Tenure ensures free expression, abets research

Mark Witte Column

As an economics lecturer, I’m more likely to be fired for shooting off my mouth in a column than for low research output. I’d never make it at Northwestern on a tenure track because the research expectation is huge.

Tenure is an ancient institution that protected scholars at universities from being fired as a result of research findings or beliefs. Someone with tenure can’t be fired for anything but gross misbehavior. Tenured faculty, however, are free to solicit offers from other schools, and thus counter-offers from NU, which is how some faculty get some very high salaries. Universities have bidding wars over great researchers because they are hard to find. Great teachers are too common to rate such pay.

How does someone get tenure? Assistant professors have about six years to publish enough research to prove they have the talent to qualify for the club. Generally, assistant professors publish articles in technical journals that are referred to by a board of recognized experts in the field, mostly professors at top universities. It’s not just numbers. Quality matters. The number of subsequent articles citing an assistant professor’s paper and the caliber of journals where those articles appear, also measure the magnitude of the contribution the research made.

Journal articles are technical communications between specialists in specific fields. Readers are assumed to have a large body of common knowledge, so it’s hard for someone from outside the field — or even the specialty within the field — to evaluate the quality of the work. By experts improving upon the understanding of other experts, research pushes back the frontiers of ignorance.

An assistant professor up for tenure also must earn recommendations from his or her department at NU. The university then requests reviews of the candidate’s work from top scholars in the candidate’s field at other universities. Do they think the candidate’s contribution to knowledge is on par with the standards of NU’s other faculty? The university considers both sets of recommendations, along with the candidate’s CTEC evaluations and service to the school.

Candidates who receive departmental recommendations are really good. Often it’s the outside reviews that sink them. These sometimes say: “Great scholar, but not quite up to NU’s standards.”

Then university administrators make a decision. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong. When wrong, we hold on to people who turn out to have disappointing careers, or we get rid of people who go on to be stars.

It’s sad to lose good people. Glenn Hubbard, an endowed chair at Columbia University, is currently on leave to serve as the Bush administration’s top economist. On the second page of his 17-page vita are the three straight Associated Student Government teaching awards he won at NU before losing out for tenure.

Friday Columnist Zachary Cook argued denying Patricia Conley tenure was a mistake. Former economics Asst. Prof. Tim Conley — unrelated to Patricia — also did not get tenure. He, too, is missed by the many students he spent so much time teaching and involving in his research. He changed students’ lives here. I look forward to reading about both Conleys’ future successes.