Professors struggle for fair shot at tenure

Portland State is following a national trend of downsizing its tenured ranks. This trend has some researchers concerned about the consequences of decreased innovation in academic pursuits along with a reduced commitment to the higher education by faculty.

The trend, starting in 1970, has seen universities hiring more part-time instructors and awarding fewer tenure positions to qualified professors. In 1970, 22 percent of instructors were part-time, compared to 43 percent in 1999.

A common reason for universities to hire part-time and non-tenured staff is the freedom to fire staff when budgets get cut or programs change.

As of fall term 2001, only 32 percent of Portland State’s 953 teachers were tenured, which means that many of them not on tenure ran the risk of losing their jobs if contract renewals were not offered.

Oregon State University, in comparison, had 55 percent of their 840 instructors on tenure, and the University of Oregon employed 43 percent of their 942 instructors as tenured.

The university has three options to offer instructors when hiring and re-signing. It can either offer them the six-year contract that leads to tenure, which is termed “tenure-track” and applies generally to full-time positions; they can offer a “fixed-term” position which is a year to year contract that theoretically can lead to tenure; or they can hire them as part-time “adjunct” faculty, a position not eligible for tenure.

The top teaching position is full professor, under which is associate professor, assistant professor, senior instructor and then instructor. Teachers reaching the assistant professor rank are generally required to hold a Ph.D. and must prove proficiency in their field.

Once an assistant professor enters the tenure-track, they have six years to prove their worth, otherwise they are employed for a seventh year and then fired.

Critics claim the university does not place as many on tenure as it could because having staff on contract enables administrators to dismiss them for various reasons.

Other complaints regarding non-tenured positions are that some teachers have been employed on yearly contracts for over 20 years, never achieving the job security of tenure that they feel they deserve.

“The biggest advantage for being tenured is academic freedom,” Gary Brodowicz, a professor in the school of community health, said. “Tenured professors have the ability to express their views more and pursue academic interests without risking repercussions, whereas non-tenured teachers often have to ‘bite their tongues’ to avoid stepping on any toes.”

Brodowicz said some instructors have to worry their jobs may not be around the following year, regardless of their abilities, if they don’t have that job security. He emphasizes the two biggest pros to being tenured are job security and the freedom to explore academic interests.

“In some respects, the university keeps hiring more and more fixed-term teachers so that they have the freedom to fire them at any time for whatever reasons,” Brodowicz said. “That is unfortunate.”

Brodowicz believes one advantage of having tenured professors at a school is the stability they are able to create with their longevity. If a professor is around longer, their knowledge of a university is enhanced and students also have better chances of forming relationships that can lead to recommendations and inspiration. However, before a teacher can become tenured, they must be proven qualified through a rigorous review process.

There are many factors considered during the reviewing of which assistant professors will be awarded that pinnacle position of their careers. Longevity alone does not guarantee them the security of being signed in by the university as tenured, as each eligible instructor is thoroughly reviewed first.

Portland State has a specific system established for determining which teaching faculty will be given tenure, but it is a system that could possibly be a bit unclear or vague to educators on that path.

It is that room for error Sherill Gelmon, a professor of Public Health at Portland State, considered a good reason to conduct research into the review process leading to the selection or rejection of potential tenure professors.

Gelmon became interested in how equitable the review process is and chose to conduct an in-depth survey of professors on the tenure-track path who have recently gone through the review process.

Along with Susan Agre-Kippenhan, a professor of art in graphic design, the two set out to discover what professors up for review have found to be frustrating and agreeable with the requirements for attaining tenure status.

They both recently made a trip to Nashville, Tenn., to the second International Service Learning Research Conference, to share with other institutions how Portland State is currently conducting that reviewing process.

Since different professors’ disciplines can vary so greatly in the nature of work, Gelmon was interested in finding out how the university is determining what constitutes commendable work worthy of promotion. A professor in the tenure track process may put more emphasis on community engagement than on the more traditional method of publishing in journals to prove their superiority of their discipline.

Gelmon questions whether or not it is more difficult for a candidate’s peers to measure their community involvement when they are evaluating that candidate’s superiority of scholarship.

“What we wanted to find out from these professors is what their experience was with the tenure review and promotion process,” Gelmon said. “We want to know who is happy and who is not, and why.”

Some of the questions Gelmon and Agre-Kippenhan asked were: how easy is it to measure one’s productivity in the community rather than in a lab, what support do these instructors need in order to reach tenure, is the process and its expectations clear to them and is the university fulfilling its mission to encourage professors to be engaged with the community?

Instructors must prove through scholarship that they are striving for superior intellectual achievement by staying current with all details of their discipline, researching and publishing their findings, engaging in community outreach and classroom teaching.

Gelmon will be meeting with the provost within a couple weeks to reveal the findings of her research, at which time it will be more clear to university officials as to whether or not the review process is all-inclusive or perhaps too limited.