The issue of academic tenure has been a persistent catalyst for academic disputes. Proponents of tenure claim that it preserves academic freedoms on campuses, whereas opponents refer to the stagnation of research and publications that may occur once tenure is granted. The Columbia tenure process has recently come under fire due to the controversial decision to grant tenure to Barnard Professor of Anthropology Nadia Abu-El Haj. Abu-El Haj’s inferred political views and her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society are extremely divisive. The decision has led to public uproar in the form of online petitions against her tenure, threats of withdrawal of private donations, and constant media coverage. The intricacies of the Columbia tenure process and its relationship to the media, private funding, and politics of individual professors have been thrust into a contentious and lengthy debate. This debate is part of a larger question regarding the state of academic freedom in the American University.
Tenure at Columbia and Barnard
The Columbia tenure process is lengthy and complex. It is akin to the process of political appointments in the government, and given a certain set of circumstances, both cases become highly politicized. The tenure path at Columbia begins when a junior faculty member is first hired. The junior professor receives a bid for tenure at the discretion of his or her own department during the fifth, sixth, or seventh year at Columbia, and if tenure is not offered, the faculty member must seek employment elsewhere. The tenure candidate is subsequently considered by the dean of the specific school, a committee of professors from outside his or her discipline, the provost, the president, and finally the Columbia University Board of Trustees. (At Barnard College, the professor must go through the similar Barnard process as well as the Columbia process.) Interactions with so many members of the Columbia community who comprise so many different divisions of the Columbia hierarchy provide the possibility of politics of the university or of the tenure candidate coming into play. However, the Columbia faculty handbook firmly claims an unbiased approach in the introduction to the Principles and Customs Governing the Procedures of University-Wide Tenure Review section: the “purpose of this system is to ensure that the same standards of judgment are applied to all appointments to tenure, regardless of the school or department originating the nomination.”
Contrasts to Public Universities
Much like political parties, Columbia relies largely on private funding to fuel its research and teaching initiatives. This unfortunately adds pressure to the decisions and tone surrounding the tenure process when key donors threaten removal. There have not yet been specific instances of funding factoring into the tenure process to make or break a decision, but the stress still exists. Interestingly, the tenure process is not much less political at public institutions that are not as reliant on private funding sources. One such institution is Rowan University, a small public university in southern New Jersey. The tenure process of professors may not receive as much attention from the press as do professors at major research institutions, but that does not necessarily indicate a dearth of politicking in public academia. The Rowan tenure process focuses mainly on the decision of a multi-departmental review committee, which is then brought to the provost, dean, and University president. Individual tenure cases are not brought to the Rowan Board of Trustees, a notable difference from the Columbia process. A University’s Board of Trustees does not necessarily have a wide array of experience in academia, despite members’ qualifications in a variety of fields. Also, as research fields narrow, especially in liberal arts subjects such as history and literature, one must ask whether the board of trustees, president, or provost are sufficiently informed to judge work in such topics.
Just as the specific nuances of academic research may be foreign to some university officials, academia is still relatively unfamiliar to the general American public. However, the subject of tenure has become one of the most frequent arguments against the current state of the American University by right-wing conservatives. Many professors with “contentious” views have captured the attention of media outlets. With the rise of internet publications, coverage is easier to provide on otherwise non-newsworthy topics. In the case of Abu-El Haj and others, continuous coverage from organizations such as Front Page Magazine and Campus Watch fueled public debate over the tenure bid. The controversies were then noted by larger media outlets such as the New York Times, National Public Radio, and the New Republic, and the largely private world of academia was propelled into the public eye. At first glance, the presence of academia in the public world might indicate a move to a more intellectually-inclined society and the decline of academic elitism, but the reality is more ambiguous. Indeed, the public’s intention to interfere in academic affairs brings bias into the ostensibly non-partisan process of tenure. For example, since Professor Abu El-Haj chose to assume a more controversial stance on the politically fraught topic of the Israeli state’s conception, she became an easy target for public objection. Despite the threat of losing funding from many angry alumni, Columbia professors and administrators have been firm in their support for the exclusion of media, politics, and funding from the tenure process. Yet statements of non-interference cannot always prevent the intrusion of public opinion.
Tenure and “Groupthink”
In The Questions of Tenure, Harvard Professor of Higher Education Richard Chait claims that not since widespread campus-wide turbulence in the 1960s have tenure and academia been the subject of such extensive argument. Tenure debates are largely cyclical and are usually related to the political atmosphere of the country. The most current debate involves the discussion of academic freedoms, and whether or not such freedom is preserved through tenure. According to one tenured Columbia professor in the history department who prefers to remain anonymous, attaining tenure allows more risk-taking by faculty members. The professor refers to the caution with which non-tenured professors ought to conduct their research and publications in the pre-tenure years. Columbia officials have even openly stated that tenure “gives scholars the liberty to advance ideas, regardless of their political impact, so that their work may be openly debated and play a critical role in shaping knowledge in the scholar’s academic field.” This assertion seems to suggest that liberty is not as available to scholars prior to the achievement of tenure. This can encourage an environment that fosters “groupthink” and intellectual tentativeness in research and teaching. Junior faculty in departments that address more contentious topics in both academia and politics, such as postcolonialism and Middle Eastern politics, may especially want to “lay low.”
(I was once told of a young MEALAC professor who expressed uneasiness to her Literature Humanities class after the Columbia Spectator covered one of her lectures in another course. Given the tension surrounding the department, she worried that public attention—and perhaps misrepresentation—could harm her career at Columbia.)
Unfortunately, the phenomenon of treading softly during the non-tenured years is not only characteristic of Columbia. Tenured Rowan University creative writing Professor Julia Chang, also a former adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, states, “[I]f a tenure candidate challenges senior faculty or teaches theories that run counter to the culture of the respective department, chances of getting tenure are slim indeed.” Chang also says, “I tell them [non-tenured faculty] frankly to walk softly during their probationary years. I recite all the clichés: ‘Don’t rock the boat … Don’t make waves … Go with the flow…’ and other briefer, but more profane sayings. Once you’ve gotten tenure, I tell them, you can teach pretty much what you want to teach and say what you want to say.” If professors must wait several years—in the case of Rowan and Columbia, at least five—to say what they actually would like to say, students and the academic community are missing out on potentially beneficial knowledge and research.
The counterargument that proposes the removal of tenure holds that a professor’s work can stagnate following tenure, that tenure often instigates laziness and a decrease in productivity, and that tenure does not necessarily advance academic freedom. However, given that Columbia is a top-tier research school, the notion of inactivity is simply not a very significant issue.
A reconciliation of the conflicts surrounding tenure will probably not come soon, and tenure decisions may encounter more difficulties as media coverage and politics expand their influence. Columbia has thus far maintained its unbiased tenure policy, but political undertones given by the media and outside opinion have led to beliefs that tenure decisions have been based on bias—and that this bias is not necessarily in line with popular opinion. The core of the predicament is that academic freedom at Columbia and elsewhere is far too connected to what should instead be a simple vocational incentive. Perhaps revising our means of preserving academic freedom must be considered in order to prevent such disputes from arising in an institution that should be dedicated most sincerely to the attainment of knowledge.