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Promotion and Tenure: Community and Socialization in Academe

reviewed by Robert T. Blackburn - 1997

coverTitle: Promotion and Tenure: Community and Socialization in Academe
Author(s): William Tierney and Estela Bensimon
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791429784, Pages: 161, Year: 1996
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This little book deals with an important and controversial issue. Its title, however, misleads the reader. The book is not directly about promotion and tenure. Rather, it deals with junior faculty, from the launching of their careers to their departure or their acquisition of tenure. (American Association of University Professors [AAUP] publications use the term "probationary.") One might better label this book the need far communities of difference and the anticipatory and organizational socialization of beginning faculty (p.140). Tierney and Bensimon's mission is to change today's academic culture for the sake of assistant professors—especially for women faculty and faculty of color—by refining and restructuring the promotion and tenure process (p. 129).

Tierney and Bensimon interviewed 202 assistant professors in 12 different institutions varying in Carnegie type (but no community colleges), kind of control (public or private), and student body size. Seventy percent were white and 60 percent were in liberal arts and science departments (Appendix A, pp. 149-50). The short interview schedule is in Appendix B (pp. 151-52). The data are the transcribed interviews.

However, theirs is not a research study with a capital "R." While the data are selected to illustrate and support positions the authors take, this is not qualitative research where verification of reports, institutional records, and triangulation of findings would be conducted. Nor is this quantitative research where differences between groups of individuals' experiences would be tested and reported. (They say none were. This is a surprising finding since within arts and science departments alone that range from art history to micro economics modeling to biochemistry and from Research-I to Baccalaureate-IIs one would expect wide variations.) What we have is essentially a report of a "project" (p. 77).

The approach is typical Tierney. In three to four pages each, the authors show the conservative view and the liberal humanist view of the academy to be inadequate—that is, they are deconstructed—for junior faculty problems, thereby clearing the way for their critical postmodern view of colleges and universities—but not for entertaining other views or criticisms of theirs. The chapters on anticipatory socialization are the book's strongest contribution as they bring to light what candidates anticipate and hope for and what apparently many experience once they have signed on and arrived on campus. The usual litany of horror stories—not being told what the criteria for tenure are; the excessive demand on minority faculty to serve on committees and thereby lose time from the necessary publication requirements (nicely labeled "cultural taxation"); being neglected, undervalued, and unappreciated; and suffering outright harassment, sexism, and racism—follows this presentation. To authors' credit, good professional experiences are also reported. The book ends with recommendations on how to move from the present conditions to the recognition of "communities of difference" (groups outside of the traditional one) and a call for a reexamination of tenure practices as well as tenure's relationship to academic freedom.

It is this last mentioned point that seriously weakens the story the authors tell. Over the years, tenure has been under attack on more than one occasion, often as the indirect way to eliminate academic freedom, the real target. In the last half of this century we have witnessed Joseph McCarthy's barrage, the broadside of the late sixties when faculty (and students) were challenging the government's position in Vietnam, and today's mudslingers (Charles Sykes, Page Smith, Thomas Sowell, Roger Kimball, et al.).

It is worth noting that all three efforts occurred during financial hard times for colleges and universities, the "bad times" (after Walter Metzger) scenario that claims institutions cannot afford tenure versus the "good times" scenario when the opponents say there is no need for tenure since jobs are everywhere. The authors write: "If we were to assume for the moment that tenure did not exist in its present form, one would be hard pressed to believe we would invent the same system" (p. 143).

 In 1972, Kingman Brewster, then president of Yale, wrote regarding a tenure policy of a guarantee of lifetime appointment that even if threatened with a scarcity of resources even if the Association of American Colleges, the first endorsers of the American Association of University Professors 1940 statement, reversed its position and so did AAUP, Yale would still have its tenure policy. Why?

Yale is a better educational and scholarly place because it gives its professors lifetime appointments. . . .Teachers must be scholars, and scholarship must be more than the refinement of inherited store of knowledge. If scholarship is to question assumptions and to take the risk of testing new hypotheses, then it cannot be held to a time-table which demands proof of payout to satisfy some review committee. . . . Boldness would suffer if the research and scholarship of a mature faculty were to be subject to periodic scorekeeping, on pain of dismissal if they did not score well. Then what should be a venture in creative discovery would for almost everyone degenerate into a safe-side devotion to riskless footnote gathering. Authentication would replace discovery as the goal.

I would add still another reason. Academic freedom is also essential for the sake of students (who also have academic freedom). Faculty must have the academic freedom to teach what they have discovered no matter how controversial it might be. Students have the right to learn the cutting edge of new knowledge.

Indeed, Brewster wrote twenty-five years ago in the era of another assault on tenure, but he based his reasons on the aims of the institution, not on Joseph McCarthy's political objectives or on the claims of unfair treatment of differing communities.

The creative faculty member exploring a compelling idea requires the assurance of nondismissal if the hunch turns out to be worthless or erroneous. If you do not have a faculty experimenting with the unknown, Yale—and every other decent institution—would not be worth societal sup port. As Wilson (1996) reports, Yale remains deeply committed to academic tenure. One feels certain they would not at all be "hard pressed" to employ this system had they to start over again.

The authors have confused academic freedom with First Amendment guarantees of free speech. Everyone has that right, including faculty. Academic freedom, however, is a restricted right of speech. Faculty are to teach and write about whatever they believe to be true and for which they have supporting evidence, no matter how unpopular to some segments of the population. It is not a privilege of just tenured faculty but is a right of junior faculty as well. As the 1940 Statement of Principles includes in item 3 under Academic Tenure: "During the probationary period a teacher should have the academic freedom that all other members of the faculty have." Under the 1970 Interpretive Comments, item 8 says: "Provision should be made for regularized procedures for the consideration of complaints by probationary teachers that their academic freedom has been violated." The 1982 Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure reinforces this position (Section 9).

Indeed, the tenure-achieving process can no doubt be improved. However, Tierney and Bensimon err when they say "tenure neither protects nor advances the concept [sic] for which it was intended—academic freedom. Tenure and academic freedom are not mutually supportive, but only tangentially related" (p. 143).

Not true.


Brewster, K. J. (1972). On tenure. AAUPBulletin, 58(4), 381-383.

Wilson, R. (1996). At Yale, few professors earn tenure—and a new review is unlikely to change that. Chronicle of Higher Education, 43(17), A11-12.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 4, 1997, p. 740-743
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9651, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:20:12 AM

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  • Robert Blackburn
    University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

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