The Most Coveted Position: Getting Tenured


Many students may be surprised to know that those evaluation forms do count for something, playing a role in the evaluation of tenure candidates. (Photo Illustration By: Lucy Sutton/The Observer)

Published: March 4, 2010

On Feb. 12, a biology professor at the University of Alabama shot and killed three of her colleagues during a department meeting. According to faculty members, the alleged reason for Amy Bishop’s violent act was that she was denied tenure and, after appealing the denial, was turned down again.

The denial of tenure for Bishop, a Harvard-educated neurobiologist who made valuable contributions inside and outside of her school, has raised many questions about tenure: What is it? What are the criteria for judging if a professor is to be granted tenure? How is it acquired? And why is it so important?

According to the Statutes at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), tenure is defined as “a guarantee of continuous appointment until a faculty member retires.” To qualify for tenure, a faculty member must have exceptional contributions in terms of teaching, scholarship and service.

“Scholarship, depending upon the discipline, is basically publications and scholarly presentations and your standing in the academic world inside and outside of the building,” said Anne Mannion, associate professor of History and director of vice to the department, to the university and committee work.”

“There is a wide array [of ways] for professors to be of service to the University,” said Rev. Joseph M.McShane, S.J. “Some work as student advisors or work on graduate committees. Some serve on university-wide committees, such as… the Board of Trustee committee.”

In terms of teaching considerations, Mannion said, “At Fordham, someone from the department comes in and observes a class” as one way of assessing a candidate’s teaching.

Student opinions about teaching are also taken into consideration through the student evaluations submitted at the end of each semester.

“Tenured faculty members read student evaluations. Teaching evaluations matter and are considered in the overall evaluation of a candidate,“ Mannion said. “We don’t have to read a lot of them to know.”

McShane said, “It’s not a popularity contest by any means, some professors, as we know, are very rigorous. And you would think students would give them really bad reviews, or would complain. But students don’t complain about the faculty that are more rigorous. Our students are really pretty savvy. If someone is hard but fair, that’s fine. That’s what we expect; that’s what we’re here for,” McShane said.

Students may wonder why tenure is so important for a professor. After countless years of schooling, intense research and services to their field, it is an academic’s dream to be granted tenure for freedom within their field.

“The ability to function in a university setting is enhanced enormously when you acquire tenure,” Mannion said. “It validates professional confidence now and in the future. It’s academic freedom.”

Leonard Nissim, assistant professor of mathematics, departmental advisor at FCLC and member of the faculty senate, “The only way to have academic freedom and truth-seeking research is the system of tenure.”

After a seven-year probationary period doing personal research and service work with the university, a faculty member can apply for tenure and all of their relevant materials are displayed before the tenured committee for approval or disapproval.

“Tenured members of the department will vote for candidates as they come up for reviews,” McShane said. “We are required by university statute to get out promotion and tenure notifications at a certain time of theyear.”

“If you bring somebody along to the sixth year, it says a lot about the investment the department has made in that individual,” Mannion said. “Once you hire somebody, you have to assume that that candidate is tenure-able. This is where they are now. This is where we hope they will be in two years, four years and six years.”

“It is extremely unkind to string someone along with renewals if you think that they are never going to reach a level where they are going to get tenure,” Nissim said.

In some cases, there are times when there just isn’t sufficient space for a new member due to budgetary restraints or the needs of the department.

“The fourth element in the statutes [at Fordham University] is needs within the department of the university,”Nissim said. “Someone once joked that you could deny tenure to Einstein if you didn’t need any morephysicists.”

“In this day and age, in the academic world in general with budgetary constraints,” Mannion said, “Fordham is at the moment in a lean period.”

“It depends year to year, for the numbers. How many people are hired? How many promoted? How long have people been at the university?” McShane said.

In these circumstances, the criteria listed in the statutes might be supplemented with additional considerations when reviewing candidates for tenure, like the recently controversial “collegiality” clause.

“Departments are quite responsible when they get into the ‘other’ area,” Mannion said. “There’s talk about where the individual fits into the bigger picture of the department.”

“Collegiality is not an official criterion,” Nissim said. “But people can obviously not help to think about whether they want to be living in the same department with someone for the next 30 years.”

Professors can put forth objections for tenure candidates based on personal bias or differing beliefs, but these sorts of comments “are not tolerated” at Fordham, according to Mannion.

In the cases where an applicant is not accepted and asked to leave the university, a professor typically moves on to another university where they are more likely to get tenure, but, often times, there is a great worry that they are considered to be damaged goods due to their rejection.

“I don‘t think anyone would view them as damaged goods,” Mannion said. “Those denied renewal or tenure often reappear in another academic setting. Denial of tenure does not mean one cannot move on.”

“Some people believe that if they do not get tenure at the institution that it is the end of their career. That is not necessarily true,” Nissim said. “People can become so concentrated on the task of getting tenure that they may feel it is the end of the world if they do not get it. But you can overcome being denied tenure; people have certainly done so.”

Not only does tenure relieve a faculty member from the stress of reappointment and the worries of job searching, but they are admitted into a tightly-knit “family” in their department.

“Most senior faculty members, whether they still regard themselves as productive or not, are happy to see someone come along better than they ever were,” Nissim said. “Anyone with any sense of academic integrity at all will be overjoyed when a tenured candidate is better than any of the senior members of the department.”

“In the history department, we set up a mentoring process for tenure-tracked faculty,” Mannion said. “Many departments do mentor. Mentoring takes place on an informal basis and varies from department to department. The Faculty Senate has been pushing [mentoring] like crazy.”

“The department has a responsibility to groom people: What does it mean to teach in a Jesuit school? What does it mean to teach at a bi-campus institution?” Mannion said.

However, many argue that the tenure system needs revision.

“The flaw in the system is that it’s all or nothing. It’s what makes it so stressful,” Nissim said. “It’s just like graduation, you either get your diploma or you don’t. There’s no such thing as getting three quarters of adiploma.”

With so much riding on this one decision, it is no wonder some professors seem to be stressed during certain times of the year. They are worried about their future at Fordham and within their academic field in general, with their work done thus far on the line.

“I’m trying to think back to my own tenure process,” McShane said. “It was in the last millennium. You become very nervous, even if you work well, you haven’t made any major mistakes and you’ve published. I’m telling you, you are nervous as a cat, waiting for the decision.”