Ohio State University Tackles Tenure

Ohio State President Gordon Gee(Photo: TIME)
Ohio State President Gordon Gee(Photo: TIME)

A tenured professor has a job for life.

Every year at Ohio State University, an estimated 225 faculty members complete the extensive process of applying for tenure. Each applicant must have a minimum of five years on staff and prove they have satisfied requirements in three broad areas – research, teaching and service. But OSU is changing rewards and promotions. WOSU’s Christina Morgan takes a look at the future of tenure at Ohio State University.

Ohio State president Gordon Gee last fall addressed the topic of tenure during a speech to faculty.

“We have long had faculty committees devoted to looking at revising promotion and tenure standards. And yet, the status quo remains. Inertia is winning.”

The man TIME magazine describes as a thoroughbred politician on a campaign to revolutionize higher education continued:

“We must take it upon ourselves to revise the centuries-old equations for promotion and tenure and develop new reward structures.”

Details on Gee’s call to action are coming from the provost’s office where Vice provost Susan Williams is the one who reviews the applications for tenure. With about two dozen or so two-inch thick manila folders, each representing a faculty member hoping for tenure, neatly stacked on nearby shelves, she says, revising tenure does not mean throwing it out.

“Tenure is so integral to the exchange of ideas and the emergence of new fields and changing the way we think about the world, it’s something that is not going to go away.”

Tenure expert Judith Gappa says, nationally, there has been a dramatic decline in the percentage of tenured and tenure track faculty during the past decade.

“The concept of a tenured faculty in the traditional definition is dead.”

Professor emeritus and former vice president of Purdue University, Gappa is one of the authors of “Rethinking Faculty Work: Higher Education’s Strategic Imperative” published in 2007.

“People’s careers now without a retirement age can go on and on and on, and the needs of institutions and students and everybody else are changing so rapidly.”

Gappa says many colleges and universities have already addressed the issue of tenure.

“Some institutions are offering more flexibility but basically, we’ve addressed tenure by the numbers of people being hired in tenure-track positions and the numbers of people being hired in other types of positions that don’t carry that level of job security.”

Numbers provided by Human Resources show tenured and tenure-track appointments were 64% of the total teaching positions at OSU. And that percentage has declined only slightly in the past decade. 64% is more than twice the national percentage cited by the National Center for Education Statistics.

And even though change at big schools might seem glacial compared to other areas of society, Ohio State has already in effect launched the tenure project with massive changes underway in Columbus and on the regional campuses.

Faculty Council chair and Music Professor Tim Gerber describes those changes as two major intellectual exercises. First, the change from quarters to semesters involves every faculty member and every course. And the university is in the process of reorganizing Arts and Sciences which involves about 1,000 faculty members.

“It makes more sense to look at the calendar and the courses and their delivery and the college structure first.”

Ohio State’s semester calendar begins in the fall of 2012. And Vice Provost Williams predicts that what she calls the conversation about tenure and promotion will continue beyond the launch of the semester calendar in two and a half years.

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