Tenure is a big part of academic life – supporters say it promotes academic freedom and provides job security. It’s typically awarded through departments, and some Northwestern program heads are making a push to change that. Jakob Lazzaro found out why. Further reading: The Daily Northwestern’s In Focus on tenure and foreign language professors. Transcript below.

[Music: Let’s Start at the Beginning by Lee Rosevere]

Jakob Lazzaro: Tenure is a big part of academic life at American universities. Once awarded, it basically means you’ll have a job for life – and supporters say this promotes academic freedom and provides job security. Tenure-track positions are thus highly coveted among those working in academia, and getting one requires going through a pretty rigorous process of peer review and evaluation. So why is there a push to change how tenure works regarding programs at Northwestern? I’m Jakob Lazzaro, and welcome to AskNBN.

[Music: Let’s Start at the Beginning by Lee Rosevere]

Jakob: So the way it works right now, tenure is typically awarded through departments, like English or History. Interdisciplinary programs are, by nature, independent and separate from departments. So they can share a dedicated tenure track line with the department and have tenured faculty members, but the hiring process must go through an affiliated department. Nitasha Sharma, professor of African American and Asian American studies and head of the Asian American Studies program, is part of a group of professors pushing to change that.

Nitasha Sharma: Essentially, tenure gives you a pay raise. It ostensibly gives you more freedom of speech to say things that you might otherwise feel more wary of saying if you don’t know if you’ll get tenure or not, so it gives you, sort of, an important sense of autonomy and freedom to do the work you need to do.

Jakob: Sharma is a big fan of tenure, but she also says there’s a lot of room for improvement with the way it currently works for programs.

Sharma: Generally, people can only be tenured in a department, and there are departments – like in Weinberg – and there are programs – like in Weinberg. Now, the way that my hire worked as an example of a program that has a line to hire somebody – we can hire people in Asian American studies, but we must partner with a department because we’re a program.

Jakob: Professors hired through these lines thus have two sets of responsibilities – those of their department, and those of their program.

Sharma: So that means that fields like Latinx and Asian American Studies are filled with faculty who are essentially 50 percent in a program, 50 percent in their tenure department – who are all essentially people of color doing double duty. And other programs are like this as well.

Jakob: Spanish and Portuguese Professor Frances Aparicio heads the Latino and Latina Studies program and is also leading the push for independent tenure lines. She says this split has a whole host of effects, but the most visible one for students is the availability of classes.

Frances Aparicio: When we put together the course listings for next year, we have to wait for departments to make their own schedules and decide who’s teaching and when and what. And then these faculty members come back to us and say, "OK. I can teach at this hour or I can teach this, or I can teach then," and we have no control over our curriculum. We have no control. We depend on departments to make their own decisions, and then we get the crumbs, right. So, I just… and one current example – I’m teaching in the fall, and I was going to co-list with my own department and the Spanish department – I just found out yesterday that my times that I can teach do not coincide with their own schedule, so they decided it’s OK, we don’t need to co-list.

Jakob: In Asian American studies, Sharma says this means lots of classes are taught by adjunct – or non-tenure track – lecturers. Since most would prefer a tenured position, they tend to leave after only a few years, which results in a high rate of turnover.

Sharma: It really impacts what we can offer students, and also, we’re scrambling because we need more tenure track hires, obviously. We’ve conducted nine searches in Asian American Studies in the last four years. Because our mentoring is very strong, and the people we hire as visiting professors are very strong, they move on quickly to get tenure track jobs. Although they might like to stay here – it’s a great job – they’re not tenure track and they leave.

Jakob: In addition, Sharma says the two tenure track lines shared with Asian American Studies, which is split between four professors as each is also tenured through a department, limit who can be hired in the first place and that programs have little say in the subsequent tenure process.

Sharma: We cannot hire the most cutting edge, relevant people because someone who has a PhD in Ethnic Studies or Asian American Studies would not be legible, necessarily, would be too interdisciplinary for a field like History or English. But when tenure happens, tenure process goes through the department rather than the program, so we don’t have much input on who the best scholars in our field are to review this person’s file. When the department votes, Asian American Studies has no say in voting. And that is astounding. We write a letter, we present it to the department, we leave and the department votes. And I just find that to be ridiculous.

[Music: Curiosity by Lee Rosevere]

Jakob: In an effort to resolve this, Sharma, Aparicio and several other Weinberg program heads have submitted a proposal to create independent tenure track lines housed in their programs so they don’t have to partner with departments. Sharma says it’s a solution to their current problems, but they may also seek departmentalization in the future.

Sharma: Many of us are not opposed to departmentalization, it’s just that that’s a longer process where the entire college needs to vote. Our main and immediate concern is to have intellectual autonomy and the respect of these fields.

Jakob: For example, the proposal for Latino and Latina Studies creates two independent tenure lines – one full professor to replace Aparicio, who is retiring in December, and one new assistant professor.

Aparicio: So, our colleagues insisted that my line stay in Latino Studies and that we do a national search or we hire somebody using that line – a senior person – within the next couple of years. We also have requested an assistant professor line, also, to be 100 percent here. The dean has some concerns over what would happen if we bring an assistant professor – are they gonna get isolated, are they going to, you know, how are we going to evaluate their work if they’re not in a department, all this stuff. And we have submitted a proposal that tries to respond to all those questions.

[Music: Curiosity by Lee Rosevere]

Jakob: In a May 2 email, Weinberg Dean Adrian Randolph said talks regarding policies and procedures are ongoing, and that he thinks it’s a good idea to bring in faculty who can be more focused on interdisciplinary programs. A timeline for implementing any results would depend on funding – and that’s the domain of Provost Jonathan Holloway.

Jonathan Holloway: I had a conversation with five or six heads of interdisciplinary programs that are largely, but not exclusively, humanities-based, qualitative social sciences. They were talking, bringing me up to speed on their situation, resource allocation, limits, challenges, opportunities, all that sort of thing. And given that I have always had a home in those kinds of departments, or programs, I understood where they were coming from and was deeply sympathetic to the challenges.

Jakob: Holloway says that if a proposal is approved by Dean Randolph, it would be added to the Weinberg hiring plan. If that happens within the next month or so, it would come to his desk this summer.

Holloway: But if it comes in in a timely fashion – let me put it that way – and if the dean approves them, they would be put in front of me this summer. And if I approve them, it would mean that the school could start searches for those positions this coming academic year. So, basically, a decision could be made quickly – a change wouldn’t be felt for a solid year.

Jakob: That’s the fastest scenario, Holloway says. If things get more complicated – like if the lines are being moved from a department into a program as opposed to creating new ones from scratch – it could take longer.

Holloway: It’s a simple proposition. If you’re giving somebody something, you’re taking it from somebody else. That could take a longer negotiation. But I really do, you know, I’m really eager – and I know the dean is as well – to think through new configurations and possibilities regarding all these different programs. I would love to see resolution on this, and resolution meaning new faculty hired, by this time next year or the year after that. I wouldn’t want to play this out longer than that.

Jakob: So, it’s possible programs could enjoy independent tenure lines within the next few years. With the way things stand now, Professor Aparicio says that it’s been great to see different communities coming together to try and make their proposal a reality.

Aparicio: The students are doing it on their own, we have done it too as directors of these programs, and then you have also, other programs have come in – American Studies, CompLit, Gender and Sexuality Studies, we’re all in the same situation.

[Music: Credit Roll by Lee Rosevere]

Jakob: That’s gonna wrap things up for this episode of AskNBN. The music in this episode is "Let’s Start at the Beginning," "Credit Roll" and "Curiosity" by Lee Rosevere under a Creative Commons Attribution License. If you’re interested in learning how Northwestern’s tenure policy affects non-tenured foreign language professors, The Daily Northwestern put out an In Focus on this topic last year and I’ve linked it in the episode description. For NBN Audio, I’m Jakob Lazzaro.

[Music: Credit Roll by Lee Rosevere]