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Explaining Academe: A Place of Judgment, Not Complacency

March 21, 2017

Michael Bugeja, director,
Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication,
Iowa State University of Science and Technology

Image courtesy of Wikiart, Maurizio Cattelan, Mini Me (1999)

A higher education proposal to do away with tenure failed to advance this session in the Iowa Legislature. That generated a lot of press, not only in Iowa, but nationwide.

As an administrator at a state university, I have been interviewed about my views concerning tenure. If you are (or hope to become) an administrator, brace yourself: You’ll be asked for comments on sensitive stories like this one.

That was what I was working on today.

The bill to end tenure at Iowa universities was introduced by GOP Sen. Brad Zaun, quoted as stating: “I don’t think that bad professors should have a lifetime position guaranteed at colleges. It is as simple as that.”

Nothing is simple in higher education, especially at research institutions. Tenure is under attack at other states besides Iowa. One would think America’s world-class universities are almae matres of complacency employing bad instructors doing shoddy scholarship on arcane topics.

Time Magazine published a piece titled “The 10 Most Ridiculous Scientific Studies,” noting “breakthrough findings” that knee surgery impeded jogging, alcohol relaxed people at parties, and elderly die of multiple causes.

I’m in my 38th year in higher education, so I know how studies like that occur.

To get a job as an assistant professor at a research institution, you typically have to earn a Ph.D. from a peer or equivalent university. (We not only judge each other; we rank order universities based on the caliber and quality of scholarship.) That means to earn a doctorate, you have to contribute some hitherto undiscovered truth to the body of existing knowledge.

Anyone with a Ph.D. knows just about every truth under the sun already has been unearthed. Chances are your slice of certainty is exceedingly narrow. In my field, journalism, industry colleagues complain the latest framing study in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly does little to monetarize the web so that newspapers stay in business. But that’s not research; it’s business, and they should mind their own.

Fact is, an aspiring assistant professor seeking tenure goes through a rigorous search process. They endure telephone or airport interviews. If invited to campus, finalists are required to teach classes (students judge them) and do a research presentation (faculty judge them). Applicants meet the dean and/or provost and are evaluated again. If anyone in the chain thinks the person is incapable of producing scholarship leading to national prominence, he or she does not get the tenure-track job.

They call it a “track” because so many derail somewhere along the route to full professor.

Assistant professors are reviewed during their first year as they scramble to create lesson plans and navigate myriad policies and practices of their home institution. In their second year, they had better publish—typically a book and/or several articles, depending on the discipline—and at the start of their third year, complete a dossier more complex than a president’s taxes.

The fun doesn’t stop there. At 5 ½ years, they go through mandatory reviews even more rigorous with outside evaluators from peer universities helping discern whether their “trajectories” will lead to national prominence. If not, they are let go. If approved, many of those never make it to full rank, which requires national or international distinction.

All the while these professors are not resting on tenured laurels; they are being evaluated internally and externally. In my state, that includes “post tenure review.”

Judgments never stop.

So when I hear professor stereotypes, I get irritated and, because I have tenure, I can tell you that in a blog post.

I also can tell you that almost all of my colleagues are enthusiastic teachers and dedicated scholars, working all hours and weekends grading, writing, researching and dreading budget forecasts from the Legislature about the next across-the-board cut.

Higher education is a place of judgment, not complacency. If you attended college, you know this. Recall when you got pop quizzed, failed statistics a second time, or were told you didn’t make the cut. Athletes are dropped from teams. So are cheerleaders and band members in tryouts. And that’s just the pep squad.

Tenure is earned. And while it is earned in the aforementioned meticulous process, something magical typically happens. Newly minted associate professors, as well as promoted faculty, become exceedingly loyal to their home institution. They are the pride of my state of Iowa (and your state, too) and are part of a higher education system that is the envy of the globe.

To help inspire such loyalty, I buy antique pins from Iowa State College (our name before we became a university). Here’s an example:

During my 14 years as an administrator, I have pinned a dozen or so professors to mark the milestone of tenure. It’s a tradition at the Greenlee School.

Oh, and one more thing before I sign off: These opinions are my own and in no way should be construed as coming from Iowa State University.

If I didn’t include that disclaimer, I, too, would be judged in a most unpleasant manner.


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