Changing the rules so they#039;ll stay the same

by Beacon Staff • February 18, 2009

ssue:/b The lack of tangible benchmarks for tenure applicants.

bOur view:/b Defined standards would further racial equity and staunch tenure surprises.

The long, sordid history of minority professors seeking tenure at Emerson is chronicled on page one of this week's iBeacon/i. Under the taint of implied institutional racism emerges a more concrete, equally pernicious pattern: Arbitrarily inflated expectations for nonwhite academics seeking professorial permanence. A new, coherent set of tenure benchmarks would clarify what is expected of applicants and force the administration to be more consistent with all candidates. It's a small step that could be both prerequisite and catalyst for the moral and ethical sea change required to bring fairness to the process.

The current nebulous set of expectations for tenure leaves professors, especially multicultural ones, tilting at windmills.

One professor said the tenure standards explained upon his hiring were elevated when he applied for tenure. A black professor who sued for tenure said "the rules kept changing." Another said cultural diversity is at odds with tenure criteria that are "out of reach." Professor Roger House, whose suit is the latest alleging racism at Emerson, accuses the college of holding blacks to a higher standard than whites. "I've been jumping through hoops from day one," he told iBeacon/i reporter Gabrielle Dunn.

The only official requirements for tenure appear in the Faculty Handbook. That document's section 7.2.1 is a long list of vague qualities ("Effectively communicates"; "Is original and/or innovative") purportedly sought in the work of a tenure candidate. Section 7.2.1 is useless boilerplate, but it's utterly undercut by Section 7.2.2, which lays the responsibility of "interpreting" scholarship standards on the department's tenured faculty and chair, the school's dean and the vice president for academic affairs.

That is, the same people who make the rules also make the decision and implement it. They're judge, jury and executioner.

Instead, we propose an independent panel-like the one that rightfully installed film professor Claire Andrade-Watkins as a tenured professor in 1993-comprised of professors and experts, from within and without Emerson, to set discrete standards. Each department would necessarily create its own benchmarks, be they one published book, seven peer-reviewed articles or three cinematography credits on feature films.

Clear standards would give Emerson an out during future tenure battles and diffuse the stress any professor must feel while navigating such an opaque process. Setting high standards is a proven way to promote high achievement, instead of leaving denied professors feeling like the rug was pulled from beneath them.

Setting and publicizing fair tenure expectations would be a practical step toward avoiding acrimonious departures that, rightfully or not, hurt the college's image. Further, it would administer a healthy dose of meritocracy into a system atrophied by what appears to be, at best, old-boy's-club insularity, or, at worst, rank racism.,iBeacon/i staff