What is tenure?

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Assistant Professor of English Kip Robisch will go up for tenure in two years at the University of Indianapolis, and while tenure is frequently discussed among faculty members, it is not a common topic among students. Some students may not know a great deal about tenure and how it plays a role at universities, including UIndy.

According to Dean of the Shaheen College of Arts and Sciences Jennifer Drake, tenure was created to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression.

“It’s really the idea that as faculty members we should be able to—and not just for our own edification, but for the betterment of society—we should be able to ask questions that might be unpopular, to engage in research that would be controversial, because that’s what intellectual engagement is and how we form knowledge,” Drake said.

Drake said that not only does tenure involve academic freedom, but a person will have his or her job for life, barring unforeseen circumstances such as institutional downsizing or closing, and the person cannot be relocated within the institution, or the person has committed a crime or an act of indiscretion.

“The job security of tenure is the kind only the Supreme Court has,” Robisch said. “Once you get tenure, you have to do something pretty severe to lose your job.”

Photo by Mercadees Hempel

Assistant Professor of English Kip Robisch instructs his Western Literature class. Robisch is going up for tenure in two years. Photo by Mercadees Hempel

Faculty members on tenure track at UIndy have six years to put together a dossier to be reviewed by the Promotion and Tenure Committee. The Promotion and Tenure Committee is made up of eight members, according to committee member and Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Krysi Leganza.

A faculty member going up for tenure submits a dossier that includes letters written by people in their department, outside of the department and off campus. Student evaluations, published work and evidence of service are all included as well. According to Leganza, the dossier must incorporate teaching, service and scholarship. Leganza said that what makes a dossier stand out to her in particular is a lot of reflection.

Once committee members review the dossier, they discuss it, and if a professor is not a certain rank, then the committee votes to give the professor a promotion. If they agree to the promotion, then after talking about the dossier, institutional fit is discussed. According to Leganza, institutional fit can mean different things to different people, but basically it is the question of whether the person fits at UIndy.

If the committee decides a faculty member has institutional fit and votes in favor of granting the faculty member tenure, then the committee makes a recommendation to the provost. The provost then makes a recommendation to the president, and the president makes a recommendation to the board of trustees. If the board of trustees decides to vote in favor, then tenure is granted. This same process applies to promotion as well.

Professor of History Ted Frantz said that he values being on the Promotion and Tenure Committee because it gives him insight into the interesting things his colleagues are doing.

“The best part about being on this committee is you see that which you intuitively already knew or had a hunch about, which is all of the incredible things  your faculty colleagues are doing across the university,” Frantz said.

Robisch said that being on tenure track is a lot of work and takes “Herculean” effort because of the number of credit hours professors must teach, as well as doing scholarship and service. He said the process of granting tenure at UIndy is very different from the process at Purdue University where he used to work. At Purdue, the professor does not write a reflection or put together a dossier but instead has colleagues represent the candidate.

Robisch said because UIndy allows faculty to reflect in their dossier and write about why they deserve tenure, it is a much more “civilized system.” Robisch will go up for tenure sooner than six years because of his work at Purdue, and he has seen the darker side of the tenure process.

Robisch’s tenure case was rejected at Purdue, which meant he would teach at Purdue for one more year and then would be fired from the university.  He was given that one year to find a job, which is the same as at UIndy.

“It’s the worst year of a professor’s life,” Robisch said. “Some people become ghosts, because you don’t work for that school anymore, but you have to work for that school for a year. All your colleagues know you didn’t get tenure, and you’re kind of walking the halls like a leper. It’s a horrible year, the year after tenure rejection.”

After his last year at Purdue, Robisch decided not to go back into academia for a while. However, he said he missed teaching at a college so much that he decided to go back. Now he is working to have his short stories published so that he can include them in his dossier. Robisch said that because he loves teaching, he is glad that it will take up a good portion of his dossier.

Drake said that she believes faculty can be empowered by tenure, but there are facets of the tenure culture that she does not agree with, such as the fact that adjunct and associate faculty get paid less than full-time tenure track or full-time non-tenure track faculty.

Drake also said that tenure can be overvalued and it could undervalue non-tenure faculty. While there are pros and cons to tenure, Leganza said that it does create loyalty between the faculty and the university when tenure is granted, which can benefit students.

“I think everybody at UIndy is dedicated to the students,” she said. “But knowing you’re going to stay here and make a career out of it, this is a place you want to be—if you apply for tenure, you’ve made a commitment to the university, and the university has made a commitment to you.”

Robisch believes tenure does benefit students in a way, and despite not being a fan of tenure as a whole, he does want to earn it at UIndy and continue to do what he loves.

“This is one of the things I love about the university. You get to go up for tenure based on what you give to students,” Robisch said.

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