December 1, 2010

Rate of Tenure for Cornell Professors Remains Steady in Face of National Decline

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Cornell’s rates of faculty tenure have remained steady despite difficult economic times and a nationwide trend of declining numbers of tenured faculty.

“What I’ve seen is fairly stable. We have about 3,000 people with different academic titles, and about half of them are tenure or on the tenure track,” said Vice Provost John Siciliano, who indicated that it is typical for half of the academic positions at Cornell to be tenure or tenure-track.Of the estimated 3,000 academics, 1,568 either had tenure or were on the six-year tenure track in the 2009 to 2010 school year, compared to 1,541 in the 2005 to 2006 school year, according to Cornell’s Academic Personnel Database.Although tenure was first established in the early 1900s as a way to protect professors against dismissal for political reasons, tenure at Cornell functions in another way, according to Provost Kent Fuchs.“It is a way that the entire University evaluates its faculty extensively and exhaustively after six years on campus. Faculty either have to be promoted and get tenure or they have to leave,” Fuchs said.According to Fuchs, some faculty members are more cautious and conservative in choosing their research topics in anticipation of the tenure process.“Sometimes faculty will work on a problem they know they can solve because they know they can get published before tenure,” Fuchs said.However, according to Dean of Faculty William Frye, this conservatism is sometimes necessary.“If a candidate does not like the criteria that the department uses [to evaluate the professor’s work], it is not the department that is going to change,” Frye said. “If a book is required, write a book.”Though most contracts for tenured professors stipulate that 50 percent of the professor’s time must be spent on research and 50 percent on teaching, some students may feel slighted by this system.“I have taken classes from professors who I know are famous for their research, but that doesn’t always mean they are the best teachers,” Olivia Cohen ’13 said.While a professor’s research and teaching are both considered by tenure committees, Frye said that more professors are granted tenure for being strong researchers than strong teachers.“The majority case is the scholarship being more dominant,” Frye said. “We generate our national and international reputation on the basis of research and not on teaching because teaching is very local. [Teaching] is known by the students and community but not outside of that.”Still, some professors choose to focus more on teaching.“Making sure that my [graduate] students are successful is my biggest motivation at this point,” said Prof. Matthew Pritchard, earth and atmospheric sciences and a tenured professor as of Nov. 1.In order for professors to receive tenure at Cornell, they must first undergo an extensive process of evaluation beginning in the sixth year of their time as assistant professors.This process includes the compilation of a dossier by the professor, as well as the solicitation of letters from other academics worldwide by the professor’s department.The dossiers of prospective tenured professors include copies of any materials they have had published, a list of their activities on campus, lists of courses taught and the scores from all their teaching evaluations. Dossiers also include statements from the professors about their personal contributions to both teaching and scholarship.“Basically, the dossier is their works. It is their self-study,” Fuchs said.“The institution wants to evaluate in the very most accurate way an individual’s contribution and potential contribution. And that takes a fair amount of time, effort and sweat. It’s a very big deal,” Frye said.Though a tenure candidate’s request must pass through the department chair, the dean of the college, the faculty advisory committee on tenure appointments, and the provost, some professors argue that the process has flaws.“There is no such thing as a pure meritocracy. I think by and large people try very hard to be fair and objective in their evaluations. Do politics come into play? I’m not so naive as to say, no, that never happens,” said Prof. Pamela Tolbert, industrial and labor relations.Some believe that this rigorous process often leads to an unnecessary amount of pressure on assistant professors, which may result in unforeseen negative consequences.Though the incentives for earning tenure range greatly, Prof. Sunil Bhave, electrical and computer engineering, who was awarded tenure in early November 2010, said that earning tenure means being recognized by other scholars.“For me, its an acknowledgement from my colleagues and my peers, not just at Cornell but in my entire research area, that I am one of them and I am worthy of being one of them. Its sort of a peer review process and that’s a good checkpoint in many ways,” Bhave said.

Original Author: Shane Dunau