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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University June 21, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 38
Homewood Schools Adopt Tenure Reform

Status can be conferred regularly on associate professors

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The university's board of trustees on June 7 unanimously approved a long-debated reform to the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering's promotion policy that will allow tenure to be regularly conferred at the appointment to the rank of associate professor, reducing by four years the maximum amount of time a faculty member remains on a tenure track.

The new policy, effective July 1, was approved in order to strengthen academic excellence, to promote faculty involvement in university life and to maintain Johns Hopkins' competitiveness in recruiting and retaining faculty of exceptional promise.

The existing policy in the two schools is to award tenure upon the appointment or promotion to the rank of professor, which could take up to 11 years. Faculty appointed as assistant professors are considered for promotion to associate professor no later than the sixth year; associate professors are considered for promotion to professor no later than the fifth year.

With the reform, promotion to the rank of associate professor with tenure will be considered no later than the seventh year of a faculty member's service at the rank of assistant professor. In passing this reform, Johns Hopkins falls in line with its peer institutions, which have long held the practice of awarding tenure at the associate professor level.

Adam Falk, vice dean of faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences, said that with the university's current and unique policy, it had become increasingly difficult to retain and attract faculty.

"The competitiveness issue is perhaps the most important," said Falk, a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department. "There are faculty at a point in their career who are not tenured here, but they would be tenured elsewhere. These are often some of the most active and exciting faculty that we have. Faculty are also more mobile than they used to be, so retaining this group has been a real issue. And it's almost impossible to attract associate professors here when they can be offered tenure at other schools."

The two Homewood schools have periodically reviewed their tenure policy and considered whether or not a practice so divergent from the university's peers was in its best interest. Falk said that the primary argument for the old policy was that a school as relatively small as Johns Hopkins could not afford to have even a tiny number of unproductive faculty in the tenured ranks, and the long period between appointment of an assistant professor and the granting of tenure allowed the faculty member ample time to develop his or her scholarship to the point that its merit and potential were clear.

Falk said that with the new policy's shorter timetable, decisions to grant tenure will become even more difficult to make. In the past, when promotions and appointments to associate professor were made, Falk said, there were times when faculty might have been given the benefit of the doubt because tenure was not being granted.

"That option will certainly not be available anymore," he said. "Will standards be raised? I can safely say they are already very high. The challenge will be to maintain those high standards, and do so in a perhaps less forgiving way. That is the judgment we will have to make, whether or not a faculty member is unambiguously above the bar."

In 1986, a resolution was passed that allowed the schools the option of granting tenure to associate professors under special circumstances. Since then, however, the granting of tenure to associate professors has rarely occurred. At present, Arts and Sciences has 207 professors, 20 associate professors (one tenured) and 46 assistant professors. Engineering has 68 professors, 12 associate professors (one tenured) and 36 assistant professors. Collectively, 71 percent of faculty at the two schools hold tenure, a number that would go up under the new system.

As part of the tenure reform, the review process will change somewhat, too. Currently, a tenure application has to be evaluated and approved on a departmental level and by an ad hoc committee, the academic council and the board of trustees. Falk said the new reform will make each of these steps more independent and will require more thorough information at each stage.

The new policy also aims to help faculty members improve the quality of their scholarship, Falk said, as it has been argued that the delay in granting tenure encourages a lack of risk taking at a stage in their careers that could be especially creative. When an assistant professor in the humanities is promoted to associate professor, for example, he or she then embarks on his or her next project, typically another book.

"That is the point they might say, OK, I have four years before I'm up for tenure; this is not the moment to start something risky or long-term," Falk said. "Many faculty choose a project they can clearly complete in the three to four years, one that is safe. The old policy doesn't push them into unknown territory because they don't want to set out on a path they don't know how long it will take to finish. Thus, they might do something more closely aligned with work they have already done. Many felt they were discouraged by the current clock. Understanding this dynamic was the consideration that was the most surprising and compelling for many of the people who came to support the change."

The policy that goes into effect July 1 came from a process of consideration that began three years ago. Provost Steven Knapp said the university has been extraordinarily diligent in evaluating the proposed reform from every conceivable angle.

"The academic council spent the better part of a year working out the details of the new policy and its implementation," Knapp said. "This was one of the most careful and thorough processes I've witnessed. What was especially impressive was the seriousness with which the council worked to balance fairness and rigor in the new evaluation procedures."

Knapp also applauded the work of the special committee appointed by the deans in 2001 to look into tenure reform.

"Many of us were skeptical when the change was first proposed, but, through the hard work of the committee, we became convinced that the new policy could significantly strengthen our ability to recruit and retain faculty at one of the most formative and productive times in their careers."

Falk said the new policy has the added benefits of increasing the number of tenured faculty who are at the peak of their careers, and enhancing the university's ability to recruit a more diverse faculty. Women and young faculty, in particular, were hard to recruit due to the perceived incompatibilities that a long-tenure track had with a decision to start a family. The long-tenure process also discouraged faculty from being as fully engaged with the broad work of the university as they could have been, Falk said.

"For faculty who are faced with a tenure decision, their primary priority is to assemble the dossier that goes with their tenure application," he said. "But this new policy should keep a group of faculty here at a stage of their careers when they are young and energetic and have a lot to offer to students. We will capture a very important group of faculty into being more fully engaged with all the programs of the university. That will be extraordinarily important to the undergrad programs."

Falk said that every current nontenured faculty member will be given a year to decide if he or she wants to be in the old or new system. Recently promoted untenured associate professors will have the option of having their cases reconsidered for tenure. There will be a two-year transition period during which the two schools will resolve all the tenure cases.

"We will rely on the department heads to provide information to their faculty to help them make this important decision, whether it's wise to take this course of action or not, as we have an 'up or out' policy in regard to promotion," he said. "These are very individual situations that need to be considered."


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