Before the storm

Tenure, as seen from one year away

By Alison McCook

"Do you have a cat?"

It's one of the first questions Cindy Arrigo asks during a quick tour of the New Jersey City University (NJCU) campus, a green oasis tucked away among the often-barren streets of Jersey City. "I always tell my students you can identify catnip by the square shape of its stem," she says, reaching for one of the plants that line the campus sidewalk. The bushes are frosted with tiny purple flowers and smell like mint. "The cats go crazy for it," she says.

Arrigo, a cell biologist approximately three years into her...

The goals Arrigo has been asked to meet to earn tenure include "excellence" in either teaching or research, "accomplishment" in both, and a dedication to service. What "excellence" means is determined by a committee of senior faculty. Like other tenure-track staff at the school, Arrigo is reviewed every year, and she expects her tenure application (due Fall, 2008) will simply consist of a bigger document than what she now submits annually. People earn tenure at NJCU "unceremoniously," she says. "But I think it does feel very differently; at least, that's what I'm thinking," she laughs.

If successful, her title won't change, her course load won't go up or down, and she won't automatically make more money. But tenure could facilitate her promotion to full professor, and enable her to petition for less class time in favor of research, if she so chooses. Plus she could, finally, relax. "I can settle in with my family and [be] secure with the knowledge that whatever happens in our lives, I will have a job," she says. "I may buy a lamp for my office to go with the couch."

Arrigo says her goal is to achieve excellence in both teaching and research, but she spends most of the visit discussing her teaching. She points to a plaque from her students: For your endless devotion. "This is an insufficient indicator of excellence," she says. To her, excellence means data that show the students are learning, not a sign that says "everyone loves you." To that end, Arrigo is developing a testing instrument that measures how well students retain scientific information from year to year. She is emphasizing "active learning," which includes guided discussions about material, and exercises in which students do projects or write test questions about the material. "I don't give lectures," she says.

This summer, she is collaborating with another university on a project examining faithful replication in viruses and bacteria. She also plans to apply for funding from the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) that's been allotted for minority-serving institutions. She's presented an abstract at a Rockefeller University meeting, has been invited to write a book chapter on oligonucleotide therapeutics, and is submitting abstracts to the upcoming ASCB meeting. At least one of those activities, she says, will evolve into a published paper. She is also in the process of writing up manuscripts about her NIGMS-funded postdoc at the New Jersey Medical School, where she studied nucleic acid and protein interactions.

During the first and second years of her tenure-track post, Arrigo says she believed that if she didn't get tenure, she would walk away and never look back. "If academia doesn't want me, then I don't want academia," she would say. But now, she says the academy is something she can't leave behind. "I'm almost sure this is what I'm going to be doing," she says. If she doesn't earn tenure the first time around, "I'll be getting tenure somewhere else."

She has done well on her annual reviews and is confident that she's in a supportive environment that will help her earn tenure. Still, she says she knows people from NJCU and other institutions who don't receive tenure, even after years of encouragement and guidance. Those people "just fall off the face of the earth," she says, pausing. "But in reality, they just go someplace else," she says, and smiles.

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