Tenure candidates await board approval

This weekend, the Board of Trustees meets to approve or deny tenure for seven faculty members. Tenure is a lifelong commitment between the professor and Guilford. Tenure provides faculty with economic security while protecting their academic freedom.

Dr. Bob Jones, chair of the Board of Trustees’ academic affairs committee, said that while final authority rests with the Board of Trustees, the faculty has the primary responsibility for making and implementing the academic policies of the college,including recommending faculty for tenure.

The academic dean’s office did not officially release the list of names for privacy reasons, but candidates are free to make their candidacy public if they wish to do so.

“Candidates’ names are kept confidential because it’s a personnel matter,” said Adrienne Israel, academic dean and vice president.

Departments with professors awaiting tenure approval are foreign language, justice and policy studies, psychology, sport studies, religious studies, English and chemistry.

Israel said that the Faculty Affairs Committee (FAC) reviews full-time tenure-track faculty through their six-year probationary period.The instructors are reviewed and counseled regarding teaching excellence, their growth as scholars, effective academic advising, and service to the college community.

Among the materials the FAC reviews are letters and student evaluations.

President and Professor of Political Science Kent Chabotar said, “One of my priorities has been to be sure that all tenure candidates are judged in the same way on all four criteria.”

Chabotar said there are many eyes on the same case: faculty on the FAC, academic dean, president, and, on process matters,the appeals committee and the academic affairs committee of the trustees.

“The questions back and forth during the process are voluminous as all these individuals and groups come to consensus,” said Chabotar. “The appeals committee and trustee academic affairs committee are specifically chargedwith safeguarding the fairness of the process.”

Chabotar warned that there are a lot of anecdotes and myths masquerading as facts where tenure is concerned.

According to Chabotar, one myth is that tenure is a bad idea because it has become a job security program that encourages some faculty to slip after tenure.

“The fact is that good post-tenure review and the professionalism of almost all faculty usually avoids that,” said Chabotar. “In addition, research has shown that a contract system is no more effective at weeding out underperformers than is a tenure system.”

Chabotar pointed to another myth: that tenure is the prevailing system in higher education, when the fact is that only a third of faculties in the United States are tenured, or on a tenure track. Chabotar said that as the proportion of students attending for-profit schools without tenure increases (now at seven percent), that one-third will likely decrease.

Another myth is that teaching excellence is not as important in the tenure process as it used to be. Chabotar said he could not speak to what happened before 2002 when he arrived, but teaching excellence has been, by far, the most important criteria in all of the tenure cases recommended to him by the FAC and the academic dean.

“Teaching excellence is not nearly as important at many other colleges and universities and at Harvard where I was for a decade; not at all,” said Chabotar.

Jonathan Malino, professor of philosophy and former clerk of faculty, said that his chief concern was insufficient transparency in the process.

Malino said candidates should be able to have access to the student evaluations and letters written, which have a major influence on the decision.

“Without access to those letters, there is no way to properly appeal any adverse decision,” said Malino.

Lisa McLeod, assistant professor of philosophy, said that the administration is obsessed with the idea of confidentiality.

“I assume the administration feels students are here for four years and they are the employer – so it’s their decision,” said McLeod.

McLeod said the FAC board members are not trained to identify politics and bias.

Walter Blass, a member of the Board of Trustees, said it isn’t politics; it’s judgment.

Blass said that the whole rationale for having a FAC deliberately chosenby the facultyto review tenure decisions is based on the theory that they are best equipped to make that judgment.

Blass has been a member of the Board for 35 years and a member of the trustees’ academic affairs committee for the past 10 years.

According to Blass, “The rather elaborate procedure we have at Guilford to have these decisions reviewed solely on the grounds of adequate process is aimed at preserving the minimum of ‘politics’ in those decisions.”

Blass said the idea that everything should be transparent, including personnel matters, isn’t realistic.

“No one wants their dirty laundry aired out in the public; personnel matters are always kept confidential, it’s following the law, not an obsession,” said Blass.

Jim Hood, professor of English and chair of the English department, said that like any evaluation process, the tenure review process at Guilford can be improved.

“A sense has developed among a large number of faculty here that we need to be somewhat more specific about what constitutes the particular achievements and ability that signify tenure-readiness,” said Hood.

Jack Zerbe, professor and chair of theatre studies and clerk of faculty, said that the faculty has discussed new criteria to judge teaching excellence at three different meetings since November.

“Those conversations will shape subsequent revision of the faculty handbook on this subject. I expect the final draft will come before the faculty, for approval in March,” said Zerbe.