Teach your way to tenure?

Feb 04 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There appears to be a new trend sweeping through the basic sciences. Basically the equation is simple: fewer grants means fewer Assistant prof awardees, thus fewer successful tenure cases. That is, UNLESS tenure is evaluated differently.

I've been hearing more and more about biology departments taking a different tack with new PIs, given the current funding environment. The idea is that since federal funds are harder to come by, we have to insulate assistant profs by strengthening their tenure portfolios in other ways. Easiest way to do that? Why teaching, of course! A robust teaching portfolio and a history of applying for grants* is apparently going to be enough to clear the tenure bar in some places.


Dunno about this, folks. My first issue with it is that the outside evaluators almost never weigh in on non-research topics. Obviously the candidate's letter would go out of it's way to point to the increased teaching load and expectations, but I still don't know how this would play.

Obviously this would put new PIs at a greater disadvantage when it comes to getting their research programs started. There would be less time for mentoring lab trainees and one bad postdoc or student could sink the ship. I have heard that places are upping their start-up packages to compensate for this, but no one can replace the PI's time spent working with trainees. Even being able to afford a tech for 3 or 4 years doesn't fix that.

The cynical part of me looks at the equation and sees the overhead gap being replaced by butts in seats. I get it, each department and college needs to find a way to make their numbers. However, this looks like a short-term fix with long-term repercussions. But in our system of transient administrators, I wonder whether the goals of tomorrow are important today.

Whereas I am not opposed to finding different ways to evaluate tenure and balancing a department with people on different parts of the teaching - research spectrum, this shift seems to be forcing it in a way that may not be to a department's long-term advantage.

*And presumably getting promising feedback, not just consistent triage.

12 responses so far

  • Sciwo says:

    I bet it comes with reduced start up packages (saving the university $), since the position will end up being a higher % teaching relative to research.

    I do not view increased teaching loads for junior faculty at research-oriented institutions as a positive thing in any way. If you want to weight good teaching more heavily at tenure time in order to buffer the effects of a shitty granting landscape, the tenure committees can do that without handicapping the research side by giving assistant professors heavier teaching loads.

  • scitrigrrl says:

    And papers. I'm gonna go out on this pretty strong and stable limb and assume you'll still absolutely REQUIRE research productivity in papers. So really, it's the same - apply for all the grants, publish research, teach, do service, but with expectations for actual funding reduced and extra effort on teaching that comes from... oh, spare time?

  • Mikka says:

    I don't have tenure yet but I have made this calculation. I'm gonna paraphrase Tony Montana: "First you get the money, then you get the papers, then you get the tenure". You can probably invert the order of the first two, but if either one or both are missing, no amount of teaching can save you. Because at tenure crunch time no grant = no prospect of future papers, and no papers = no prospect of future monies.

    At my institution we know why we are here, and it sure as hell is not teaching undergrads. We live or die by those sweet sweet indirects. Gotta feed that gaping maw, so they can keep building amenities and attracting people willing to pay $20K a year for sub-par education with inflated grades. And the research contributes to those silly rankings that measure every type of output except the quality of the education. Who teaches what is an afterthought, after all you can always abuse a few more adjuncts to fill the credits.

    Sad state of affairs.

  • Soooo.... You guys like this plan, eh?

  • Dr Becca says:

    To quote the rep from the dean's office at my 3rd year review: "The only things that matter are: 1) number of papers you have; and 2) number of external dollars you bring in."

    And this is at a Uni where teaching undergrads is a time-consuming, serious part of being faculty.

  • MiloBlew says:

    I interviewed for a 75/25 teaching/research position at a large, midwestern university last year. The person who they hired came in at Associate with tenure, having previously been at a smaller, teaching focused school. Their publication record was typical for a teaching school (sparse). The department recognized that they couldn't possibly meet their teaching demands by hiring people with a flipped teaching expectation in this funding climate. So, the possibility exists, but it is a rare one and should be advertised that way from the start. That said, I also got a definite "how could we possibly award tenure to someone for their *teaching*!?!?" vibe from the old guard.

  • becca says:

    Although being employed by any organization shifting priorities has it's awkward bits, on a fundamental level it's a Privilege in some places (research institutes) and a Conceit in others (land grant universities) to say "my job is research". Sure, we're all rightfully suspicious of administrators who say they they loose money on research. Sure, modern research universities do not have any consensus about what their purpose is, and if you guess differently than your tenure committee, woe be upon ye. But at the end of the day, I have no more sympathy for professors who might have to profess than MDs who might have to *gasp* see patients (because it's more lucrative than doing research). You all have jobs. They are good jobs either way. If you want a job that is 95-100% research, you can always go back to being a postdoc. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

  • No one is looking for 95-100% research except the soft money crowd, Becca. The issue here is balance and expectations. If expectations are 60/40 research/teaching but you're teaching two classes a semester, you're fucked. Not only are institutional expectations important, but tenure letter writers have significant sway at a very critical time. At the end of the day there are only so many hours one can work. Knowing that expectation and accountability are aligned is critical to keeping one's job.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Especially when the tenure decision expectation of 90/10 departs from the alleged effort split up to that point.

  • becca says:

    Ok, I get that this is mostly an expectations vs. reality disgruntlement.

    You are 100% evaluated on what brings money to your institution. If your institution's overall income is shifting from grants to tuition, it's a real thing that they're "evaluating on teaching more heavily" IF you bring in way more tuition revenue than the next shmoe. Otherwise, how is this different from the perpetual refrain of "ignore it when they say teaching matters"?

  • attheslac says:

    @ docbecca: how can your institution claim that teaching is a serious enterprise if the only things matter are $ and papers?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Becca- because academic attitudes change one funeral at a time.

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