February 27, 2007

The Sun Explains Mystery of Tenure

Print More

Trying to get tenure at Cornell is a “traumatic experience,” according to Charles Walcott Ph.D ’59, dean of the faculty. However, it pales in comparison to the 12-day hunger-strike undertaken by Prof.James Sherley, biological engineering, MIT, upon his failure to receive this academic distinction.

While Walcott said nothing this dramatic has occurred at Cornell, gaining tenure, which guarantees that a professor has “academic freedom to pursue what [he or she] is interested in pursuing, ”as well as permanent job security, is no easy process.

After three years of work, a professor’s progress is checked. If all goes well, he or she is allowed to stay for an additional three years. During the fifth year, the assistant professor can apply for tenure and is judged based upon research, teaching and service.

To begin, the assistant professor submits his or her curriculum vitae to the department chair. The C.V. is a collection of every work the assistant professor has completed during his or her time at Cornell, including research and published articles. Prof. Scott MacDonald ’78, philosophy department chair, said that the C.V. is “an academic analogue of a resume.”
Prof. Connie Yuan, communication, said, “Publications are more
important than anything else.”

In addition to their teaching responsibilities, assistant professors are encouraged to publish several articles each year, a process than can be frustrating since journals often take several months before notifying professors of publication.

Along with the C.V., the tenured members of the department read recommendation letters written by approximately 12 external reviewers who have also read the C.V. These reviewers are distinguished faculty members from all over the world. Half can be chosen by the assistant professor while the others are chosen by the department.

Once everything has been read, the department votes on whether or not the assistant professor should receive tenure. Sometimes each member of the faculty also provides a letter explaining his or her vote, which is submitted to the department chair. After reviewing the letters, the chair writes a recommendation, which, along with the letters is submitted to the college’s dean.

The dean then forms a three-person adhoc committee consisting of faculty from separate, but related, departments. For example, an assistant professor in neurobiology might have an ad-hoc committee consisting of psychology professors. The committee then sends its decision back to the college dean, who submits his decision to Provost Biddy Martin.

Martin then meets with the Faculty Advisory Committee on Tenure Appointments. Together, they vote and send their decision to the Board of Trustees, who then makes the final decision.

Although it seems that the tenure decision is mainly based on research and publishing, Walcott insisted that teaching and service play a major role in the process. According to the Faculty Handbook, tenure is granted not only to those who display “unusual promise for continued achievement” in their fields, but also to those who demonstrate “excellence in carrying out their position” as a teacher.

An assistant professor’s student evaluations are reviewed, and some departments also conduct peer reviews. Both of these, said Walcott, are “very important.” To fulfill their service obligations, professors may serve on various department or university committees.

Yuan, for example, is on a search committee for new faculty, as well as a student advisor.

Although it is difficult to receive tenure, MacDonald said that he tries “not to put obstacles in the way of people getting tenure.” He said that Cornell has not faced the same problems as MIT because it “tries to be objective” rather than “political.”

Cornell is also unique because the University hires all assistant professors with the intention of granting them tenure, unlike many other top schools that prefer to hire “star” professors. Cornell is also one of the only schools that will accept recent graduates as assistant professors.

For the approximately two-thirds of assistant professors who do not receive tenure, they can appeal the decision. Unlike in Sherley’s case, this is usually done for procedural reasons. For example, a science professor may have arrived at Cornell to find that his lab was missing equipment and he was subsequently set back a year in his research.

Many of these professors end up better off than Sherley,who despite losing 20 pounds, still did not receive tenure.