Economy Affects Departmental Tenure Distribution

For a professor at Swarthmore, receiving tenure is a lengthy and complicated task. First, it involves teaching and researching in a tenure track position for what is typically a six-year period. After that, candidates undergo a lengthy review process. A dossier of the candidate is prepared, which includes everything from letters by students who had the professor to extramural recommendations to the candidate’s published scholarship. Once compiled, the dossier is sent to the Committee on Promotion and Tenure. Finally, the committee evaluates the candidate, and makes a decision as to whether or not to grant tenure. In the past, a solid majority of recent candidates have received tenure. But it is by no means a guarantee.

But, until recently, even if a candidate’s path to tenure was complex and its outcome uncertain, the balance of tenure in a department was not. A department could count on having the same number of tenure-lines, or positions that are either tenured or tenure-track, year after year. So, for example, if a tenured professor of biology retired, the biology department could count on having at least one opening for a tenure-line position. That, however, has changed.

To respond to the economic crisis, in 2009, the college created an ad hoc committee to try and determine what to do and respond to any budget decreases. “There was first a freeze placed on faculty hiring,” said college provost Thomas Stephenson, who served on the committee.

Still, there was real concern that the college would have to look at cutting jobs. “In order to live within our budget, we had to look at the possibility of downsizing our faculty and staff,” said Rebecca Chopp, the college president, who took office in the midst of the downturn.

While the committee did not wind up having to cut jobs, it still had to find room to reduce spending. One of the shifts that the committee made was from the system in which tenure lines were effectively fixed by departments to one in which they were doled out by the committee on educational policy.

“We don’t automatically get a replacement,” explained Ann Renninger, Chair of the Department of Educational Studies. If a tenured faculty member leaves or retires, “it’s not the case that you then immediately get another tenure line.”

In the old system, a department could more-or-less expect a tenure line to be replaced. In the new system, a department has to show why they need it and apply to the committee on educational policy. “They need to put forth an argument,” said Renninger.

Shifts in the endowment played a substantial role in causing this policy change. For the fifteen years prior to the economic crisis, the college endowment experienced substantial growth, meaning that fixed tenure-lines were possible because the school could always just add new lines. “Now that’s not true,” said Chopp.

While no tenure-line positions were cut, the rate at which they were added declined. During the fifteen-year period of endowment growth, the number of tenure-line positions gradually increased. “It crept up because the endowment was doing so spectacularly well,” said Stephenson. When that stopped, so did the growth in tenure-lines.

After the hiring freeze and the year thereafter, the college did manage to create and fill a couple of new tenure-line positions. But that has largely been the by-product of fundraising. Before the recession, student growth, philanthropy, or the endowment funded new tenure-line positions. “Right now,” said Chopp, “we have one way, and that’s philanthropy.”

Stephenson agreed. “Absent fundraising,” he said, “it’s fixed.”

The policy has mixed potential effects on departments and faculty. It does, as Renninger noted, increase the ability of a department to apply for tenure-lines. But it also can complicate a department’s ability to hire tenure-track faculty when a tenured faculty member retires. And, according to Renninger, the policy has the potential to generate competition. “There is almost a kind of jockeying for tenure lines,” she said.

Furthermore, there is also the possibility that the policy could lead to an increase in the number of part-time hires. This, according to Renninger, might be problematic because part-time hires are, by nature, less dedicated to the college and to research then full-time hires. “Knowing you have a tenure line allows you to count on faculty members for contributions,” she said. But, as Stephenson noted, part time hires have not changed in the past four years.

At the same time, the policy has potential benefits that are not just economic. As Chopp pointed out, the policy has fostered inter-departmental communication and internal departmental reflection. “It was a legitimate way of thinking about how disciplines grow and change,” said Chopp, who further noted that the faculty found it has helped them learn about faculty in other departments, and were consulted for and during the policy overhaul. “Change is always difficult,” noted Chopp. “You really have to argue the case.”

Plus, the shift in allocating tenure lines has not changed what the college is looking for in hiring and granting tenure to professors. “The big frame work for it is how will they help our students,” said Chopp.

And while the new policy may complicate life for the departments when it comes to receiving tenure lines, it has not changed their professors’ relationships with their profession, the college, or their students. As Renninger said, “this is a great place to teach.”

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