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Academic tenure

October 10, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 40

I read with great interest C&EN’s three articles on tenure (Sept. 19, page 28) as I have always had, and still have, very strong negative opinions on the subject.

After receiving my B.Sc. and Ph.D. at the University of London, I came to the U.S., did a year’s postdoc, and was then hired by the chemistry department at a large university where I was told that a tenure decision would be made after six years. Another faculty member was hired at the same time and told me that he would do whatever it took to obtain tenure and then he would be able to “coast” for the rest of his career.

After two years, I was reviewed by three tenured faculty members who had been doing the same mundane research for more than 20 years, whereas I was trying to do novel research in an area that was related to, but somewhat differed from, my Ph.D. thesis work. Although I had the second-highest publication rate in the entire department, I was told that I was publishing in the “wrong journals,” which meant that instead of the Journal of the Chemical Society and the Journal of Organometallic Chemistry, I should have been publishing in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. I therefore decided that, rather than playing the “games” that the system clearly required, I did not want to be a part of the tenure system and decided to look for a job in the industrial sector.

Since this was a time when the economy was quite bad and I was not yet a U.S. citizen, it took me two years to find a suitable industrial position. During this period, a faculty member who was considered by students to be one of the worst teachers in the entire department but had the contacts to bring money into the department was awarded tenure. I stayed in the industrial sector for 30 years.

Leaving the academic sector was the best decision that I have ever made, and I never looked back. I liked the idea that although I could get fired, so could my boss, and that actually happened on a few occasions. Of course, the industrial sector changed radically during my time in it, and eventually I was “retired” by the last company that I worked for. Not being ready to retire, I found a full-time teaching position at a two-year technical/community college where teaching is the only criteria that is used to keep your position. There is no tenure as everyone is given a nine-month contract, and as I am now in my 12th year, this is approaching the longest time that I have worked for any company during my industrial career.

Stuart C. Cohen
Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The interesting articles on tenure were noteworthy for their comments by “victims” but contained nothing from individuals who served on tenure committees. Although such committees undoubtedly differ greatly, during the time I served on a college committee, the deliberations were conducted in long evening meetings over a period of several weeks. The work was taken seriously, analogous to jury duty, by faculty who themselves had all gone through the tenure process. About 70% of the cases were dealt with quickly, with an obvious vote of yes or no. About 70% of the time was spent deciding borderline cases. Superficially, the decisions might be considered analogous to pass/fail grading, but each individual is completely unique and requires thoughtful input.

The committee work was only part of a collective decision involving input from all levels of the university administration. The first time I served on the committee, it went very well, but the second time I served, a new university president, long on personality and short on academic qualifications, created an uproar by granting promotion and tenure to everyone who had applied, even in cases where the committee vote had been unanimously negative. In a follow-on meeting with the provost, a wise member of the committee pointed out that we could no longer go back to our departments and say what the criteria for promotion and tenure were.

One final note: All of the people I knew who were denied tenure went on to other appropriate professional positions. In one case, an individual was put in charge of a laboratory and began calling his old colleagues and asking if they knew any recent chemistry graduates he could hire.

G. David Mendenhall
Pomona, N.Y.



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