Tenure and the Public Intellectual

Monday, May 18, 2009
The Chronicle this morning covers the case of Boyce Watkins, a "public scholar" engaged in a tenure dispute with Syracuse University. Watkins entered the tenure track in 2001 and was just denied tenure, ostensibly due to a weak case in both teaching and research. He is best known for his engagement in the public media, where he's taken on college athletics (the Holy Grail) and sparred with Bill O'Reilly.

The nature of tenure decisions make it very hard to know what's really happened here-- the specifics of the case aren't public, and are subject to so much interpretation. It's possible the decision represents the failings of the individual, his department, and/or the University's P&T committee. We can't know whom to blame. But what I think is most important here is how Watkins, as a junior faculty member, is reflecting on the words of his college president, Nancy Cantor.

In 2005 Cantor made several great statements calling for the kinds of systematic changes needed to support the growth and development of true public intellectuals from within academic settings. Cantor clearly understands how tenure and promotion criteria can actively constrain public engagement by placing a greater emphasis on placing research in dusty library journals than in a more public sphere. The former is said to reflect real "peer" review, when the latter-- truthfully-- receives much more extensive review and critique by a broader (and often quite smart) group of peers. (Anyone who is silently questioning the intellect of online readers should check themselves now and admit their snobbery. The vast majority of professors constituting the "peer" group aren't half as well-read as this highly engaged group of readers.) The focus on the former reinforces where time is to be spent, and where it's not-- if one hopes to continue acting as a public intellectual within academia past their 30s or 40s.

The role of the administration in setting the criteria for promotion and tenure varies by institution (and likely in systematic ways I'm unaware of- this is not my area of research). At some schools, faculty-governance rules. At others, the administration is able to set directions and lead the way. I personally think the administration, charged with setting the overall tone and direction for the institution, should have a much stronger role in tenure criteria than it does at faculty-governed institutions. I know many of you (especially faculty) will disagree with me here, and trust me I understand the dangers of administration having a heavier hand in the tenure process. But that said, I don't think our peers are any less likely to judge based on politics than our administration is-- in fact, with more cooks stirring the pot under the guise of objectivity, it's more likely to happen and less easy to detect.

I'm troubled by the way that the will of Syracuse's strong and forward-thinking leadership appears to have been compromised by its faculty-led promotion and tenure committees. We task our presidents and chancellors with bringing vision to the job, and helping move us into the future-- not maintaining the status quo. I think it's arguably hard to accomplish big goals with no control over how faculty are rewarded for their work.

For example, an administration could effect important changes in the climate and practices of a university by (A) Establishing undergraduate teaching as a criteria for tenure (B) Rewarding grant-getting in the P&T decision, and (C) establishing that the activities of a public intellectual (including blogging and media engagement) count toward service.

This would no doubt go a long way toward getting faculty in front of undergrads, increasing R&D funds, and increasing the popular visibility of the university, generating more public support. Right now, the work prized by most faculty results in publications in stale library journals hardly read by the general public, and an emphasis on graduate instruction. Hardly the university of the future....

Now, what happened at Syracuse is still hard to say. One thing makes Watkins' claims less than compelling-- he hit the tenure-track at Syracuse in 2001, and Cantor didn't begin talking about changes to P&T until 2005. So, at minimum, he should've spent several years doing the traditional things needed to get tenure, if he'd hoped to continue. The way this reads, it sounds like he read Cantor's statements to reinforce his own beliefs and at the same time to excuse what I suspect he recognizes is a somewhat weak record. That's kind of lame, and if he's honest with himself, he'll cop to it.

But in many ways it's beside the point. I'd like to see more attention paid to how the world has changed, and how our leaders can help bring the faculty along-- including providing compelling reasons to adjust our P&T guidelines to ensure that highly visible smart people can find a place in universities for a long time to come. They should not have to silence themselves until they've "earned it." After all, what the heck does earning it even mean?