From the General Secretary: What We do to Our Young

By Gary Rhoades

I believe in high standards for new faculty appointments and for tenure and promotion decisions. But I also believe that a growing number of institutions are using tenure standards as a lever to increase their status and are thereby compromising the future of our profession. And I believe that too often we are complicit in a process that does more harm to prospective and junior faculty than it does good for the profession as a whole.

The point of tenure has been to ensure professors’ academic freedom for the benefit of students and society. Tenure was originally intended to provide faculty members the security needed to pursue ideas in teaching and research, participate in shared governance, and engage in extramural speech freely. But too often, today, the tenure process fosters insecurity as senior faculty and administrators try to increase departmental or institutional prestige by ratcheting up standards. Too often, tenure is being employed as an artificially high bar that contingent colleagues, because of their working conditions, cannot reach. Too often, the lives, or lack thereof, to which we subject postdoctoral personnel and assistant professors are persuading bright graduate students that a faculty career is not for them.

We are being “speeded up.” Junior faculty are expected to publish more, generate more grants, teach more students in more contexts, and be responsive 24/7. At colleges and universities seeking to “move up” the institutional ratings scale,research productivity expectations and tenure standards are raised without providing the teaching loads and research infrastructure required to enable faculty to reach them. And faculty promotion and tenure committees often are complicit, even when the vitas of senior professors would fall short of those that candidates are expected to achieve.

At research universities, there is also speedup, the push to do more of everything (and less of nothing, except nonacademic life). Promotion and tenure candidates must demonstrate ever-higher levels of publication “productivity” and grant revenue, and their work is expected to have ever-greater national (and international) impact. At some universities, the number of external letters required for promotion is now absurdly high, as is the expectation that letters come from independent referees who have never so much as had lunch with the candidate.

I believe in standards. I do not believe they must be forever fixed. But they should be realistic and should encourage exploration and risk taking, not narrow work on a small grindstone.

How do our top students view us? I recently spoke with an AAUP leader, an engineering professor, about the need for new tenure-track positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, where many recent PhDs are in contingent, postdoc purgatory. She said, “Many of our graduate students start out saying they want a faculty position; by the end of their education, none of them want to be professors.”

What messages are we sending our graduate students and junior faculty? In a graduate class I taught on the sociology of academe, one student shared what she had heard a senior biology professor saying about a junior colleague: “She’s a breeder,” insinuating that the junior professor was not “serious”; the senior professor was a woman.

Does the problem lie in the work ethic of our young? I think not. Our young are committed to the idea that being a professor and a human being should not be mutually exclusive, that professors have social responsibilities to students and communities. That idea is at the heart of what a director of a program preparing students of color to be faculty told me about his alumni, who, confronted with the narrowness of the faculty and postdoc lives they have seen while in graduate school, often decide not to pursue faculty careers.

I am not proposing that we compromise standards. I am suggesting that we are constructing academic life so narrowly that we are compromising our profession’s future. We, and our institutions, should change. We should not simply recruit faculty who will assimilate to the existing culture and replicate our status anxiety, but rather seek new faculty who will stretch us, take us in directions we cannot imagine, and change us.

It is possible to be rigorous and realistic, hardheaded and humane, and to be committed to academic work and have a life beyond academe. We need to send this message to graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty. Indeed, our future depends on it.