The Case Against Cultural Standardization in Tenure Decisions

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler

metzlerThere has been a cacophony of voices calling for the elimination of tenure in higher education. Many of those voices are ultra conservative ideologues who are using the tenure debate to excoriate what they see as a liberal-leaning academy. There is a more vexing question that is conveniently absent from the tenure reform debate. That question is the role that race plays in the decision of tenure committees in denying tenure to Black scholars. I am not suggesting that all decisions to deny tenure to Blacks is racist. I am suggesting that the committees making the decision to deny, the departments that support the decisions, the deans, provosts and presidents who uphold denial must ask themselves whether they have homogenized the tenure process, already structured around amorphous standards of scholarship and service, such that it is more likely than not that Black scholars and our scholarship will forever be relegated to the intellectual margins.

My concern is that those denying tenure are more concerned about whether their decisions are legally defensible than whether the decisions are just. That is, how many of the people who make the decisions to deny, acknowledge and act upon the structural and racial biases built into the promotion and tenure systems of most universities? Some would argue that there is no need to do so as the issue of denial is about quality and not about race. But, if this is the case are these committees suggesting that Blacks on tenure track were hired as quality scholars and then after years of teaching, researching and providing service magically become mediocre? Perhaps if they were being honest, they would say that in far too many cases, faculties hire Blacks on tenure track because of pressures — real or perceived — stemming from the underrepresentation of Blacks on the faculties of predominantly White universities, including some of the most liberal ones. In some cases, so-called diversity programs, which grant additional funding to departments to hire (not promote) more Blacks, result in an erosion of the faculty sourcing strategy therefore resulting in denial of tenure and thus termination. Do universities that employ this parochial and patronizing approach to diversifying faculties really believe that this is just? To be sure, the deliberately vague terms of “scholarship” and “quality” affects Whites who are denied tenure as well, it simply affects Blacks differently and worse.

The nature of teaching and learning in colleges and universities continues to change as the student body, and indeed the society, becomes more multicultural and multiracial. The promotion and tenure process at most colleges and universities is a bastion of pettiness, cultural antagonism and ethnocentric backslapping. The ideology and the discourse of tenure approval must become one that praises public intellectuals in all media (including new media), not one that promotes cultural disrespect for the scholarship of Black scholars thus justifying and rewarding the continuation of a community of scholars so stepped in intellectual snobbery and caste warfare that even the mention of new media and scholarship invites public disdain and mocking. To be sure the denial of tenure to any faculty member is as much a failure of the faculty as it is of the individual faculty member. But it is the faculty member denied tenure that must exit the university unceremoniously, while the members of the search committee who selected them selects another group of new faculty often with the same results. Search committees must take a more active and honest role in hiring faculty members who will ultimately succeed, not fail. This requires that the people on these committees understand and can articulate what scholarship is in a way that is specific, measurable, inclusive and achievable.

Black scholars also bear responsibility for our failure. Some of us see racism where there is none, and others fail to see it until we are denied tenure. Black scholars like all scholars have an obligation to provide quality scholarship. However, given that so much of Black America simply do not participate in the system of education, governance and the academy, we have to use public engagement scholarship to critically analyze and respond to the “Negro problem of 2009 and beyond.” This is not to suggest that all Black scholars become critical race theorists or produce Black scholarship. It is to suggest that whatever our discipline, we apply the framework of that discipline to the engagement of our communities — on campus and off. Further, those of us who accept the diversity scholarships to hire (but not promote) us must ask ourselves whether we are willing participants in our demise and thus intellectual sharecroppers.

Have we become so content with being window dressing in the halls of academe that we will never own our intellectual mindshare but simply rent it out to the academic overseers? Why do we continue to play the game when we know that the deck is stacked against us? Is it because we see no alternative? Why is it that some of us who are on tenure committees judge the scholarship of our Black colleagues in a much harsher light? Why is it that despite having tenure some of us on these committees refuse to challenge the decisions in the context of cultural standardization? It is doubtful that there is critical mass on tenure and promotion committees at colleges and universities who will adopt my thesis because the tenure process is mostly about cultural standardization, and that standardization does not benefit Black scholars. Mark Bauerlein has it correct when he writes, “The very system that academics invoke to fend off critics has become part of the problem. Ideological bias has seeped into the standards of professionalism. Peer review isn’t just the application of scholarly and scientific norms. It’s a system of incentives and rewards, and success depends entirely on what peers say about you. They examine your teaching and scholarship and deliver an inside opinion, and the process is easily corrupted.”

Black scholars and all scholars who are truly committed to justice need to insist that the rules for tenure and promotion resists cultural standardization, become specific, particular and transparent or that tenure be abolished in favor of a system that rewards quality, inclusive scholarship and service. Many institutions including so-called liberal institutions are simply not taking the opportunity to expand the definition of scholarship and quality in a way that is substantively equal. Making the case for tenure in 1940, the American Association of University Professors opined, “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.” In 2009, the peer review system at so many of our educational institutions has become infected with rank censorship and a fiefdom controlled by ostensibly liberal “royalty” who use a warped allegiance to the ever-illusive quality as a proxy for race-based decisions.

The oppressed have become the oppressors.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is Associate Dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies and the author of the book, The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a “post-racial” America.

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One response to “The Case Against Cultural Standardization in Tenure Decisions

  1. The Color of Tenure

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