Does tenure need to change?

We asked, our readers answered. Here's what you would do to improve how academia evaluates scientists - and whether you think tenure should lose its own... well, tenure.

By The Readers and Editors of The Scientist

Summer sunlight streams through the windows of the mostly-empty classrooms at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Outside on the campus green, maintenance workers appear to outnumber students. In the third floor hallway of Stratton Hall, the arts and sciences building, Aleister Saunders and one of his students sit alone, their heads tipped toward each other, conferring. Saunders stands up. "You okay? Get what you're...

Five years ago, Saunders, now 38, traded a research post supported by only soft money at Harvard Medical School for a steadier paycheck at Drexel, which came with a commitment to spend 50% of his time teaching. The reality is slightly different: In between sips of cappuccino at a local coffee shop, Saunders admits that in many semesters he must spend "way more than 50%" of his time on his students; during those months, every other responsibility, including his research on the cell biology of Alzheimer's disease, just "floats." He's not alone - according to the US Department of Education, even faculty at universities that emphasize research spend more time teaching.

Now, as the deadline for his tenure application looms, Saunders is worried. Even at a school where faculty are expected to dedicate time to their students, research is a priority. "We say [tenure] is about teaching and research, when really it's about research," he says. He leans forward and drops his voice, describing a colleague who worked down the hall from him who "tried to do everything that was asked," but did not receive tenure last year. "He didn't have enough research," Saunders says, looking down at his coffee. "It was very disturbing for all of us."

After the third year in his tenure-track position, Saunders put together a mock dossier and received encouraging feedback, along the lines of "just keep doing what you're doing." He never received explicit criteria about what he needs to do to earn tenure, but he suspects the expectation is an R01 grant, and three to four published manuscripts. Saunders obtained the first National Institutes of Health grant he applied for at Drexel, an R21 grant for a pilot project that brought in approximately $400,000, and resulted in three publications, including a 2007 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS, 104(16):6696-701, 2007). His R01 application, which would expand on his preliminary findings from the pilot study, scored in the top 35% of applications, then 25% when he reapplied; he's in the process of applying again. (In 2005, only the top 10% of nonamended applications received NIH grants.) Before he can even start his tenure application, he is furiously writing up "five or six" research manuscripts, so he can add them to his dossier.

On September 3rd, he will submit a roughly 10-page document explaining why he deserves tenure, along with an enormous appendix - 100-plus pages, he expects - of data illustrating his strengths as a teacher and researcher. Ten people outside Drexel review the application, followed by a department committee. Next it makes its way to the dean of the college of arts and science and her committee, then to the provost and his committee, and finally to the president and the board of trustees. Saunders will likely hear next spring, maybe April. If he is successful, his title will change from assistant professor to associate professor, he will earn a raise, and get up every day knowing his job is secure. If he is not successful, he will have approximately one year to pack up his things and leave.

His eyes sparkle as he recalls the day he walked into his first college class, Biology 101. At 18, he was one of more than 1,000 students crammed into a Pennsylvania State University classroom, and he became entranced by his teacher. "That guy's got a cool job," he told himself, with all the excitement and openness of a person at the dawn of adulthood. Now, twenty years later, he is about to find out if his teenaged dream will come true. "When you think about it in those terms, it's pretty f**ing nerve-wracking," he says. "I've devoted half of my life to this pursuit." If denied, Saunders won't start over somewhere else. "I've done this job the best I could," he says, and if the powers-that-be determine he's not worthy of tenure, he will walk away from academic research forever.

Do we need tenure?
"In order to get tenured and promoted, I had to divert time, energy, and other resources away from all the things I came to the university for, to satisfy a bunch of people who were only looking for a few simple boxes to quickly check off. So, now I am tenured and have a de facto license to become incompetent. "
- Robert Fuller, geographer at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.

Saunders is one of more than 130,000 full-time tenure-track faculty in the United States. Every year, thousands from all disciplines apply for tenure, or a lifetime salary and freedom to pursue whatever the academic mind desires. Currently, 20% of full-time faculty across all disciplines are on tenure-track; approximately 1 in 5 of those who apply are denied tenure each year.

The purpose of tenure is to enable researchers to challenge the status quo and pursue lines of reasoning that have no immediate societal benefit, without fear of losing their jobs, says Eric Combest at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). As an associate secretary in the department of academic freedom and tenure, Combest spends most of his time handling faculty complaints regarding possible violations of academic freedom and due process on campuses. Tenure is a unique requirement that really only makes sense in academia, he notes. Unions guarantee jobs for individuals, but there is no clear societal impact from that system, Combest says. The purpose of tenure is to preserve academic freedom, the guiding principle of higher education.

As academic science has evolved, however, the rumble of complaints about tenure - often from those who would benefit from having it - seems to have grown louder. Funding pressures and scientific publishing, two factors that play an outsized role in tenure decisions, have changed. So does the current system of tenure help or hurt science today? We asked our readers and some experts that question, and how they think the tenure process should change.

The very first response was blunt: "Tenure definitely needs to go," says KrishnaKumar Venkateswaran, an Oviedo, FL-based senior scientist in industry studying optics. Within three weeks, Venkateswaran was joined by more than 100 others, including postdocs, newly tenured faculty, long-tenured professors, and nonacademics. Most of the comments suggested that academia change how it evaluates scientists, or abandon the practice of tenure altogether. The evaluation process doesn't properly measure scientific achievement, and lifetime career guarantees promote laziness, some say.

Even tenured readers were critical. "I am tenured at a predominantly undergraduate institute, and I hate it," says Robert Fuller, a geographer at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, in his comments. "In order to get tenured and promoted, I had to divert time, energy, and other resources away from improving my teaching, mentoring students, doing applied research with my students, and bringing in money to support undergraduate research - in other words, all the things I came to the university for." Reader "Membracid" agrees: "I walked away from my tenured post, and I've never regretted it."

"Talks, invitations, and quality students generated are usually just surrogate measures of patents, papers and quality of papers. There is no good way around this."
- Michael Glogauer, newly-tenured at University of Toronto

According to Combest, who reviewed the readers' comments to The Scientist, contingent faculty (those neither tenured nor on the track to tenure) earn less money, so are cheaper for institutions. Nontenured faculty are also less likely to publicly criticize the university's position on any issue, says Combest. The gradual decrease in the rate of tenure among academics "puts tenure at risk," he adds. "By putting tenure at risk, you're putting academic freedom at risk."

Indeed, along with the comments suggesting that academia banish tenure altogether, we received many postings that defend tenure just as vehemently. One commenter, Mason Meers of the University of Tampa in Florida, says he realized the benefits of tenure after taking a post at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, which was founded without tenure. "As a young, idealistic, inexperienced scientist, I felt relatively immune to this," Meers says. "After all, I thought ... if I do a good job, they'll want to keep me." However, "the effects of nontenured contracts became obvious," he notes. The administration began firing staff who disagreed with them while promoting those who supported them. "Over a very brief period, our new, idealistic university had become a haven for cronyism," notes Meers, now tenured. "It's the integrity of the institution that tenure protects, not the jobs of a few lazy slobs."

"Anyone who thinks that tenure has to go has not read their history," says Doug Whitman, chair of the department of psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. Last year, a dean at Florida Gulf Coast University, Johnny McGaha, sued the institution after he was demoted (with a pay cut); when he accused the school of ageism - he was 62 - he was demoted even further, and received an even bigger pay cut. In 1995, an instructor in veterinary medicine at Colorado Mountain College was fired after mentioning "tampons" and "anal sex" when talking about parasitic disease. "Without tenure, faculty positions would be determined, in part, by your political, religious, and ethnic category," Whitman says. Combest agrees, noting that people often don't realize what tenure protects them from until it is threatened. "You don't need [tenure] until you need it."

So if academic science does need tenure, how can it be improved? Here are some of your suggestions.

Downplay the importance of citations. In previous decades, requirements for tenure were less explicit than they are now, says Tom Longin, who was tenured twice and has reviewed more than 250 tenure applications as former provost of Ithaca College in New York and other positions. For his first position at Virginia Tech, he was simply told: "Teach your classes, and get some publications out." The emphasis then was on publications. "They wanted people to get Tech's name out there." In the 1980s, faculty handbooks began to be more explicit in their requirements for tenure. At Ithaca, where he was tenured for the second time, the first and foremost criterion was teaching, notes Longin, now at the Society for College and University Planning.

For many readers, the current tenure process places too much emphasis on publication record. "We live in a time when the NUMBER of citations is the overwhelming metric of a scientist's impact. Such simple number crunching is the refuge of small minds and small mindedness," writes Edward Peltzer, a senior researcher in ocean chemistry at a private institution in California. By making grants and papers all-important, the system essentially encourages scientists to publish findings before they are ready, some of our readers say. "Basing tenure and/or grant allocations with a heavy bias on citations/journal impact factor is, in my opinion, a major influence on the output of exaggerated or even falsified data," says Gary Brooke, based at the Mater Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, Australia. (Brooke is currently completing his third postdoc, and is looking for a tenure-track post.) Margit Burmeister, a tenured professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, agrees: "Currently it is better for a young scientist to have 10 publications, of which several are wrong, and others contradict each other, than two solid publications in which more data have been assembled and the results stand solid."

Some newer fields, such as translational medicine, require such complicated collaborations and years of research, that it's unrealistic to expect young scientists to produce multiple papers in a short time span, says Andrew Simpson, scientific director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR), a non-profit organization that integrates clinical and laboratory cancer research, based in New York City. "It is imperative that we find a way to credit team members and not just note the names at the front and the end of an author list."

Downplay the importance of grants. Focusing on grants is also often unreasonable, some readers say. When he applied for tenure, George Plopper was told that the most important criteria was "money, money, money," since universities increasingly rely on indirect costs from outside grants. But there's much that the metric of money misses, he says in his comment. "Great ideas do not always translate into large amounts of money, as any experienced NIH reviewer can attest. And not all fields have equal costs, of course: Is a computer scientist who has $100,000 in grant funds less valuable to an institution than a translational biologist who receives $1 million simply to perform the experiments?"

Stanford University provost John Etchemendy, who reviewed reader suggestions for changing tenure, says that citation data and grants are of "minimal importance" in Stanford's tenure decisions, which focus more on direct testimony and reviews from an applicant's peers. "In fact, we don't generally consider citation data, and grants are listed only if the candidate chooses to do so on his/her CV," he says in an E-mail.

But, isn't a scientist's success at earning grants and publishing papers an illustration of peer approval? Even the best experiments can't survive without funding, and publications attest to the overall quality of a scientist's work. "Long-term benefit to the organization is what brings in enough cash flow to keep the doors open and the paychecks coming," says reader Grace Duffy, a Florida-based consultant who works with academic researchers. Citations, too, are a reflection of how much money a scientist can earn, agrees Plopper, tenured at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York: "The likelihood that [researchers] will continue to bring in money is reflected by their relative standing among other well-funded peers in their field, thus the emphasis on publications, support letters, and citations."

Moreover, if a tenure-track faculty member is based at a research institute, it makes sense to base tenure decisions on research, says Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, who reviewed the tenure comments for The Scientist. "How a faculty member is evaluated can't be separated from the mission of the institution," he says.

Longin agrees that research is key, even at schools such as Ithaca that emphasize teaching. If a faculty member is very good at teaching, but shows no interest in scholarship, "there would be a fair number of schools where they would have gotten tenure. But they wouldn't have at Ithaca, and certainly wouldn't have at Cornell," the neighboring research-oriented institution.

Michael Glogauer, a newly tenured professor at the University of Toronto, says he's hard-pressed to find an alternative to publications. "Additional measures such as talks, invitations, [and] quality students generated are usually just surrogate measures of patents, papers, and quality of papers," he writes in his comments. "There is no good way around this."

Institute regular reviews to eliminate "dead wood." Many scientists share stories of faculty who treat tenure as a form of early retirement. As a postdoc, Venkateswaran says he met "dozens of incompetent professors [who] were basking in their research done a decade ago." Fuller agrees: "Now I am tenured and have a de facto license to become incompetent. Where is the value to students, the region, or the profession we claim to serve?"

AAUP's Combest says that he believes faculty dead wood is an "urban myth." Tenured professors are constantly being evaluated, he says - if they want a promotion, raise, or sabbatical, for instance. Institutions do occasionally fire tenured faculty: according to the National Education Association, 2% of tenured US faculty lose their jobs every year. This summer, the Board of Regents at the University of Colorado, Boulder, voted to fire tenured professor Ward Churchill after he compared the victims of September 11, 2001, to Nazi bureaucrats. (The school says the decision was based on research misconduct.) "To suggest from anecdotal evidence that [dead wood] is a vast problem is a stretch," Combest notes.

Some readers suggested adding periodic evaluations of tenured faculty, such as every five years. A "terrific idea," says Longin, who reviewed the comments for The Scientist. During his final years at Ithaca, the school instituted a five-year mandatory "composite review" for tenured faculty, in which they presented their scholarship and teaching achievements and received feedback. He estimates that three faculty were terminated as a result of these reviews, and five left after receiving poor reviews but before termination. More than half of institutions perform similar evaluations, he conjectures. This process need not undermine the overall principle of tenure, which is to protect faculty from outside pressures, says Legon: Periodic reviews can "strengthen the tenure process" by enabling administrators to give feedback to faculty, while not threatening their jobs.

Consider patents. Tony Dennis, president and CEO of BioOhio, which works with academic tech transfer offices, argues that adding patents to a tenure application process makes sense. "While citations further the advancement of science, patents further the advancement of industry and are most directly related to altering the economic competitiveness of a region, state, or the country." The trouble with including patents, Longin notes, is that it typically takes as long as 10 years for a patent to come together, and academic scientists who are very involved in commercialization could run into conflicts over their relationships with industry. Having a patent would attest to the quality of one's research, "but are [institutions] going to make it a requirement? Not likely," he says.

Extend the tenure clock. If grants do remain part of the tenure equation, "should granting agency paylines dictate the tenure clock, i.e., should the clock be longer if the success rate is 10% or less?" asks George Stewart, a tenured professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In other words, when federal funding is tight, should biologists be given more than the standard five to seven years to obtain and/or renew an RO1 grant, thereby demonstrating they deserve tenure? Clock extensions already occur at some institutions, says Longin, where faculty can extend their probationary period to 10 years with justification (such as the state of federal funding). Indeed, Stanford provost Etchemendy says that reviewers take the environment into account. "When the grant-success rate gets very low, that is recognized and taken into consideration," he says. "It presumably affects the whole field and is adjusted for accordingly." (Slowing the clock is different from "stopping" it, a fairly common process in which researchers who want to start a family can take time off.)

While slowing the tenure clock sounds appealing in theory, if you do not achieve tenure after that protracted period, you've lost a "third of your career," says Longin, which makes it even harder to start over somewhere else. "I hesitate to say extend the period. If [faculty] are good, they should be tenured."

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