College Grants Tenure to Seven Faculty

By Kyle Finck

The College awarded tenure to seven faculty members at the end of December, a decision which provides the opportunity to examine the thorough and complex process by which a professor becomes a permanent member of the College faculty.

The Board of Trustees promoted Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine Combelles, Assistant Professor of Anthropology James Fitzsimmons, Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture Eliza Garrison, Assistant Professor of Political Science Nadia Horning, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Kareem Khalifa, Assistant Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers and Assistant Professor of Sociology Lynn Owens. These seven will be promoted to associate professors as of July 2013.

“The majority of Middlebury faculty are hired on a tenure track,” said Vice President for Academic Affairs Tim Spears. Faculty members who are hired without any prior experience would first be reviewed in their third year and then, assuming they pass this review, they would be reviewed for tenure in their seventh year.”

Spears said that the complexity of the tenure process is due to the gravity of granting tenure, and added that tenure is “not a relationship that is entered into lightly.”

“Unless you do something egregious, you may well be employed by the College for the rest of your working life,” he said. “It’s a union between you and the institution.”

The importance of tenure was not lost on recently tenured Assistant Professor of Philosophy Kareem Khalifa.

“This promotion means that I expect to be at Middlebury for a long time,” he said in an email. “This long term commitment means that I’ll continue to look for ways to improve my working environment.”

Nationally, the institution of tenure appointment has come under fire in recent years — especially at the public high school level — from critics who argue that it is illogical and protects subpar teachers.

But Dean of the Faculty Andrea Lloyd argued that tenure is crucial to retaining elite faculty members.

“Different factors will matter more or less to different candidates, to be sure, but the simple fact of whether or not a position is tenure-track certainly ranks among the most important criteria that a given candidate will use in deciding whether to apply for — and subsequently accept — a particular faculty position,” she said in an email.

Lloyd pointed to 2004 data from the U.S. Department of Education that reported more than 80 percent of private, not-for-profit baccalaureate institutions had some system of tenure. She suspected that the percentage of tenure at peer institutions was “much higher.”

“We would thus be at a significant disadvantage in recruitment and retention, relative to our peers, if we did not have a system,” she wrote.

Spears said that tenure is especially important in areas such as Vermont because there are fewer job opportunities than teachers may have in big cities.

“Through tenure the College is able to make a long-term commitment to a faculty member to come to rural Vermont and make a life here, whereas that same faculty member might have more opportunities in an urban area,” he said.

Khalifa agreed that the College’s teaching level would suffer without tenure, but said that the teaching would also improve if faculty members had a clearer sense of how they were evaluated.

“Right now, many junior colleagues wonder if getting glowing student response forms satisfies the current criteria, while simultaneously suspecting that lowering one’s expectations of student work most easily secures glowing student response forms,” he wrote in an email.

Spears said that while teacher evaluations by students are important, review committees look for trends.

“What the course response forms can do — especially when you read large numbers of them — is show you patterns,” he said.  “They can be very useful to the promotions committee when the committee visits classes to observe teaching.”

Faculty members are reviewed on teaching, scholarship and service.

“Teaching is very important part at a place like Middlebury,” said Spears. “It you’re not a good teacher, you won’t get tenure.”

But Spears emphasized that while in-class teaching is the most important aspect of the review process, outside scholarship also plays significant role.

According to the faculty handbook, scholarly achievement is evaluated primarily through the faculty member’s “published, performed or executed works.” The quality of any faculty member’s scholastic work is judged by peer review.

Spears said scholarship is “not an uncommon reason” why faculty members don’t receive tenure. He said students sometimes “don’t understand” the importance of scholarship in the review process, and in the past have erupted when popular teachers don’t receive tenure.

“The whole tradition of tenure is built on the idea that teaching informs scholarship and scholarship informs teaching. If you’re not committed to going out and doing scholarship, then somehow something is going to be missing from what you do in the classroom,” said Spears.