he calls "evidence of sustained inquiry" and the development of a specific area of expertise. He also looked at whether a candidate's research represented a new activity and whether it was "thought-provoking," "interactive," and "transportable," he says. But in doing so, he says, he used the same standards that were in place when he arrived last fall.
K.C. Johnson raises a valid concern:
What, then, of the professors in the middle--those hired under the old, less rigorous, standards, and then denied under the new? Again, it seems to me (based on the information public available) that Johnson's actions were justified. I'm reminded by guidance I received from the longtime former chair of the Brooklyn History Department (and a prestigious scholar) Paula Fichtner, who argued that first-class departments make first-class hires, while second-class departments search out third-class candidates, because their occupants want to surround themselves with colleagues who will not push them to perform harder. And so tenuring candidates with mediocre research credentials makes it more likely that these now-tenured professors will continue the institution's apparent culture of downplaying research in personnel decisions. For [the new provost] to have waited until those hired under the old regime were tenured, he would have needed to delay his reforms by 3-4 years, while also strengthening the very culture he was brought in to overturn.
True, it's hard to change the direction of a school without causing some transition problems. And while adding more for research is an issue in a school that has a substantial teaching load, a 2/3 load as had at UNT isn't a bad deal (we are contractually 4/4 here -- for non-academics, that means we teach four classes in the fall semester and four in the spring.) Still, it's always a bad sign for a university to go from sacking nearly no one to sacking 38% of your tenure-year faculty -- they may have accepted jobs with UNT with the implicit assumption of lifetime employment in return for lower salaries.