Understanding Tenure Process at Davidson, Protecting Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump

Ethan Ehrenhaft-

What does job security mean to professors? Academic tenure was originally conceived in the early 20th century to ensure the academic freedom of professors. However, its history has the national sphere has strayed from this ideal.

During the dawn of McCarthyism in 1947, Illinois passed the Clabaugh Act which prohibited Communists from speaking on University of Illinois (U of I ) grounds. The university and its faculty could no longer play host “to any subversive, seditious, and un-American organization, or to its representatives,” stated the Act.

Shortly thereafter, U of I at Urbana-Champaign “fired a group of untenured economists, all of whom subsequently had distinguished careers, for teaching the ‘heresy’ of Keynesian economics,” according to Brown University’s Dr. John E. Savage in his article “The Role of Tenure in Higher Education” [1].

Today, a tenured position “is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation,” as described by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

“It’s a practice that was instituted essentially to protect academic freedom and give people the space to speak publicly without fear of retribution from an institution,” explained Dr. Michael Guasco, Chair of the History Department and professor.

While more than two decades removed from the Cold War, the issue of tenure is still no less relevant to American institutions of higher education. The standards and processes by which Davidson professors receive tenure also help reflect the college’s overall goals.

As written in its 1976 constitution, Davidson College “is fully committed to the principles of academic freedom.” The Trustees, the constitution continues, “retain the power of final approval of all […] conferrals of tenure for faculty members.”

For non-visiting professors, receiving tenure requires a minimum six year process at Davidson.

Tenure-track professors undergo teaching evaluations in their second and fourth years before finally undergoing the tenure review in their sixth. The tenure review may be pushed back an additional year or so if the professor decides to take sabbatical or goes on parental leave.

“In your second year review, there’s really only emphasis on, conversations about your teaching,” said Guasco. Professors’ classes typically get observed by their peers for feedback, and they have discussions with their department chair and Dean of Faculty Dr. Wendy Raymond.

The fourth year review is similar to the second, but with an additional emphasis on the professor’s service to the school and more advisory committee meetings.

The tenure committee for a professor is composed of all tenured faculty in his or her department and is headed by the department chair. If a professor is interdepartmental, a tenure committee will be established during their first year at Davidson so that a professor immediately knows who is evaluating and the standards he or she should be meeting.

There are three overarching components for conducting tenure review: teaching, research, and service. While noting the three categories aren’t technically ranked by importance, Gender & Sexuality Studies (GSS), Latin American Studies, and Hispanic Studies professor Dr. Melissa Gonzalez said, “It’s clear that this is a teaching-centered institution, this is undergraduate centered institution, and that teaching is fundamental.”

Davidson’s tenure process is markedly different from that of larger colleges and universities, where a teacher’s research and publishing history are often prioritized. Gonzalez lamented on how many universities prefer their professors publish books from a select few presses.

“I appreciate at Davidson that we have a lot of freedom in terms of our research,” commented Gonzalez. “It’s very liberating the ways that real intellectual inquiry is enabled here in a way that it’s not at a research intensive university where it just becomes about checking certain boxes and fulfilling certain prestige requirements that have very little intellectual meaning.”

If a professor is up for tenure review in the sixth year, he or she must give a list to the Dean of Faculty in the early fall consisting of persons who can write letters supporting the professor’s tenure case. These names can include current students, alums, and outside scholars in the same field. Throughout the fall, classroom visits and evaluations will continue as well.

Every professor within the department writes a letter regarding the up-for-tenure professor’s research. Faculty who have served on the same committees as the professor also write letters pertaining to that person’s service to Davidson. Service can be about the professor’s discipline outside of Davidson as well. For example, Gonzalez served as President for the GLQ Caucus of the Modern Language Association

The tenure committee also invites “any member of the Davidson faculty or community to write a letter on their behalf that has any knowledge or any input on their teaching, research or service,” according to Gonzalez.

One of the largest components of the tenure process is a 300-400 page dossier a professor must submit to the committee. Once consisting of a gargantuan three-ring binder, the dossier is now a PDF consisting of everything from articles and book chapters the author has published, to sample homework assignments and syllabi.

The dossier begins with a roughly ten page introductory cover letter in which Gonzalez said that the professor explains “how you understand yourself” and “narrates how to read the dossier.”

To actually get approved for tenure, a professor’s tenure committee must vote. The official Faculty Tenure Committee then meets in April, consisting of three professors representing each academic division (social sciences, natural sciences, humanities). Once that committee votes, all that is left is for the Board of Trustees and the President to sign off on the decision, after a short series of interviews between the professor and trustees.

Receiving tenure at Davidson, as opposed to some other institutions, comes with no pay raise since faculty salaries are evaluated on a yearly basis. Rather, tenure confers its historic academic freedom protection upon the professor along with some other benefits including the ability to serve as the chair of a department. Their title also changes from assistant to associate professor.

With the current political climate, some professors have noted how the historic roots of tenure are becoming more relevant again.

“You don’t have to do much research to find on a regular basis new examples of college professors speaking out on issues in the age of Trump and being sanctioned by their institutions or [having] their institutions trying to silence them,” reflected Guasco.

The AAUP released a statement in November of 2016 that it fears Trump’s election “threatens some of the core institutions of our democracy and may be the greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthy period.” The organization cited his various threats against minority groups and the first amendment along with a lack of coherent high education policy.

“Teaching GSS 101 during the election was a little challenging,” commented Gonzalez. “It’s not like I lived in fear or felt like I was going to say the wrong thing in the classroom, but it’s a very subtle sort of vulnerability.”

“I realized, after the tenure sunk in, that it was very liberating, and I think that it made me a better teacher,” Gonzalez continued. “The whole thing about academic freedom and the importance of that in the classroom, it’s real.” Gonzalez explained that all teachers face varying degrees of vulnerability.

Also, Guasco noted how social media has furthered blurred the line between a professor’s professional work and personal opinions on current events.“If I was going through the [tenure] process now, I think I definitely would be much more aware of how the things I say in public actually might perhaps be protected should I take a controversial stance,” he stated.

The Davidson tenure process ultimately helps insure academic freedom as well as a high standard of teaching

“I think that Davidson sees junior faculty as people to invest in, whereas a lot of other schools, including some elite liberal arts colleges, see junior faculty as essentially people who have to prove themselves to the institution,” commented Dr. Patricio Boyer, a member of the Hispanic Studies faculty. “Davidson wants that to happen too, but I think it’s a more complementary relationship.”

“[Davidson] values the knowledge production in it of itself,” said Gonzalez. “It creates an environment where we can have much more honest, and free, and unrestricted intellectual inquiry.”

[1] http://cs.brown.edu/~jes/papers/tenure.html

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