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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Tenure process harms pursuit of knowledge

With a state audit of the University of Wisconsin's hiring practices underway at the request of UW System President Kevin Reilly, it might not be surprising to learn that some professors within the humanities departments of the College of Letters and Science are worried about the tenure process.  




Given the notion that many students at mammoth institutions like UW-Madison seem to major in beer, many do not know a whole lot about the tenure process'much less why some professors are leery of it. But all students really need to know is whether the tenure system promotes excellence among our professors.  




Tenure means definite job security and spares professors from censorship. But how does a professor become tenured? Well, the tenure clock varies across UW's colleges, but an untenured professor in an L&S humanities department is generally up for consideration after five or six years, with a panel of tenured faculty evaluating the quality of the candidate's teaching, scholarship and duty (or service to university and discipline).  




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Scholarship, chiefly scholarly articles published in academic journals, is given the most weight in the tenure process. As Magdalena Hauner, L&S dean of humanities, explained, 'The type of publisher is important... and [so is] the opinion of the research by leading scholars in the field.' 




For instance, untenured political science professors attempt to get articles accepted in the American Political Science Review because this is a prestigious academic journal. Yet two or three peer reviewers'called 'referees''usually determine which articles are worth publishing. Therein lies the problem.  




Essentially, untenured professors write articles for the sake of a few doctrinaires and not for any wider audience. It's no stretch to say that scholarship intended to advance the cause of tenure rather than knowledge is multiplied ad infinitum and ad nauseam throughout the humanities.  




According to one untenured professor, this part of the tenure process resembles a 'circle jerk.' That's crude, but in some cases appropriate, given both the depth of criticism some untenured professors have for the tenure process and their reluctance to criticize it on the record. 


Scholarship that is nearly unreadable and has little or no audience is often rewarded more than accessible, well-written work that might better serve the public or the pursuit of truth. As the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote in 1956, universities 'have not been an optimal milieu for the unfolding of creative talents.'  




In confirmation of Hoffer, physicist Alan Sokal took it upon himself in 1996 to fool a Duke University journal, Social Text, into publishing a prank article entitled 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.' Most telling, Sokal said he wanted to find out whether the journal would publish nonsense that 'flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions.' 




More recently, the Chicago Tribune and New York Sun speculated that University of Chicago professor Dan Drezner'also an international relations blogger'was denied tenure by his Political Science department because his popular blog is noxious to the academy. Whether true or not, there is an atmosphere in the humanities academia that penalizes the role of public intellectual and favors the hooded scholastic.  




Concerning the importance of the teaching criteria in tenure considerations, some professors would take issue with university administrations that assure that 'teaching has a weight that is almost on par with research.' One untenured humanities professor here at the UW said, 'My teaching is not going to get me tenure.'  




In a campus atmosphere, such a belief can lead to alienation. If few students know what they want to do with their lives, perhaps even fewer professors know if they are reaching those students in the classroom. Arguably, teaching should be as important as publication, if not more so. With the best professors, of course, teaching and scholarship go hand in hand.  




So, the core nature of the tenure system'insulation from outside interference'almost by definition hinders promotion of excellence in teaching and research. This is not to say that Reilly needs to audit the tenure process. Rather, our professors should. Professors have a demanding, often thankless duty, and they should not make it tougher by accepting a system that treats academia as if it were a cloister. To do so might be a dereliction of the third criteria judged by the tenure committee'duty.

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