Here’s your Koan for the day: What if Kevin Carman, Dean of the College of Basic Sciences at Louisiana State University, were made Provost of Brown University, where the current Provost is troubled by the fact that 70% of all tenure candidates win tenure and promotion at Brown and wants to lower it? (You’ll recall that Dean Carman is the guy who yanked a proffie out of her own course because of a high rate of student failure in her intro class.) Would he be concerned that 30% of Brown Assistant Professors are “failing?” Would this create a wormhole of dubious conflicting administrative initiatives?
I like this comment from Dore Levy, a professor of East Asian studies who opposes the Brown initiative to deny tenure to more Assistant Professors. She explains why many faculty are with her:
They say that Brown is trying to provide them with the sort of research resources that are on the high end of what one could find at a liberal arts college, but then judge them by the standards of a research university. “You want us to be like Harvard? Then give us the Widener Library,” she said.
Levy, whose scholarship is on classical Chinese, said that she has spent her Brown career doing research at the libraries at Yale and Princeton Universities, which are far superior in relevant holdings than Brown’s collections. Brown can’t have it both ways, with resources not matching expectations, she said.
Sing it, sister! Anyone who has ever visited Brown knows that it prides itself on being the Ivy with the research chops and also the character of a tony SLAC. (That’s also Dartmouth’s role, sorta, but Hanover’s just a truck stop at the juncture of I-89 and I-91, whereas Providence is a truck stop with both the Amtrak and regional rail to Boston.) Brown looks the part, and from what I’ve heard, it acts the part. A friend of mine was offered a job in a humanities department there a few years ago, and told me a story about the disbelief and foot-dragging that met her request for one course release in her first year there because the job required some substantial administrative work with another unit on campus. The chair of the hiring department responded to this totally normal and even predictable request as though he had never heard of this thing called a “course release” in his native tongue (which was English, BTW.) “But–this is Brown! We care about our teaching!” (She does too–which is why she asked for a course release, so that she would be extra-super-on-top-of-it for the three courses she would teach that year.) Surprise! She didn’t take the job.
Like many professors at Brown, [Professor Arnold Weinstein] also said he resents the idea that the university’s tenure rate is being judged a failure for promoting too many people. “I don’t think we have anything to apologize for,” he said. At Harvard, he said, the expectation is that junior faculty will not be tenured. “We try to hire people for the long haul, and we think the humane model is that you make a careful appointment decision and a careful reappointment decision,” rather than looking for people to reject later, he said.
One way of looking at a low tenure rate, several faculty members said, is as a sign that a university does a poor job of initial hiring or doesn’t worry too much if junior faculty members aren’t the best talent. Is that to be valued? they asked.
“It strikes me that we do a very good job of hiring and mentoring,” said [Professor Susan] Smulyan. To say that there should be a lower tenure rate is “in some ways to say that the faculty doesn’t know what it’s doing when it hires,” she said. “This isn’t like grade distribution. Why should there be failures?”
Several faculty members also said that Brown may do a better job than other research universities on initial hires because of the outcome of a gender bias suit filed in 1974. The suit was by Louise Lamphere, who was denied tenure in anthropology, and the resulting consent decree — in place until 1992 — specified hiring and promotion procedures with more detail than is the case at many institutions. Many said that the consent decree put Brown ahead of the curve in terms of promoting sound hiring practices, assuring lots of rigor and consistency and limiting the influence of “old boy network” hiring.
And, I’m sure that consent decree and its salubrious effects on the tenure process were the products of administrative initiatives back in the 1990s. Sometimes you just can’t win. It’s like Eddie Izzard’s description of Italians weathering various conflicting political regimes: “‘we’re all fascists!’ Alright–Ciao!” Administrators come and go with their various conflicting initiatives. Sometimes faculties should just be cool and say “Ciao!” and drive off on our motor-scooters while we wait for another dean or provost to come along. But, I think the Brown faculty are right to fight back on this one, for sure.