For me running a good department is all about nurturing a culture of academic tenure. A culture of tenure is a culture of academic freedom coupled with a cooperative attitude in which academics feel that they are partners in the department. Though we don’t have formal tenure contracts in Australia, we do generally have tenure in terms of job security and a tradition that it’s very hard to fire an academic on a continuing contract. But tenure is not just about job security, it’s also about the stability of the conditions of employment. How many courses does one teach? Limitations on the downside of salary risk. Clarity in promotions criteria. Here are the five things that I think nurture a culture of tenure in a department.
I. Don’t do anything fancy with teaching loads
When I was at Melbourne every academic regardless of research performance had to teach two courses; though professors usually taught the large principles courses and junior faculty got the smaller honours or third year courses. This kind of equity in teaching loads for tenured academics is essential in any good department. It is also an essential part of the culture of tenure that makes for great departments. You simply don’t want to be in an environment where you are compelled to strategically compete for a lower teaching load with your colleagues. It’s a zero sum game that no competent head of department would want to oversee.
By far the best workloads rule that I’ve experienced is the
Come rain or shine everyone teaches the same number of courses.
You published in Econometrica this year? Good on you buddy, here’s a beer, but you’re still going to teach your two courses. You’ve had six rejections and haven’t published a thing this year, well this is your lucky year: you’re teaching two courses just like the annoying superstar next-door. You’ve got ten PhD students? Two courses! You’re the head of department, that’s one course please.
II. Limit the powers and tenure of the head of department
Heads of departments can be pretty powerful. The head can affect some of your working conditions almost arbitrarily. Importantly, the head is the first person that a dean-with-ideas calls. In departments with no culture of tenure the headship can be very attractive to senior faculty who bitterly compete for years to have a go at this coveted position. In fact, absent a culture of tenure the headship is so attractive that incumbents typically have to be pulled out of that office by their toes.
The best model that I’ve seen is one in which the term of headship is limited to three years. Here I’m talking about three year terms for the head of department that can be renewed twice or even three times. Limited tenure dramatically reduces the opportunity for arbitrary application of executive power. It’s not very attractive to many deans, but I think that most deans can be convinced by the idea that in a good department with a large number of active senior academics three year headships can work–with a supportive senior faculty willing to help out in the day to day running of the department.
I also think that it is absolutely essential that the head teaches. It makes the position less attractive (which is a good thing) and the head needs to be engaged in the core business of the department. Similarly, it is crucial that the head has time to do research, that will make the position more attractive–to the people that you want to be head.
There is nothing that engenders a culture of tenure more than devolving the executive powers of the head to senior faculty who see themselves as partners in the department.
III. Engage the whole department in hiring and hire well
You know that you have a vibrant culture of tenure in your department if you regularly hire people better than the incumbents in a collective process that engages and gives a voice to all academics.
Absent a culture of a tenure you simply do not want to broadly engage faculty in any hiring decision. This is because any academic worried that his or her working conditions may be adversely affected will want to hire people that are worse than themselves in every characteristic: research, teaching, and service. Why would they want to hire a person that is better than themselves if that has the potential of affecting their employment conditions in an adverse way?
Absent a culture of tenure the only reasonable way to hire people is for the head of department to make a short list of candidates for a small committee comprising the head, the dean, the head’s friend and a student representative. The head calls up a mate who recommends one of his students for service in the colonies.
In a department lacking a culture of tenure collective decision making regarding hiring necessarily means that people hired through a collective process based on departmental consensus will be worse than the median incumbent in the department.
IIII. Criterion referenced upside and limited downside
We don’t grade on a curve anymore. We don’t determine which class of honours a student gets based on the student’s rank in the class. We now grade, and rightly so, based on clear criteria.
I don’t see any place in a department for competitions or norm referenced rewards; not in terms of promotions or awards.
An excellent teacher should receive a teaching award regardless of whether his student evaluation scores are the highest or second highest in the department. For teaching awards, set benchmarks: if you get more than 4.4 in student evaluation, then you get a certificate and a red balloon, more than 4.6 a certificate a medal and $2k is research funds. You don’t want to be rewarding people based on the average student evaluation in the department or on the median or max or min.
The only thing worse than races and competitions in a department is using punishment as a policy instrument–If your student evaluations are below 3.5 we will punish you in various horrible ways. Punishment is just so destructive for any sort of academic scholarly culture. Anything that can be achieved with a stick is better achieved with a carrot; especially given that in all likelihood most academics in your department will be with you for the rest of your career!
IIII It’s About the Teaching, Stupid!
Keep a fixed eye on the core business because only rich departments can in the long run be successful departments. And the core business in Australian departments is teaching; first and second year teaching. These must be taught well and protected. The best departments invest in continually improving the first and second year student experience. Ideally, your top researchers, the most senior members in the department, and your best teachers ought to be engaged at the first and second year levels.