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Jon Appleton on Tenure Decisions

Professor of Music Emeritus Jon Appleton comments on the evolution of tenure decisions at the College:

Jon Appleton2.jpgThe uproar over the denial of tenure to Assistant Professor Aimee Bahng might be seen as a return to rigor in the process of promotion and tenure at Dartmouth, something that has been in decline, spectacularly in the Humanities Division, for the last five decades.

When I joined the faculty in 1967, there were annual reviews of faculty by department chairs and the Associate Dean. Publication and teaching evaluations were the primary criteria for evaluation. A renewal of the three-year initial appointment was not nearly automatic as it is today.

Objectivity in promotion and tenure decisions is difficult in the tightly knit community that is Dartmouth, where collegiality is highly prized. As the number of positions in the humanities declined over this period, the focus of new faculty efforts became not the quality but quantity of publication. New faculty sought student approbation by lowering grading standards because they knew their students might have input into the promotion and tenure decisions.

Fortunately, there is still a degree of confidentiality in the process. When the Committee Advisory to the President makes a recommendation concerning promotion and tenure, the Committee’s members are privy to information that none of those protesting the denial of tenure to Assistant Professor Bahng have seen: confidential letters from distinguished peers, honest student appraisals, and the requirement to actually read some of the published work. I wonder how many people among those protesting this decision have in fact read this material?

Tenure is thus granted through the experienced judgment of a diverse group of women and men, who themselves have made significant contributions to their fields and to the College.

President John Kemeny recognized and sought to reverse the “old boy” hiring practices of the earlier Dartmouth faculty by limiting tenure to “two per ten per decade” — meaning that in every decade only two of every ten faculty in a given department should be granted tenure.

Since that time, and especially since the reign of James Wright as Dean, Provost and then President, these standards were relaxed. The perusal of the publication records of current senior faculty reveals a majority who have done very little since they were granted tenure. These are professors for whom the sinecure of tenure was more important than work in their own disciplines.

Addendum: Jon Appleton is the Arthur R. Virgin Professor of Music Emeritus. He served on the faculty from 1967 to 2009. Additionally he has held appointments at Stanford University, Keio University (Japan) and is a fellow of the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations.

Addendum: Another member of the faculty writes in:

I assume you are aware that “unanimous department votes” are not always as unanimous as they appear. Those in the minority may vote with the majority to avoid the possibility of word getting out that they voted against the tenure of a likely future colleague. Having a colleague who knows that you voted against him/her can make for a very unpleasant work environment.

Thus, rather than voting in the minority, those not supporting the “unanimous” department vote may signal their views to the CAP, who is then left with making an unpleasant or unpopular decision. Most faculty know this, and I think there are quite a few faculty (myself included) who are not at all roiled by CAP decisions to overturn unanimous department votes.

Addendum: Yet another member of the faculty has a thought:

I do think something is broken in the tenure system if someone comes up for tenure with a book in press and only four articles. It’s the fault of the Associate Dean, who is supposed to meet with junior faculty each year and make tenure requirements clear, and also the department chair, who should do the same thing.

The other problem is one of quality: a person may write brilliant articles on a narrow topic, but the question should be, what has this person contributed to the field (English, Government, History, etc.)? We have to ask an even tougher question: Is this someone who might one day earn a Guggenheim?

Addendum: One of my favorite student correspondents writes in to note that composer and Music Professor Paul Moravec was denied tenure twice (in 1993 and 1995) amid controversy, and he went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2004.

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