Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 9, 2020

Will the new tenure process hurt academic freedom?

By KATY WILNER | February 6, 2020

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FILE PHOTO Some professors raised questions about how TAC will affect diversity.

For years, the task of managing the tenure process at Hopkins has been the responsibility of each individual campus. However, on Jan. 10, the Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the proposal to create a Tenure Advisory Committee (TAC) to oversee tenure cases across all tenure-granting schools within the university.

Promising job stability, academic recognition and a consistent salary, tenure originally became popular at universities in the U.S. during the 1940s. In an interview with The News-Letter, Professor Derek Schilling, member of the Executive Committee of the Johns Hopkins chapter of the American Association of University Professors, explained that today, tenure is regarded as protection for academic freedom, and by extension, freedom of speech. 

“The most important aspect of tenure is that it does ensure that the tenured scholar can pursue any number of questions — even controversial questions — without the fear of being sanctioned by the University administration,” Schilling said.

Currently at Homewood, there is a multi-step process for a professor to receive tenure. Candidates are reviewed in terms of their contributions to their respective fields, student evaluations and recommendations from specialists at peer institutions. At the end of the process, the Homewood Academic Council (HAC) deliberates on the candidates and decides whether or not to recommend the professor to University President Ronald J. Daniels, who then either grants or denies tenure. 

HAC is a group primarily composed of elected faculty members from both the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) and the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE). In addition, President Daniels and Provost Sunil Kumar are ex officio members of the board.

Once the new tenure process is implemented, TAC will conduct a final evaluation after HAC has made its decision, but before recommendations reach the president’s desk. TAC will be comprised of faculties who have been nominated by deans and appointed by the president. These members will represent KSAS, WSE, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Schilling voiced concerns over the implementation of a new organization with tenure-granting power. He explained that in the current system, each tenure candidate is thoroughly vetted by the HAC — with HAC members sometimes spending hundreds of hours reviewing each candidate — in order to properly read each candidate’s scholarly work as well as assess their reviews. 

Schilling explained that with this new system, TAC has the ability to disregard the HAC’s nominations, re-open candidates’ dossiers and, if they chose to do so, relitigate the entire process. 

Additionally, he expressed concern over TAC’s accountability. 

Schilling’s concern stems from the fact that TAC’s membership will rely entirely on nominations and the University president’s confirmation, as opposed to existing as an elected, representative group. 

“What happens if it is the sentiment of the faculty, on any campus, that the TAC is disrupting the system to the extent that we are no longer able to function as a tenure-granting institution? In that case, if we had elected members on the TAC, we could simply recall them. This won’t be the case with TAC,” he said.

Likewise, according to History Professor François Furstenberg, TAC is a direct effort to take power away from the faculty when it comes to granting tenure, instead allowing the president to assess candidates alongside a council he has appointed. 

“The major change in my mind is that this new process greatly centralizes power over tenure decisions in the administrative hands, and more particularly in the President’s hands,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “The major change in the new system, as I see it, is that the President has now arrogated to himself the power to make all decisions about tenure.”

Prior to the revisions in the tenure process, the University announced that members of the Faculty Advisory Committee on Tenure (FACT) would conduct a study to explore the effects of a University-wide tenure program. FACT was composed of eight faculty members. According to Schilling, the committee lacked academic diversity.

“Homewood representation was limited to one member of the Whiting School of Engineering and one KSAS faculty member in the sciences who had also served in the Office of the Provost,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “The only representative from the social sciences on the committee was a new appointee at SAIS in Washington, who joined the [U]niversity in 2018 and who had never sat on a tenure board or steered a tenure case at JHU.”

The FACT released their final report  in December 2019, which recommended that the University establish the TAC, further stating that a University-level faculty advisory committee would enhance the president’s ability to execute his role in the tenure process. The FACT additionally suggested that the TAC be instituted for a three-year trial period.

“An initial three-year period will allow for inaugural members to complete their terms of service and for a staggered appointment model to be implemented,” the report states. “The FACT anticipates that, with experience, the TAC may well recommend alterations to its composition and the procedures by which it operates.”

Professor Emeritus and Academy Professor Matthew Crenson responded to the FACT report prior to its final release. 

Crenson pointed to what he thought were shortcomings of the report, explaining that the report had misleading historical references.

“FACT’s nod to institutional history correctly notes Daniel Coit Gilman’s commitment to a University-wide oversight of faculty appointments and promotion,” Crenson wrote. “Of course, the University that Gilman invented had no schools of medicine, public health, engineering, nursing or international studies.”

Crenson also stated that members of the TAC would lack the disciplinary expertise to make judgements about cases referred to them by subcommittees, and the entire process of granting tenure could drastically extended.

Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Andrew Douglas, however, argued that the TAC will help the president make an informed decision on whom to grant tenure to.

“Rather than have the president make a decision on his or her own, the president has asked a group of faculties to ask, ‘How can I best get advice?’” he said.

Additionally, Douglas addressed the purpose of creating an overarching, uniting tenure committee. He explained that the president was the first to propose the idea and that Daniels is focusing on the “One University” ideal — where all campuses are connected more cohesively. 

“We are trying to make sure that throughout the University we have appropriate systems in place that support students, support staff and support faculty,” he said. “There are times when the schools operate best independently because they’re so different, and there are times when the University is best served by having a more ‘One University’ approach.”

Douglas acknowledged some of the concerns Schilling and other professors had brought up in previous interviews, specifically the fact that Homewood already has a tenure committee in place. 

He explained that not all campuses had adequate tenure processes, while others had sufficient systems. 

Another concern voiced by Schilling was the idea that the TAC, a group of faculty from drastically different fields, would be unable to properly evaluate candidates. 

Schilling voiced his concern that data-driven candidates would have an easier path to tenure. One example of this is the value of diversity on campus and how data does not accurately represent that contribution to a university environment.

He also noted that the TAC does not consist of any efforts to promote diversity within the tenured faculty at Hopkins.

“If you look at the language of the FACT report and how they describe the TAC, there is nothing in there that would be the equivalent of a diversity advocate,” he said. “A diversity advocate is present on every single search in the University to ensure that we are looking at a broad pool of candidates for every single position.”

Despite no proposed plan for a diversity advocate on the TAC, which could help Hopkins attract professors, Douglas argued that increasing diversity on campus starts with hiring a diverse faculty in the first place.

“The much bigger question for us is are we hiring the right people? Are we mentoring them appropriately? Are we retaining them? And all of that leads to successful tenuring,” Douglas said.

Correction: Derek Schilling is the chair of the Modern Languages and Literature department and is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Johns Hopkins chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Additionally, Carey Business School and the School of Nursing do not representatives in TAC. 

The News-Letter regrets these errors.

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