When a tenured professor publishes a controversial essay or states a firm opinion on a questionable topic such as University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill’s publication in 2005 likening September 11 victims to Nazis there is uncertainty over the limits of his or her free speech and the protection that tenure offers members of the academic field.
But the tenure system is defined by so much more than just what it allows professors to do or say. The distinction is also designed to indicate a faculty member’s academic aptitude across the board.
‘To be awarded tenure, a faculty member is expected to be both an excellent teacher and an outstanding scholar or researcher,” Dean of Faculty Peter Lennie said. ‘Our system for making tenured appointments is similar to that at other major research universities.”
That can mean a variety of things depending on the department, but, in each case, criterion is usually examined in a professor’s sixth year, first by faculty members in the applicants own departments as well as other fields within the University and then by Lennie and University Provost and Executive Vice President Ralph Kuncl.
Teaching quality is evaluated through student course opinion questionnaires, syllabi, course materials and a personal statement.
‘There are two expectations for professors with teaching at the end of six years,” Professor Morris Eaves said. ‘Their teaching is excellent and that they’ve built a constituency for their field among undergraduates.”
Eaves served on a Modern Language Association task force from 2004-06 that evaluated tenure and promotion at colleges across the country.
The task force’s main focus was to examine variation across departments in tenure rates, but found that the number of professors accepted for tenure was proportional to the number of staff in each department.
Chair of the Political Science Department and Associate Professor Gerald Gamm echoed this notion of teaching as a vital aspect of a successful tenure case.”
‘While a sterling career in the classroom is not sufficient in itself to merit tenure, given the importance of establishing a record of scholarship in the discipline, no one in the department of political science can be tenured without a solid teaching record,” Gamm said.
But while teaching plays a role in the appointment process, how much of one it should play is questionable.
‘Teaching is the hardest thing to evaluate,” Eaves said. ‘The University wants to say that it really cares about teaching, but it is hard to measure that quantitatively.”
The other reason is that, as Lennie mentioned, UR is not a four-year liberal arts college. UR is a research university. This makes it different from other four-year liberal arts colleges because UR must build a staff that allows it to be competitive with other institutions from a research standpoint.
‘[The University] sees itself as contributing to research programs that are nationally and internationally important, not just educating its own students,” Eaves said.
Within the biology department, Professor John Jaenike who has had tenure since 1986 agreed that appointments to tenure depend primarily on research and that teaching is counted as a secondary qualification.
However, he emphasized a positive relationship between research and teaching.
‘If a teacher shows passion and love for what they research, it usually trickles over into the classroom,” Jaenike explained.
Tenure is also a distinction that focuses more on what it allows for a professor within his or her research than what it allows for them in the classroom.
In his 22 years as a tenured professor, Jaenike has enjoyed the job security because it has changed the way he has approached his research at the University.
‘Knowing I have tenure is nice so that I can set up long-term research goals,” he said.
Within the political science department, Professor David Primo, who was up for tenure a little over a year ago, has a similar view on what tenure will enable him to accomplish.
‘Tenure is a reflection that your department and the field more generally views your research as being important,” Primo explained. ‘It is allows you more freedom to explore new and perhaps uncharted research waters.”
From a research standpoint, the qualifications for tenure are generally structured and easy to evaluate, even though the definition of research varies for each field of study.
‘For biology, the number one criteria [for receiving tenure] is whether you can do independent, scholarly research,” Jaenike said.
According to Eaves, in science departments this research criteria usually refers to lab work. In the humanities and in social sciences, however, research is considered in terms of the faculty member’s publications.
When a professor is up for tenure, he or she usually has published a book in addition to writing articles.
By the time Primo was up for tenure, for example, he had published two books and a variety of articles that touched on different aspects of his field, American politics and political economy.
These publications are under rigorous scrutiny and review by academic peers during the tenure process.
‘The department first has to decide whether your case is likely to merit tenure,” Primo said. ‘If it decides that it does, then it finds experts in your field at top research universities to comment on the merits of your research.”
But while UR prides itself as being research-oriented, the University’s Web site also boasts that it ‘remains one of the smallest and most collegiate among top research universities, with smaller classes, a low 9:1 student-to-teacher ratio and increased interactions with faculty.”
This is a distinction that led some to question just what the focus should be in granting tenure.
‘I believe that teaching should count more [in deciding tenure],” Jaenike said, reasoning that, ‘[It’s] an important part of the mission here.”
But it can undoubtedly be difficult to find that equilibrium between exceptional research and teaching excellence.
‘In one sense, professors are facing in toward the students and faculty,” Eaves said. ‘But at the same time, we are facing out toward the most expert in our field. So while, at a small liberal arts college, the focus is more inward, at UR, it must be a balance between the two.”
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.