A University President Advocates Tweaking Tenure: Getting the behavior we reward

February 10, 2010 at 11:36 am 3 comments

Does tenure matter anymore?  Do faculty really need protection and job security to do what they think is right?  I’m not sure, but I definitely believe that tenure is a reward, an economic incentive. We need to think carefully about what we reward to get the behavior we want.  In that sense, this article is spot-on.

An Associated Press article published on the Web site Cleveland.com states that “Mr. Gee says the traditional formula that rewards publishing in scholarly journals over excellence in teaching and other contributions is outdated and too often favors the quantity of a professor’s output over quality.”

via A University President Advocates Tweaking Tenure – The Choice Blog – NYTimes.com.

We definitely want excellence in teaching.  I don’t know how to measure it.  I know that how we do it now doesn’t work.  At Georgia Tech, having 10% of a class respond to an on-line survey guarantees that you are getting a non-random, self-selected sample giving self-reports on what they thought.  I am in favor of peer-review of teaching as being better than that.

We also want research with impact, with real meaning.  Counting numbers of papers doesn’t cut it, and I’m afraid that there’s too much of that.  The growth of open source journals may just create more demand (from editors and publishers, not from the reading public) for more papers with less content.  Exactly what impact do these papers have?  Just how many people are reading journals in any media, and how does that differ on-line vs. paper?

There are other behaviors that we might want to consider rewarding.  We typically think about research, teaching, and service, but those may no longer be what we want for the roles of today’s faculty at today’s higher-education.  I really like Scholarship Reconsidered (cited in the article), but even that just focuses on scholarship.  How about rewarding success at working across the campus, to support the integration of computing literacy in other disciplines?  Mentoring students?  Exploring new media for teaching that can reach to underserved populations?

I agree with tweaking tenure — maybe even wholesale reform, instead of just a tweak.  Tenure, though, is a large granularity reward.  You only give it once.  We need to find more ways to provide incentives for the kinds of faculty activity that today’s world needs.  Higher education costs a lot.  Society should get value for that cost.

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Stanford finds cheating increasing, especially among CS students When did “Professor” become a bad thing?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  February 10, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Hi Mark,

    Far more interesting (to me at least) than the article (which does not have a lot to say) are the many comments this article induced.

    Tenure was originally about “academic freedom” but at least in our field, I don’t think this is a big factor.

    A few months ago I gave a talk at the U of Illinois entitled “Normal Considered Harmful”, which was about about how the familiar gradually becomes invisible and part of people’s basic assumptions about their world — unless they actively keep the familiar *visible* by pointing at it and criticizing it (as indeed is what is supposed to be done by real scientists).

    In our field it hardly matters whether there is tenure or not, because “Normal has become harmful” for most of non-tenured or tenured, or assistant or full professors.

    This is one of many reasons I’ve been trying to point out that — though there could be real “science” in “computer science” — most of the practitioners don’t seem to understand the frame of mind they need to be in to do real science.

    Best wishes,


  • 2. Paul Gestwicki  |  February 17, 2010 at 10:04 am

    I am also a big fan of Scholarship Reconsidered. In my reading of the subsequent Scholarship Assessed, I categorize the activities you mention—supporting computing literacy, mentoring students, and exploring new media—as also being scholarly. Specifically, if the work demonstrates (1) clear goals, (2) adequate preparation, (3) appropriate methods, (4) significant results, (5) effective presentation, and (6) reflective critique, then it fits the model in Scholarship Assessed.

    The bigger cultural problem I find is getting traditional publication-counters to even read these two books with an open mind.

  • 3. Aaron Lanterman  |  February 24, 2010 at 12:01 am

    I found this comment on the NYT article odd:

    “Do you really think people who work in fields like Chemistry, Engineering, Accounting, etc. will make 50%-70% of the money they could earn in the private sector while working 20%-50% longer hours in the academe if they had to put up with the same corporatist BS in both places? I moved from corporate America to the academe so that I could do what I wanted and for the security (and took a pay cut to do so). Take away my freedom and security and I will be heading right back (unless you pay me for my additional effort).”

    I wanted to become a professor because it is the coolest job in the world – so I understand the “freedom” part – but the “job security” was never a consideration for me. Also, salary calculations never once entered my mind. I *happen to* have a lot of job security, and in my mind am paid rather well, but that is all incidental to having the coolest job in the world.


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