Williams 101: Intro to tenure

Kate Ambler ’05, whose father is a professor at University of Texas at El Paso, says that there have only been two good parties at her house: “the day my dad got tenure and the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.”

What is this honor whose celebration matches that of the liberation of a political hero? We all know that when a professor gains tenure, he is basically guaranteed a place at his institution for life. However, many of us do not know why tenure was first introduced, how tenure decisions are made and who makes those decisions.

“Tenure exists to facilitate freedom of thought, speech and research,” said Graeme Garrard, visiting associate professor of political science. Effectively guaranteeing professors a permanent position allows them to express unpopular or controversial ideas more fearlessly, which has a positive effect on academic dialogue in general.

“Tenure provides a kind of protection that is really quite important,” said William Wagner, chair of the history department. “You can look back in the past – the very recent past in fact – and see instances in which people would have been intimidated, or perhaps even lost their jobs, because of their views. Intimidation is not something that is particular to one end of the political spectrum or the other.”

Wagner went on to say that, according to economists like Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, the institution of tenure has economic advantages as well as philosophical ones.

“The nature of training for higher education is such that without something like tenure there might be a negative effect on faculty,” said Wagner. “It would be a much riskier career, which might deter people, but even more than that, turnover would be much higher and job-hopping would be more common. Williams spends a lot of energy training its young professors, and if tenure did not provide a limiting effect on job mobility, many more young professors would learn from older Williams professors and then leave Williams, taking the energy investment somewhere else.” As a result, the overall level of training among the faculty might go down, decreasing the quality of higher education across America.

When tenured professors do leave Williams, they generally go to large urban research universities, and their reasons for leaving are usually more complicated than merely wanting a change of scenery. This trend – if one could call such an infrequent occurrence a trend – reflects what might hypothetically happen if tenure were abolished: big universities would use smaller schools like Williams as a training ground for their professors.

Of course, with the many advantages of tenure, there are disadvantages as well. With the increased financial security of a tenured professorship comes decreased mobility for the individual and perhaps decreased diversity of course choices for the institution. For example, if an institution has multiple tenured professors who specialize in a particular area within a department, the department will have many of the same courses year after year.

Students often speculate that once professors get tenure, they have less incentive to work hard. Both Wagner and Vassiliki Panoussi, assistant professor of Classics, say that this is rarely the case. “Of all the people I know who have tenure, none of them work less hard than he or she did as an un-tenured professor,” said Panoussi, who has just been renewed for four more years at Williams.

How does a college or university, and Williams in particular, decide who deserves tenure? When a new professor comes to Williams seeking tenure, he is given the title of assistant professor and a three-year contract. When this contract expires he may be reappointed for as many as four years. After an assistant professor has been at Williams for six years, his department decides whether tenure should be awarded.

Candidates for tenure are evaluated primarily on the basis of research and teaching, and, to a lesser extent, on service to the College. According to Panoussi, “generally a book and some articles is standard research for being awarded tenure in a humanities subject.”  The scholarly work of the candidate is sent out to external readers in the subject, as well as all of the tenured members of the professor’s department. In order for a professor to become tenured at Williams, the consensus must be that the professor is a valuable member of the community, as well as a published scholar and a great teacher.

Student evaluations, collected by Student Course Survey (SCS) forms and student interviews, as well as class visits by tenured professors in the field, are used to evaluate an assistant professor’s strength in teaching.  “At Williams, you really need to be a great teacher to get tenure,” Panoussi said.

Service to the College is also a requirement for tenure. The professor needs to serve on committees and organize events, which may include dinners, movies, discussions, seminars and visiting speakers.

Wagner, who has been teaching at Williams for 22 years, says that he has only been aware of one real change in how tenure is awarded since he has been here. “In my early years at Williams, there seemed to be two career paths, each valuable, that one could follow. One would be the now standard path of being an engaged scholar and a teacher, and the other would be to use the energy that others spent on scholarship on increased student interaction and administration. The second path, through which it is virtually impossible now to get tenure, contributed something of value to the campus that is now harder to get.”

That may be so, but while a craze for research and critical acclaim has been affecting colleges nationwide in the last couple of decades, Williams still retains a much higher bar for teaching and service than many larger colleges and universities.