APS News

Tenure Task Force Submits Final Report

The APS Task Force on Academic Tenure, chaired by John Poate (New Jersey Institute of Technology), presented its final report to the APS Executive Board in September, and to the APS Council in November. The task force concluded that no official statement from the APS is required at this time. The full report follows below.

The other members of the APS Task Force on Academic Tenure were Raymond Brock, Michigan State University; Jolie Cizewski, Rutgers University; Roger Falcone, University of California, Berkeley; Robert Gluckstern, University of Maryland; and Stephen Ralph, Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition, Jack Roach, executive assistant chief counsel to the Office of the President at the University of Maryland, College Park, served as legal consultant to the task force.

Final Report on Academic Tenure

After an extensive review the APS Task Force on Academic Tenure concluded that the academic community regards tenure as a privilege not an entitlement and if institutions, which combine both research and teaching, were to start from scratch they would probably come up with a system very similar to the existing tenure system.

There is little evidence that the professorial academic community, or physicists in industry and national labs, are overly concerned about tenure. The tensions that exist are between the tenured and the non-tenured stream teaching and research staff. These tensions could grow as university research enterprises expand. Junior physicists discern that problems with the tenure system lie primarily with such factors as lack of retirement age for senior faculty. They also perceive the increase of the non-tenured stream to be a problem. Institutions that expand their missions from a predominantly teaching role to include research frequently experience tensions between the existing teaching faculty and the newly-hired research faculty. This is especially true if the institution does not have the resources to hire an adequate number of research-oriented faculty.

The review process now spans the range from the usual annual salary review (and concomitant merit reviews) of junior and senior faculty to a periodic formal review of the person's tenure, a process which could ultimately lead to loss of same. Physics departments do not usually feature in tenure wars because of quantitative nature of discipline. However, a better job could be done articulating annually the criteria for tenure to tenure-track faculty. Realistic evaluations of the relative weights of teaching and research in the tenure decision process must be given; this implies an understanding of the institutional mission.

Finally, there is a lack of knowledge in the academic community as a whole regarding the legal basis and the very recent history of tenure. There is still not a body of law relating to tenure or academic freedom. Tenure is essentially a contractual agreement and academic freedom stems from the First Amendment right.

The Task Force recommended that the APS should not make a statement about the role or future of tenure in the physics community at this time. Such a statement could be harmful in the current environment where the tenure debate, which is not a uniquely physics phenomenon, appears to be largely driven by political or perceived financial imperatives. The Task Force feels that there are much bigger challenges facing the physics community such as more comprehensive undergraduate and graduate training, financial constraints, and the physics research infrastructure. If there are to be changes in the tenure process or structure of the physics community they will probably be driven by market and/or political forces. The time for a statement by the APS would be when these forces start to radically change the physics community.

The Task Force urged the APS to encourage all physics departments to articulate the requirements for tenure and promotion and mentor junior faculty at all stages. In addition, an APS sponsored article detailing the legal history of tenure and academic freedom in Physics Today or the Chronicle of Higher Education could be of general interest to the community.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin