According to a ‘Prince’ article from May 11, President Tilghman excoriated the institution of tenure as a “dirty trick” and “no friend to women.” The article states that “Tilghman has advocated a bold position to [end] a system that forces women to focus most on their career during peak reproductive years. Rejecting more moderate solutions, ... Tilghman explained her views in a New York Times column on Jan. 6, 1993. ‘I favor a more radical solution: abolish tenure entirely.’”
As they say, that was then, and this is now. As the first woman president of Princeton, Tilghman has done much to advance the cause of faculty women’s equality in hiring, pay and tenure decision-making. She seems also to have rejected her prior “radical” views of tenure, saying she was trying to be “purposely provocative” to stir up interest in the shameful lack of women among America’s tenured elite.
In fact, recently she seems to have embraced the traditional “publish or perish” perspective that she once criticized. In December 2003, Tilghman advised junior faculty not to focus so much on teaching undergraduates; if they want to obtain the holy grail of tenure they should concentrate on scholarly research, she told them, as their “first and foremost” priority. “Their ability to conduct research and demonstrate excellence in scholarship is the most important thing we look at,” she said, although she added that teaching ability is also “considered very seriously.”
All this must have been faint comfort to a popular professor, Andrew Isenberg, and his vocal backers. That same year, Isenberg — who received the 2001 President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching and wrote an environmental history of the west — was denied tenure at Princeton; i.e., “You’re fired,” as Donald Trump would put it. Isenberg promptly decamped to a tenured position at nearby Temple University where he has gone on to publish an ecological history of mining in California and to edit “The Nature of Cities.”
My place is not to reargue Isenberg’s fate, which was covered by the ‘Prince,’ especially in an eloquent opinion article by Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky ’04 (See “L’affaire Isenberg, or, the trouble with tenure,” published April 28, 2003). Nor is it my purpose to pillory President Tilghman, whom I admire greatly, for abandoning her earlier “radical” views on tenure — many of my “radical” ideas have traveled the same well-worn path — but to suggest that alternatives to tenure or at least ways to rationalize the process need to be considered at Princeton, much as the virtues and vices of public school tenure are being debated in state legislatures from Trenton to Sacramento.
The historic justification for awarding lifetime employment is well known: to protect academic freedom, a stout branch of the larger tree of the First Amendment. This argument goes back at least to 1915 when the American Association of University Professors issued a “declaration of principles” calling for “formal academic tenure and clearly stated grounds for dismissal.” With tenure granted, a teacher is free to pursue his or her research passions without fear of reprisal for where the research lead.
But tenure has its downsides: It can leave a lazy professor in authority, soaking up campus resources and blocking energetic underlings from advancement. Students may suffer from incompetent teaching, or worse. And the “public or perish” process can engender the “self-censorship” that tenure was intended to prevent. How many insecure assistant professors will challenge the published doctrines of department chairs? And mistakes get made in a process lacking in transparency and short on “due process.”
I recall precepting in the 1980s for a popular politics professor — his lectures were standing room only — who was denied tenure despite publishing widely. I remain suspicious that his outspoken calls for drug law reform — ideas that led him to televised debates during which he butted heads with members of Congress — had something to do with his banishment. (What was his name, Jeopardy masters? Ethan Nadelman.)
If the abolition of tenure is too “radical,” then how should it be improved? I propose consideration of the following not exactly original ideas:
1. Elevate the teaching of undergraduates to equal standing with “scholarly research” by formally incorporating student evaluations in the tenure process. Students are the first line of consumers of the services the University sells; “consumer feedback” merits more attention.
2. Convert tenure from a lifetime appointment to a 5-year or at most a 10-year contract (“10 year not tenure”) with evaluations along the way. This option is “Abolition lite” for tenure.
3. Require written decisions on tenure decisions to be made public at the applicant’s request and convert the University president into the “Chief Justice” of a “Supreme Court of Tenure” to receive petitions and to hear appeals for reconsideration. This duty would also remove her from the process unless petitioned.
Last question, Jeopardy masters: Name the university that is poised to take decisive steps to reform, if not end, tenure. Answer: What is Princeton?
R. William Potter ’68 is an attorney in Princeton and a frequent preceptor in law-related courses at the University. He can be reached at email@example.com.