Thu 8 Apr 2004
The priorities of the tenure system at Williams is something that should be reconsidered. The Record provided a useful overview two years ago that is probably still applicable. Some points, however, are clearly wrong. Professor William Wagner is quoted as saying:
“Williams spends a lot of energy training its young professors, and if tenure did not provide a limiting effect on job mobility, many more young professors would learn from older Williams professors and then leave Williams, taking the energy investment somewhere else.”
When tenured professors do leave Williams, they generally go to large urban research universities …. This trend – if one could call such an infrequent occurrence a trend – reflects what might hypothetically happen if tenure were abolished: big universities would use smaller schools like Williams as a training ground for their professors.
This is pure fantasy. When other universities hire from Williams (Jacobsohn to Texas, Garsten to Yale, Cook to LSU), they do not care a whit about teaching ability — whether or not it benefited from training at Williams. Texas, Yale, et al care about the quality of past research and the likely quality of future research. That is 99% of what drives the Williams-to-elsewhere transfer market. Of course, Texas thinks that it is dandy that Gary Jacobsohn is a great teacher, but they would have hired him even if he were in the bottom 5% of Williams professors.
But Wagner knows all of this, so it is quite possible that I am attributing to him a claim made by the reporter. I am assuming that the “training” refers to teaching and not to research since the vast majority of junior Williams professors have been thoroughly trained in graduate school on how to do research.
The following passage makes my blood run cold.
Wagner, who has been teaching at Williams for 22 years, says that he has only been aware of one real change in how tenure is awarded since he has been here. “In my early years at Williams, there seemed to be two career paths, each valuable, that one could follow. One would be the now standard path of being an engaged scholar and a teacher, and the other would be to use the energy that others spent on scholarship on increased student interaction and administration. The second path, through which it is virtually impossible now to get tenure, contributed something of value to the campus that is now harder to get.”
I have no reason to doubt that Wagner is 100% correct in this. Indeed, I have heard precisely this claim made by at least one other faculty member. You could also see it holding true in the case of Lisa Wright (not sure if this is the correct name), a junior English professor who was widely regarded as one of the truly exceptional teachers at Williams but who was denied tenure because she had focused all her energies on teaching and none on publishing articles in obscure journals that almost none of her students would ever read.
So, my questions are: First, has the tenure system in fact changed in the way that Wagner describes? (I think that the answer is Yes.) Second, who decided to change it? Third, wouldn’t it be a good idea to go back to the old system whereby someone like Lisa Wright would be tenured?
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