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Questions surrounding tenure process on the rise, students voice concerns

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Questions surrounding the overall tenure process have arisen in the wake of the celebration surrounding Professor Sa’ed Atshan’s recent placement on a tenure track position in the Peace and Conflict Studies program. Many concerns are about which professors get tenure as the hows and whys are seemingly unclear.

Tenure track positions, as explained by English literature Department Chair Professor Peter Schmidt, are integral to every department in the college.

“For most departments, the majority of their positions are tenure line positions, so somebody on the tenure track is going to come up for evaluation … the evaluation always happens in the sixth year,” he said.

Candidates going through the process find themselves under intensive review, as Schmidt goes on to explain.

“People are here for three years, they get a preliminary evaluation, like how well is their teaching going. Student letters are collected from people who have taken classes from them, but also they get a preliminary read on their scholarship and how it’s progressing, … and then three years later, the same thing happens,” he said.

The remaining part of the process, he explains, is just as rigorous as the initial three years.

“After six years, after the tenure review, then people are either accepted for tenure to stay here, or they have to leave, and we start a new process again with hiring. Later on, after you get tenure, you’re called an associate professor. After that, eight to ten years can go by, and then you get evaluated again, … and after you pass that review, you become a full professor,” he said.

Student knowledge about the process and all of its intricacies is very much limited, as they may be unaware of a professor’s status on the tenure track. However, many questions center around how tenure track positions are awarded in the first place. The differences between visiting professors and tenured professors, Schmidt explains, are in the hiring practices.

“Tenure positions, you’re definitely supposed to do a national search. So that means putting out ads and then reading tons and tons of applications and then interviewing about 12 to 15 people, usually. And then of those, usually a handful of them get invited to campus to meet everybody, including students, when they’re in the running for a job … Adjuncts or temporary positions, whether it’s in the sciences or humanities or the social sciences, those all tend to be much more local searches,” he said.

There are distinctions between the titles held by professors at the college delineating their status on the track, as well as marking those who are not tenure track. The title, however, does not serve as a basis for which students interact with a professor. Indeed, students gravitate towards professors for many reasons, finding mentorship and forming meaningful relationships with them. It is for this reason that problems arise when a non-tenured professor leaves the college on the account that their position was only temporary.

In tandem with this, the college’s interdisciplinary programs traditionally do not have tenure track positions as they are not stand alone departments. With the lack of tenure track positions within interdisciplinary programs, students face a loss on two ends: a professor with whom their feelings resonate and an overall loss to the program.

“Often they [interdisciplinary programs] just borrow professors from other departments, so nobody’s trained solely in that area, they will lend courses to it. Sometimes the courses will be cross listed, that kind of thing. They try to have an introductory course, like to Black Studies or a capstone for the students that minor in it. So those programs kind of fit into the tenure program, but at the moment, most of the teaching is done by borrowing professors from other departments” Schmidt said.

Valeria Ochoa ’19 is saddened at the prospect of losing Professor Milton Machuca, Coordinator of the Latin American and Latino Studies program.

“He founded the program here, and is not being given tenure track … it’s not right,” they said.

Machuca, a Visiting Assistant professor, is indeed not on a tenure track. His contract is set to expire with the conclusion of the Spring 2017 semester and is, as not now, not being considered for renewal. He is popular amongst his students, many not understanding why he is not being kept. The securing of his position was not done via national search, hence the temporality of his contract. Placing the blame is hard to do, as the ability of a department to even begin such a search is in the hands of a college committee.

“There’s a committee called the Council on Educational Policy that has some faculty, students and staff on it including the President and the Provost, It’s a college wide committee: that is the committee that decides which departments can do a tenure track search for the next year if there’s an opening or if somebody retires … lots of departments every year are disappointed that they’re not allowed to do a search. But the search would work the same for an interdisciplinary program as it would for a department, the standards are all supposed to be equal,” Schmidt said.

The first interdisciplinary program to successfully secure a tenure track position was Peace and Conflict Studies in 2016 with Professor Ashtan. This was after the program had already existed for 25 years and had been attempting to secure a tenured position since 2012 according to a previously written Phoenix article. Students are not oblivious to the struggle of interdisciplinary programs. Brandon Ekweonu ’20 is of the opinion that more needs to be done to give merit to the programs.

I cannot say I know much about the how the tenure process works, but I can say this: I think programs like Latin American and Latino Studies and Black Studies deserve more attention than they get, not only on our campus, but on campuses around the country. As someone with a genuine interest in both of these areas, seeing that they are not established as departments makes me feel like they are not recognized as ‘valuable’ enough,” he said.

Professor Schmidt remains positive about the possibility of tenure tracks being awarded to interdisciplinary programs in the future.

“For years, all of the tenure positions were within particular disciplines like Chemistry or Biology or English literature. For the first time last year, a position in tenure track has been entirely awarded to an interdisciplinary program … that means that the faculty voted to do this. So now, interdisciplinary programs are have the chance to grow in a way that makes them have the same type of status as a department does … I think there’s a sense that down the road some of the other interdisciplinary programs will get tenure track too,” he said.

Eyes will be on the college’s tenure track process as students attempt to stave the loss of their beloved professor. With the historical award of a tenure track position in Peace and Conflict Studies, the outlook for change has become that much brighter. For students of Professor Machuca, this change cannot come soon enough.

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