There’s a lot more to tenure than just a pay raise

Jamie Shearer

Myths surround the crowning status of higher education

Kent State has 37 professors up for tenure review this year, plus eight at regional campuses, hoping to join the other 587 professors who have worked for this crowning status in academia.

Contrary to what some people believe, tenured professors don’t have a short probationary period, aren’t guaranteed lifetime employment at Kent State, aren’t immune to termination and still contribute to the university.

The Process

Tenured professors don’t just happen. They spend a six-year probationary period proving themselves at Kent State with teaching, research and service.

Tenure process gets digital facelift

Achieving tenure is a project six years in the making. Tenure-track faculty typically stuff a 2-inch and 3-inch binder with research projects, articles, student evaluations and whatever else they want the university to consider when they go up for tenure.

But this paper-heavy process is getting a digital facelift.

Starting in the fall, Tenure Advisory Board and College Tenure Committee members will be able to review tenure files on a server – anytime, anywhere. Sue Averill, associate provost for faculty affairs, is involved in this new process and is excited about the update.

“We just see this as a real opportunity to digitize this whole process,” she said. “Get rid of all these binders, get rid of all these papers.”

And when professors are trekking those binders from the department to the college to the executive office, it can get messy. Binders can be dropped and busted or forgotten. But the inconvenience especially affects professors at the regional campuses most.

“What complicates this even further is on the regional campuses because regional campus faculty are evaluated in the regional campus system and the Kent campus system where their home department is,” Averill said, meaning regional campus faculty put together two complete sets of their files.

And when faculty members go up for tenure and promotion at the same time, they have twice as much work to do.

“Most faculty members go up for promotion to associate professor at the same time they go up for tenure; it’s very common,” Averill said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people do it that way. Tenure and promotion are two separate decisions.”

Because they are two separate decisions, two different committees review them, and they need two separate files. Again, with regional campus faculty, this doubles to four files.

The training for the new digital filing process will begin this summer, and the university will work to get everybody switched over for the fall reviews. Instead of phasing it in, Averill and the provost decided to jump right in.

“The term that we used was ‘headfirst off the diving board and the deep end,'” she said.

– Jamie Shearer

“I think what people don’t realize is the tremendous amount of work that faculty have to do in order to get tenure at a university,” said Sue Averill, associate provost for faculty affairs.

Along the way, they’re given annual reviews to update their progress, and at the end of the six years, they have the big review. They turn in their files, which could be several 3-inch binders packed with research projects, in September and wait until April for the final decision.

“I think it is a good process. I think it’s a rigorous process,” said Lee Fox, president of the Kent State chapter of the American Association of University Professors and a tenured psychology professor at the Stark campus. “I think that people take it very seriously.”

The probationary period wasn’t so simple for Ken Bindas, chair of the history department.

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking because, you know, you want to do a good job in the classroom,” he said.

Between learning how to teach, working on research projects and spending time on service obligations to the university, six years may not seem as long as it is.

“The clock is ticking,” Bindas said. “You have a time period between five and seven years, you know, and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to get everything done.'”

And when the time comes for the big review, everything is considered – student feedback, research, university and community service – and everyone considers it. The review involves department chairs, college deans, the college advisory committee, the provost and the president.

“Till the president signs off on those forms, it’s not a done deal,” said Sarah Rilling, undergraduate coordinator for the English department and tenured professor. “It doesn’t matter what the rest of those committees say.”

And for some tenure-track professors, the review doesn’t turn out the way they would’ve liked, and they get a terminal-year contract.

“If they say ‘no,’ you only have one more year, and then you’re gone,” Rilling said. “You have to go find another job.”

The Misconceptions

Sophomore business major Dan DeCrane said for tenured professors it’s “nice that they have employment for life.” And while tenure does give professors the expectation of lifetime employment, there are circumstances that could change that.

“I think one of the misconceptions is you can never be fired if you have tenure, and in fact, you can be,” Fox said. “There are limits to this job as there are limits to any job.”

Some of those limits could be bodily harm, assault, threats or some sort of sexual harassment, Fox said.

The limit that professors can’t control is the extreme case of retrenchment.

“Retrenchment is something that would be invoked by the university presumably in a state of financial exigency, and so when that happens . then it basically is a release of people from the bargaining unit,” Fox said.

Lucky for faculty, Kent State has never had to use this mechanism.

Some students think that with the expectation of lifetime employment, professors may let their performance decline.

But according to Bindas, that’s not usually the case.

“The most serious misconception, I think, is that it leads to laziness amongst faculty,” he said. “That after people get tenure, they don’t do any work, they don’t care about their students, that they have a job for life. And so they don’t come to work, or they don’t do any more work. And that’s just not true.”

Rilling acknowledges the potential misuse of tenure, but she doesn’t think it’s common.

“I think that tenure can be abused because potentially after someone’s tenured, they might drop off on some of their performance,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s the case for most tenured faculty because you can tell through the review process who is here for the institution and who is not.”

The Benefits

The benefits of tenure are enough to go around to faculty and students.

The obvious benefits of tenure are job security and a pay increase. A full tenure-track professor with a 12-month contract for the 2008-2009 academic year gets a minimum salary of about $83,000, according to the collective bargaining agreement. That is significantly more than a full non-tenure track professor, who receives about $54,000 from the 2006-2007 agreement.

The collective bargaining agreement also includes a success pool, which is new for tenure faculty. The pool gives faculty incentives to succeed in research, student retention and fundraising.

Tenure may appear to benefit only faculty members who have achieved it, but the benefits trickle down to students, too.

Erin Grafton, junior English and psychology major, thinks tenure faculty “have more fun with the students,” instead of worrying about how people think they should teach.

“It encourages faculty to take risks with classes that they wouldn’t take without tenure,” Bindas said. “So they wouldn’t teach a course that might be considered unpopular with the students but necessary for them to know. It also gives them the freedom to push students intellectually.”

It’s this freedom that comes with tenure that Fox appreciates.

“Tenure is, in my opinion, it’s much more about what we call academic freedom, which is the freedom to teach your subject as you see fit, without interference from outside sources,” she said.

And with the freedom to discuss controversial subjects, tenure professors are able to get students thinking.

“It does matter that I’ve done the best job I can at telling you the state of the knowledge in my discipline right now,” Fox said. “And you can take that and do whatever you want with it, but if you can’t do that, then we’re all sort of wandering around in a fog of misinformation. And I don’t like that idea.”

With these benefits, why would faculty members take advantage?

“It’s a cool gig,” Bindas said. “I’m not taking it for granted.”

Contact faculty affairs reporter Jamie Shearer at [email protected].