On Academic Tenure

I’ve recently become engaged with many of the intricacies of the academic tenure process. I found out last week that Brown University’s Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee had voted to deny my advisor tenure, all-but-guaranteeing that he will find himself without work in a year’s time.

I’ve spent much of the last week organizing a student petition to convince the University to reconsider their opinion, and consequently, have developed some opinions on the process of receiving tenure (within computer science) as a whole.

Let me outline the process usually followed by assistant (non-tenured) professors: Find as many grants as possible within your research area. Use these grants to acquire a large set of qualified graduate students. Spend your time supervising these students as they publish, sometimes achieving ten or more papers within a year, and attempt to get these papers into the most prestigious publications available. Speak at conferences whenever possible.

I have nothing against professors who follow this model. It’s almost certain to produce a positive recommendation for tenure after five years, and I’ve taken many good classes with assistant professors of this type. However, I do think that the nature of the tenure review process precludes many other forms of professorship, and that universities would do well to consider the types of academics that will (and will not) make it through this trial.

For reference, at Brown, the computer science department is responsible for generating a review (positive or negative) for the faculty member seeking tenure. It’s a confidential vote taken by already-tenured faculty, and is submitted to the Provost, as well as the aforementioned Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee. The Committee, which is comprised of professors from across the university (with no particular expertise in computer science) reviews the tenure dossier of the professor, and further generates a review, which they submit to the Provost. The Provost then makes a final decision, which in most cases is just a rubber stamp of the Committee’s review. (There are a few other steps in the process, but they don’t involve reviewing academic work, and hence are superfluous for the purposes of this discussion.)

I believe the nature of this process produces systemic biases against professors who meet any (or all) of the following criteria:

  • They choose to work on questions where success, let alone rapid publication isn’t guaranteed.
  • They opt to have fewer graduate students, but spend more time supervising each of them.
  • They invest a significant portion of their time in undergraduate education.

The first of these biases – against professors who work on “harder” problems – is present for several reasons.

First, and most obviously, working on harder questions inherently risks having fewer publications. Some professors will happen across a paradigm-shifting gold mine, but many won’t, and as a result they’ll be left without many papers to their names when they go up for tenure review.

Second, tenured faculty (the only faculty involved in reviewing assistant professors) are biased against people who follow a different pattern than they did. Whether it’s called a rite of passage, trial by fire, or something else, many professors won’t be keen on “cutting out” the portion of one’s career where they struggled to churn out papers and managed a massive research group, because they themselves also had to struggle through the pain.

Third, there is an inherent risk in trusting a committee (and Provost, for that matter) who aren’t experts in computer science to evaluate the importance of papers. It’s a far safer bet to simply have dozens of papers to your name, because it’s more straightforward to trust in numbers.

These biases work to prevent professors from working on big-picture questions until they achieve full professorship, a process which takes upwards of a decade in many cases. It overlooks the fact that quality of papers is not additive: A single groundbreaking paper cannot be compared with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of incremental improvements. I’m not advocating that every faculty work solely on “moonshot” projects, but there is some value to aiming big, even if the payoff is far from guaranteed.

The second of these biases – against professors who have fewer graduate students – is present for many of the same reasons as the first. Yet, it has an additional pernicious effect: Graduate students leave the program without much face time with the professor, and moreover, professors are turned into glorified administrators, responsible for securing grants and reviewing papers and little more. No idealistic undergraduate seeks a Ph.D. for this to be their future. If we want academically talented students to pursue doctoral degrees, then the process of attaining professorship shouldn’t force them to spend a majority of their time supervising graduate students.

The last of these biases – against professors who invest their time in undergraduate education – is harder to explain. Brown, in particular, claims to prize undergraduate education, and has many times more undergraduate students than graduate students (unlike, say, MIT.) Hence, the professors that are attracted to the department will clearly be those who would prefer to work, and conduct research in, an undergraduate-focused department. If these same professors are asked to commit their time to research, fitting lectures in around meetings and leaving most course administration to teaching assistants, it stands to reason that this may not be the reason they came to Brown in the first place.

Many professors manage to teach excellent courses and produce dozens of papers, but they are, well, uninvolved. They set the standard: Two office hours a week, occasional emailed responses, and otherwise management is left to the rotating cast of undergraduate students who perform much of the grueling work of grading assignments, explaining concepts during clinic hours, and handling student complaints. After a few years, during which the assignments and lecture notes ossify, the course essentially runs itself.

This is what I generally expect of new classes I take. So, when I encounter the rare professor that bucks this trend, that chooses to spend late nights helping his teaching assistants with the hordes of students needing help, or who actively solicits advice to improve the course (even if that advice causes drastic changes), it makes me remember why I came to this school in the first place. Yet, this type of professor does not just go unrewarded, they are actively punished for committing their time to education (and in this case, will be fired.) It’s a cruel irony that the professor most-admired by students, a professor whose door is always open (until 3 a.m. in many cases), who is always willing to give honest advice and hear real complaints, is also the professor most likely to be denied tenure.

I would trade one professor who has a real commitment to undergraduate education for a dozen who don’t. “Senior lecturers” don’t count–the title, unfortunately, implies that the holder couldn’t hack it as a real professor, whether the department intended it as such or not.

If Brown, or universities in general, can’t recognize that research en masse isn’t the only attribute that makes a professor valuable, then there is no reason for them to even enroll undergraduate students. If the University doesn’t reconsider their decisions, I’ll have a hard time recommending the school to high school seniors. The truly formative experiences that are a hallmark of a liberal undergraduate education can’t be had with professors who spend their lives running from one research meeting to the next, fighting their way up the tenure ladder, with undergraduates left to wonder what, exactly, they are paying for.