Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, February 24, 2011

SACUA members suggest two-pronged approach to tenure clock issues

A document being circulated among U-M faculty suggests a two-pronged approach to deal with issues surrounding a proposal to extend the maximum allowable tenure probationary period from eight to 10 years.

Instead of changing Regents' Bylaw 5.09 to allow a longer tenure clock, several members of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs propose a short-term alternative and a long-term process to address factors driving the current discussion.

"We all agree that there is a serious problem that affects many of our faculty. We all agree that we want the solution to be determined by our faculty," states the document drafted by SACUA Chair Ed Rothman, with contributions from Vice Chair Gina Poe and members Kim Kearfott and Steve Lusmann.

Their short-term — and possibly interim — solution would add a checkbox to the effort-certification page that faculty members complete each year. It would allow tenure-track faculty to indicate up to two times that they do not want the preceding year to count against the eight-year tenure probationary period.

The long-term effort would focus on changing the standards by which tenure candidates are judged, so they are more clearly defined and less dependent on outside factors, such as grant funding or publication of scholarly literature.

The draft is not an official proposal, and therefore approval is not being sought from SACUA, the Senate Assembly or the full University Senate. Instead, it is intended as a starting point to collect faculty input during the public comment period for the proposed bylaw change, says Tom Schneider, director of faculty and operational support activities for SACUA.

The nine-page document was sent to Senate Assembly members and is expected to go to the University Senate this week, Schneider said. The Senate includes all professorial faculty (assistant, associate and full tenured or tenure-track professors), all librarians, primary research faculty with full-time appointments, executive officers and deans.

Provost Phil Hanlon this week initiated a public comment period on a possible change to Bylaw 5.09 that would allow the governing faculty in U-M's schools and colleges to extend the tenure clock to 10 years if they wish.

The move targets the needs of today's tenure-track faculty, particularly addressing the changing nature of scholarship that can add to the time required to build a tenure case, and the changing nature of a professoriate that now includes more two-career and single-parent households.

"I appreciate that SACUA agrees there is an urgent problem to be solved and that they are thinking creatively about solutions," Hanlon says.

Faculty governance leaders have voiced "significant reservations" about the proposed bylaw change. They say it unnecessarily alters the regent bylaw establishing tenure protection and, they believe, ultimately could work against faculty members' efforts to achieve tenure and the university's recruitment and retention goals.

The checkbox option, which could be invoked by the faculty member and would not require approval from a department chair, dean or provost, "maintains the limits under eight years for most faculty unless they, for whatever reason, choose to extend the limit," the proposal reads.

"It relieves some of the stress of the tenure probationary period by putting power in the hands of the faculty to control their own clock. This provides a short-term option to anyone rather than imposing a long-term solution on everyone."

However, that remedy does not solve the underlying problem of changing tenure and scholarship standards. Tackling that issue will require a broader change to the factors considered for granting tenure, the faculty proposal suggests.

Tenure-track professors could see their tenure plans jeopardized by factors outside their control, given an economic climate that has seen less public spending, therefore making it hard to win federally funded grants. For those in the humanities, fewer publishing houses make it harder to get their work published.

"We should not allow the fate of our faculty to rest on such changeable external circumstances outside our control. Instead we need to define our approach to the case for tenure evaluation based on evidence that can be obtained in a reasonable length of time and without unreasonable constraints," the proposal reads.

The draft proposal suggests focusing tenure considerations more on clearly defined standards that "allow evaluating committees to predict future scholarship rather than look in the past, and do so without extending the painful pre-tenure probationary period."