Tenure Review: The Long and the Short of It

There's nothing more likely to get young academics riled up than the suggestion of changes to the tenure system. After years of slogging it in the lab as postdoctoral fellows--to say nothing of the time invested in attaining a higher degree--junior faculty members want what they have been striving for all that time: academe's golden egg. So, when a university administration starts talking about lengthening the time it takes to achieve that goal, it is bound to make the faculty a little worried. And that's precisely what is happening at the University of Toronto (U of T).

Earlier this year, the university's administration asked the U of T Faculty Association (UTFA) to consider amending the existing policy on appointments. The policy--part of the faculty's collective bargaining agreement at U of T--can be altered only through negotiations between the administration and UTFA.

The Case for Change

The tenure evaluation system in Canada, as in the United States, is based on the supposition that individuals' performance in the pretenure years provides a reasonable predictor of their subsequent productivity. And, also as in the United States, specific policies vary on an institution-by-institution basis with the norm for assistant professors being 4 to 7 years before tenure review (see sidebar).

As it currently stands, individuals appointed as tenure-track assistant professors at U of T will come under review for tenure at the end of their 5th year. However, the university's administration feels that this period is not long enough for adequate performance evaluation. "In order to be able to get the documentation together, reviews done, and so forth, people really only have 4 years of working at a university before they have to produce the evidence to show that they have met the standard of scholarship required to pass the tenure review," U of T's vice provost, Vivek Goel, explains. Four years doesn't always allow candidates sufficient time to establish promising research programs or to produce enough of the currency of academe--publications. "What we tend to see in the sciences," says Goel, "is that the time it takes to get a lab set up, fully staffed, and experiments done prevents new faculty from engaging in risky projects, and in the end they only get minor experiments done." And in order for evaluation committees to be more effective--as well as to take the guesswork out of some decisions--Goel says tenure candidates need more time to "build a stronger case."

Country Snapshot

Current tenure-review timelines at some Canadian research universities:

Dalhousie University: 4 years

McGill University: 5 years

Queen's University: 5 years

York University: 5 years

University of Manitoba: 4 years

University of Saskatchewan: 4 years

University of Alberta: 4 years

University of British Columbia: 7 years

According to Goel, the university is not attempting to raise the standards of tenure review; rather it wants to ensure that pretenure faculty members have the best possible chance of developing their scholarship and assembling the documentation they need to demonstrate that they have done so.

The Faculty's Response

The administration's proposal has received mixed reviews from faculty members. UTFA has received more than 100 responses to it, with the prevailing theme being that "the system isn't broken, so why fix it?" But UTFA admits there are some strengths to the administration's proposal and is therefore studying it closely, according to former UTFA president, Rhonda Love. In addition to adding 2 years to the tenure cycle, the administration's proposal also includes extra faculty support, such as a 6-month teaching release in the 4th year--following a midterm probationary review--to allow junior faculty members to focus on their scholarship. Moreover, the administration is offering a guaranteed 12-month sabbatical for candidates, successful or not, after the tenure review.

Some of the faculty reactions were more positive. "Current publication lags in many fields make the current 5-year period impractical and highly risky for junior faculty," one assistant professor tells Next Wave Canada. Others countered that the extra 2 years would only increase the expectations on publication volume. It is the uncertainty about the practical outcomes of such a change to the review process that worries faculty. "We did not rush to start negotiating this change with [the] administration because we wanted to be sure the issues were well understood by all concerned," says Margaret Proctor, chair of UTFA's Appointments Committee. Proctor adds that the administration clearly has much work to do in clarifying issues for junior faculty members.

Raising the Bar

The biggest concern amongst those faculty members, says Proctor, is that in making suggestions to change the policy, the newly appointed U of T president, MIT-recruited Robert Birgeneau, wanted to "raise the bar" to gaining tenure. That concern was spawned by a comment Birgeneau made in his first appearance at a faculty association meeting before he took office, that "too many people get tenure [at U of T]. Not everybody should get tenure."

Unlike their counterparts at many U.S. universities, where strict quotas often exist on the number of tenured faculty members employed at any one time, more than 95% of faculty members reviewed for tenure in Canada actually attain it, and U of T is no different. But the actual number is not important, says Proctor, because faculty members should already have jumped over the highest hurdle when they made it through the rigorous hiring process. Vlado Zeman, a postdoc at U of T and "faculty member in waiting,"' agrees that the faculty members whom the U of T hires are already the "cream of the crop" and can't see why they'd need more time to prove themselves. "I would expect that most [U of T] faculty, 5 years after being hired, are more established and internationally recognized than their counterparts at other Canadian universities." At least one assistant professor has a sense of resignation, telling Next Wave Canada, "If the president is determined to raise tenure standards, he can do it regardless of which schedule we are on, so better to have 7 years to prepare than 5."

Level of Support Is Wanting

The length of the probation period isn't the only concern of junior faculty members; many have made it clear to UTFA that they aren't satisfied with the level of support they currently receive from the administration. Proctor tells Next Wave Canada that she hears many complaints from junior faculty members about the heavy teaching load (the university requires assistant professors to teach 5 courses per academic year), large class sizes, and extensive administrative duties early in their careers. Moreover, junior faculty members at U of T receive little formal faculty mentoring or career development support from the administration or their tenured colleagues. So, as one junior faculty member argued in a comment posted on the UTFA Web site, these areas are ripe for discussion even before holding a larger conversation about lengthening the process. "My suggestion would be to provide better support for pretenure folks through mentoring and course-load reduction. These strategies may be more beneficial than labouring under the current situation for 2 years longer," said the unnamed assistant professor.

Talks Ongoing

Goel expects that the administration and UTFA will continue discussions about the policy amendments over the coming year. UTFA wants to engage its members in discussions about the effects of the tenure process on candidates' research focus and their personal lives. It has also asked the administration for more information on the success and failure rates it anticipates, both for the probationary review and for the full tenure review, should the proposed changes be implemented at U of T.

If the additional 2 years on the tenure cycle are eventually approved, the new tenure-review policy would not only apply to new hires but would also be available as an option to current tenure-track faculty members.

The new proposal doesn't necessarily threaten to change the "shape" of an academic career at the university as much as it affects the time it takes to get there. In some respects, UTFA, together with the administration, has a valuable opportunity to ensure that the new policy actually improves the tenure-review process?which promises to be very complex.

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