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Volume 1, No. 2 - December 1990 FOCUS: Labor and Tenure   
Dealing With Deadwood
An Arizona Approach
By Jon Wiener

THEY ARE CALLED "UNPRODUCTIVE" OR "PROFESSIONALLY INACTIVE." Their research "fails to meet normal expectations" and does not "merit advancement." They constitute "cases of less than desirable excellence." Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard, reports that a Stanford dean once tried to deal with one of "them" by suggesting that he take a well-earned early retirement at half salary; "the professor declined, pointing out that, after all, he was already retired on full salary."

We are speaking, of course, about that dark side of academic life: the delicate matter of faculty deadwood.

THE OVER-THE-HILL PROFESSOR has always been good for a ritual swipe or two but not much serious attention. This may be about to change, however. Several schools across the country are taking a hard look at proposals to deal with this problem - ranging from imposing sanctions to providing professional counseling. In particular, the University of Arizona is considering one of the most controversial and provocative policies, one that would bar unproductive faculty members from participating in promotion and tenure decisions.

The new proposal, authored by Annette Kolodny, dean of the university's humanities faculty, states that "faculty entrusted to membership on all promotion and tenure committees shall be composed only of those faculty who have met, and continue to meet, the criteria stipulated by rank in the university, college, and departmental guidelines." The key phrase here is "continue to meet." The criteria in question require a high level of scholarly productivity; if the proposal is adopted by the university, faculty members who no longer publish will not be allowed to sit on tenure and promotion committees or vote on tenure and promotion cases in department meetings, even if they have tenure themselves.

Why the University of Arizona, located in a state never known to be in the social vanguard (the state that may have lost the 1993 Super Bowl because voters in November refused to establish a paid state holiday in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)? For Kolodny, a feminist literary scholar, the issue is one of fairness. "I do affirmative action workshops around the country," she explains, "and one of the most frequent complaints one hears is that the people making decisions about me don't understand my work and are incapable of understanding it because they are not keeping up with the field.' It became increasingly clear to me that bright, innovative young scholars more often than not were hampered in the tenure process by people who were unfamiliar with where their own professions had gone. This is a problem especially for women and minorities trying new approaches at the cutting edge of their discipline."

There's another element: Arizona is one of the many schools that have transformed themselves since the sixties from quiet teaching institutions into ambitious research universities, competing nationally for grants and new faculty. At such institutions, a great divide separates older faculty members, hired at a time when steady scholarly productivity was not a requirement, from the more recent appointments - a generation gap in scholarship and theory, a divide between what might uncharitably be called the achievers and the deadwood.

The problem is especially acute in literature, says Holly M. Smith, Arizona's acting vice-provost, "where there is a lot of recent scholarship - multicultural and feminist work - that doesn't fit the traditional mold. Departments are divided about how seriously to take this work. People trained in earlier eras and traditions sometimes see this work as a passing fad; they don't understand it very well and don't give it much weight. Active scholars are more likely to have a fairly high level of exposure to the cutting edge of their discipline; they will thus have ample opportunity to come to appreciate it."

Kolodny's proposal augments the university's existing promotion and tenure guidelines. Like similar documents at other ambitious institutions, Arizona's guidelines declare that the university wishes to inform "the Arizona public" that "the University is absolutely serious in holding itself to the highest standards, commensurate with its ranking as a top twenty Research I public university." (That will come as a surprise to those aware only of its reputation as a Sun Belt party school.) According to the guidelines, the university's "research function requires faculty members devoted to and actively engaged in the expansion of humanity's intellectual and creative frontiers" - a daunting goal for any scholar. Kolodny is proposing that her school take seriously this exalted boilerplate and bar those faculty members no longer going where no one has gone before from evaluating the work of those who seem to be.

How do you decide which faculty members are not pushing the envelope of intellectual inquiry? Arizona's criteria are familiar: "the quality of the specific media of publication or presentation, the opinion of peers from prestigious institutions (who rank the candidate in reference to his or her cohorts), the winning of grants, awards, and fellowships"; among full professors, "the regular publication of scholarly or interpretive articles in refereed journals," articles "of such quantity and quality as to have made a major impact on the field." An "international reputation" is preferred, "as attested by letters, citations, and reviews from abroad."

Kolodny points out that her proposal requires excellence in teaching as well as publication: "We must assure that those teaching in the classroom keep up with the field, know what the latest debates and theoretical problems may be, and teach their students about that - not what was happening twenty years ago. Students will tell you that the most exciting teachers are the ones offering new and innovative ideas. It's an argument that needs to be made loud and clear in the humanities. In the sciences, nobody argues that physics should be taught in 1990 the way it was in 1950. The same is equally true in language and literature. We owe it to our students to keep up with the fields and bring into the classroom people at the cutting edge."

Implementing the proposed guidelines would not be easy. Arizona reviews every faculty member every year; a departmental peer-review committee's recommendation is used in determining whether merit increases are due. Some departments use grades of "unsatisfactory," "satisfactory," and "outstanding," while others evaluate colleagues in terms of whether their work "meets normal expectations." To implement the guidelines, those judged "unsatisfactory" or whose work fails to "meet normal expectations" most likely would be barred from participating in decisions regarding tenure and promotion to full professor. In some schools at the University of Arizona, members of schoolwide review committees are elected. To implement the proposed guidelines, candidates for election would have to be evaluated in terms of their productivity. Either a nominating committee would have to verify candidates' compliance with the productivity guidelines or candidates would compete with one another on the basis of their lists of publications.

Kolodny's proposed change in Arizona's school of humanities policy guidelines was defeated last spring by four votes. It will be revived this year, as a procedural rather than a policy statement, and the faculty will vote again, but probably not until spring. Kolodny is optimistic that this year it will pass. "The split here is between people of the old school and the more recent hires," says Thomas Rehm, chairman of the university's faculty and professor of chemical engineering. "I think you can guess who is on which side." Rehm opposes Kolodny's proposal: "The duties of faculty members have to do with teaching, service, and research - all three. Concentrating on the first two but not the last does not make that individual a less valuable member of the department. That member should not be excluded just because he is not doing research. To do so flies in the face of equal participation on the part of all faculty in departmental decisions."

Keith Lehrer, Regents' Professor of Philosophy at Arizona, disagrees. "I don't think Annette's proposal would be very controversial in the social sciences," he says. (At Arizona the philosophy department is in the school of social sciences.) "The fairness argument is a real one. Research is what universities are all about. Tenure and promotion depend on research; people actively engaged in research should make those decisions. I'm an editor, and I know that people who haven't written a book have very unrealistic expectations about what a good manuscript looks like. It's a matter of knowing the difficulties and the agonies of doing research and writing."

PROPOSALS TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT DEADWOOD have aroused passionate opposition on other campuses. Joyce Appleby, president-elect of the Organization of American Historians, former chair of the history department at UCLA, and Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University for 1990-91, says, "I hate the term 'deadwood.' It's part of an absorption with academic stardom that has made a good many fine people feel marginal. I don't like the ideal of the person who is constantly producing. Sometimes we have fallow periods, sometimes we are more involved in teaching. There are different rhythms to being a professor."

Appleby objects as well to Kolodny's definition of fairness. "The fairness argument makes these fields into fiefdoms and undermines the whole conception of an educated person," she says. "It's offensive to argue that only those educated narrowly in a specialty can appreciate that scholarship. We are competent to evaluate scholarship across a broad range of topics and subjects. The problem is an intractable one: There are bastards out there who make life miserable for others. But creating new procedural rules and new levels of bureaucracy will not solve that problem" - especially when some of those bastards publish a lot.

In this regard, Christine Stansell, director of women's studies at Princeton University, notes that it has become increasingly difficult to judge the significance of a colleague's publishing record. "A speedup in scholarly publishing occurred during the eighties. We've had a proliferation of arcane debates in conference papers and anthologies; articles are being churned out, especially by young people launching their careers. I'm not persuaded that everything being published needs to be published or that this kind of publishing is the best sign of an active intellectual life. Experimentation in different styles of intellectual work never got a chance. The result has been the loss of a more reflective and meditative kind of work. I think it's a mistake for an institution to put all its eggs in the basket of academic productivity."

"The problem is how to assess 'scholarly activity,'" says Nancy Schrom Dye, dean of the faculty at Vassar College. "There are people who aren't active as publishing scholars who are still active intellectually. I would have a great deal of difficulty establishing guidelines for making those determinations." Kolodny replies that "you would not want to exclude from the decision loop teachers who in the classroom present materials at the cutting edge of the discipline but who don't publish regularly." That argument, however, contradicts the guidelines she herself has proposed, which require regular publications by those participating in tenure decisions - publications that make "a major impact on the field."

Liberal arts colleges define their mission differently from research universities, Dye points out, which makes the deadwood problem less pressing for them: "We do not require the same relentless effort at research productivity. [At Vassar] we have faculty I would call active and effective who probably would not live up to some productivity norms. They don't trouble me, they don't trouble this institution, and I don't think they should."

What about Kolodny's belief that an undergraduate's education should be based on something as inherently unstable as the "cutting edge"? Rosovsky, for one, rejects that idea. He argues, instead, that older professors make the best undergraduate teachers, because there "the latest specialist wrinkles are less important than wisdom." Undergraduates need a liberal education, says Rosovsky, and older faculty members can provide the necessary "context and broad perspective." Rather, it is graduate teaching, he argues, that should be the turf of newly minted Ph.D.'s, the younger faculty whose recent graduate education has put them at the "technical and theoretical frontiers of a subject."

DOING SOMETHING ABOUT DEADWOOD is difficult at most institutions, because they have no formal means of assessing productivity after tenure. Faculty members are evaluated for promotion to full professor, but aside from that, salary increases at most institutions are negotiated with the department chair and dean, who control the budget for salaries. Little or no documentation of scholarly productivity is required. The alternative, which Kolodny recommends as "a relatively sane process," can be found at the nine-campus University of California system, which requires regularly scheduled post-tenure merit reviews of all regular faculty. Every three years professors are required to submit newly published work for evaluation and to list work in progress, along with teaching and administrative service. (Associate professors are reviewed every two years.) The review can have two outcomes: a merit increase to a higher step or what the system calls "no action." Some campuses are now debating what they call "the repeated 'no action' problem" - those faculty members who receive more than one "no action," who can be identified as deadwood and made the target of sanctions.

Few institutions have gone further in developing sanctions for unproductive faculty than the University of California, Irvine; even in the academic pressure cooker of the California system, "Irvine is in the forefront on this issue," says Ellen Switkes, director of academic personnel policy in the University of California president's office. In 1985 the Irvine Academic Senate adopted a proposal under which faculty members who receive two "no actions" over a six-year period are required to submit "a written plan for resumption of a sound and productive program of scholarly work with a specified time frame for its execution." Deans and department chairs are instructed to "aid in the formulation of such plans" by, among other things, suggesting "redirections in research focus." A faculty senate committee commented that this procedure "should not involve counterproductive confrontations."

Under the policy, three years later another regularly scheduled review would be conducted. A third "no action" - nine years without publications justifying a merit increase - constitutes "persuasive evidence of professional negligence or research 'burnout'." At this point faculty members who are good teachers can be asked to take on an increased teaching load. The guidelines state that, in cases of "flagrant or persistent refusal or inability to meet the teaching and research obligations of a University of California professor," the administration may seek to shift the offending professor to part-time status at a reduced salary or encourage early retirement. Joyce Appleby favors increasing the teaching loads of professors who don't publish. "At the University of California, half our time is presumed to be spent in research," she points out. "For this reason, we have lightened teaching loads. For people who don't devote that time to research, we need to find alternate routes of work."

There is one glaring exception to California's "no action" situation: The university requires reviews of full professors every three years but not forever; those who have reached Professor Step V ($69,400), normally twelve years after promotion, are not subject to review again, unless they request it. Step V is defined as a "terminal step" or "barrier step," a barrier akin to the one that separates associate from full professor; to cross the barrier into the stratosphere of Step VI and beyond (above $75,000), professors must present evidence of "great scholarly distinction" (along with "highly meritorious service" and excellent teaching). If you move up the scale on schedule, you reach Step V when you are around fifty years old. That means the University of California does not expect professors to remain active scholars after they reach their early fifties.

This practice, which has existed for decades, is itself being reconsidered: A proposed systemwide policy would require reviews of Step V professors every five years. However, "'no action' is not intended to be a negative comment on performance at Step V and above; it's perfectly acceptable to remain at that level," Switkes says. The astonishing fact is that although Step V professors have published steadily for twenty-five years and still have twenty more years until retirement, they are expected, or at least allowed, to become deadwood.

THE PROBLEM OF UNPRODUCTIVE OLDER PROFESSORS will become only more widespread in the future, because there will be more of them. Employers may now make retirement mandatory at age seventy, but on December 31, 1993, mandatory retirement will be eliminated (unless Congress changes the law). This "uncapping" of retirement has been the subject of administrative anxiety and conferences. Advocates of older professors argue that faculty members do not necessarily become nonproductive at a certain age: K. Warner Schaie, professor of human development and psychology at Pennsylvania State University, points out that faculty members "can become deadwood at any time."

Doing something about deadwood requires understanding its development. That isn't hard: A young scholar gets tenure in his or her mid-thirties; after that come another thirty years of doing more or less the same thing - writing and teaching about Shakespeare, or slavery, or macroeconomics. Those who do not become academic superstars have to find ways to remain active and interested despite the absence of major rewards and major challenges. You spend five years on a second book; it sells a few thousand copies; a year after publication it gets a handful of mildly positive reviews in scholarly journals; then you start on the third. In the meantime new schools of interpretation have arisen; you discover you have invested an entire decade in an approach that is now regarded as routine and uninteresting by the brighter and more energetic graduate students. It's hardly surprising that, facing this situation, some academics lose enthusiasm for their work or become pessimistic about the possibility of making intellectual progress.

The problem is hardly unique to professors; the Wall Street Journal reports that "boredom and burnout are the biggest reasons business owners cite for selling their firms." Academics have some opportunities that other professionals don't: They can shift their interests. But only a few follow this course: A handful of literary critics become novelists, but, for the most part, experts on the modern American novel do not become Chaucer scholars in their declining years.

Part of the deadwood mentality stems as well from the grandiose claim that all university faculty members are, or ought to be, "actively engaged in the expansion of humanity's intellectual and creative frontiers." We need a more workable and reasonable conception of intellectual life in the university. Such a conception ought to recognize that those who don't publish should do more teaching - especially at institutions like the University of California, where the expectation of research justifies light teaching loads. Deciding who should do more teaching requires judgments about what constitutes adequate publishing, but academics make those kinds of judgments all the time.

Finally, how serious is the deadwood problem? Rosovsky estimates that fewer than 2 percent of major university faculty are genuine deadwood. "That seems accurate to me," Kolodny says. How, then, could her proposal to exclude that tiny number from promotion and tenure decisions make those decisions more fair? Under Kolodny's proposal, in a department with fifty tenured people - a very large department - one person would not be allowed to vote on tenure decisions. In two departments of twenty-five people, a total of one person would be excluded, on the average. Kolodny seems to think that one person is the source of unfairness in the tenure review process. But when young scholars in gender and multicultural studies complain that the people making decisions about them don't understand what's happening in their fields, they are not talking about only that one case of deadwood; they're talking about many of the others who do publish. Allan Bloom, like it or not, is not deadwood.

Doubtlessly, there are colleges and universities where an old guard unjustly denies tenure and promotion to women and minorities. Perhaps Arizona is such a place, although Kolodny denies it. Departments that have established a pattern of discrimination can and should be sued. But there's no good evidence that the problem in those cases stems from unproductive or professionally inactive professors. And universities have many ways of supporting controversial new work: They provide grants and extra time off to assistant professors to enable them to complete the books that will get them tenure; they establish procedures requiring that assistant professors be treated fairly when they are considered for tenure; they appoint deans and administrators who are committed to protecting faculty members from unfair treatment. Where there is an issue of fairness in the evaluation of work in gender and multicultural studies, lopping off deadwood is not a solution but rather a bureaucratic red herring; an evasion of a problem, not an answer to it.

Jon Wiener teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, and is a contributing editor of The Nation.


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