Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gopher gleanings

Download the Minnesota Rouser  from the University of Minnesota Marching Band. Or simply mash "play."

Since resigning my post at the University of Minnesota effective January 2, 2007, I haven't had occasion to say much about a school where I worked thirteen and a half years. To be sure, I was moved some months ago to laud a former boss of mine at UMN. This week's mailbag has prompted me to speak again about Minnesota. I got two items that coincided neatly with this forum's recent discussion of academic tenure.

Part 1: Ambitious imaginations

Tom SullivanThe first item in my mailbag invited me to read The Periodic Table, where "Mr. Bonzo" had posted some thoughts on Universities as places and spaces of imagination, a recent essay by E. Thomas Sullivan, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost of the University of Minnesota. As dean at Minnesota Law, Provost Sullivan presided over some major milestones in my career: tenure, promotion to full professor, my one-year appointment to the Julius E. Davis Chair in Law, and my appointment as the James L. Krusemark Professor of Law. For all this, I am and shall forever remain grateful to him. Since coming into the warp and woof of my first academic consciousness, I've watched Provost Sullivan claw his way up the ladder of educational administration. Apropos of a long and distinguished career in which he has (with apologies to John Milton) justified the ways of law to man and has neither served in hell nor ruled in heaven, I'd characterize my erstwhile dean and erstwhile provost as smart as Satan. Among all the people I've been privileged to meet in academia, he alone deserves this encomium.

Drew Gilpin FaustThe central premise of Provost Sullivan's November 1, 2007, column in the Minnesota Daily is that "[t]he very depth and breadth of a great university can ensure that 'imaginative leaps' occur both within and across disciplines." The Periodic Table characterized Provost Sullivan's column as "what a candidate for the presidency of a research university might say or write." Or, for that matter, what an actual research university president might write. Provost Sullivan's column addressed the same topic as that of Unleashing our most ambitious imaginings, an address that Drew Gilpin Faust gave at her October 12, 2007, inauguration as president of Harvard University.

For MoneyLaw purposes, the most salient passages in Provost Sullivan's essay discussed tenure:
[W]e can only hope to resolve such large-scale interdisciplinary issues in an environment protective of academic freedom and tenure. Threats to academic freedom and tenure are troubling. . . . [I]ntellectual curiosity and academic tenure are inextricably entwined with a culture of excellence.

Simply put, to engage in the most rigorous and thoughtful problem-solving, researchers, scholars and teachers require tenure precisely to protect that "primary function." Without tenure how could faculty fearlessly, imaginatively, exhaustively and creatively confront such issues, for instance, as human rights, climate change, world poverty and animal research? Diminishing academic freedom and tenure could directly affect that imagination and freedom of thought. The implications would be significant.
Provost Sullivan concluded: "Am I overvaluing the value and role of the imagination in universities?" His answer will surely be forthcoming in his blog, Conversations with the Provost.

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a whiff of sarcasm in The Periodic Table's review of Provost Sullivan's ode to tenure and academic imagination. The apparent source of dissatisfaction is the University of Minnesota's imagined — and declared — ambition to "rank among the top three public research universities in the world" by 2010. After drilling deep into UMN's own numbers, The Periodic Table expressed despair:
Periodic tableIs it really credible to continue on with this "ambitious aspiration" to "become one of the top three public research universities [in the world]?" Let's admit we have some serious problems here and concentrate on fixing them. Let's also commit to getting the University of Minnesota at least to the mid-point of the BigTen rankings . . . . That will be a difficult enough task.
The scientific megablog Pharyngula concurred:
PharyngulaThe most telling [statistic] is that, despite our goals, our increase in research spending is the least of all of our competitors — we aren't keeping up. It's fine to be at the tail end of the pack in a race and plan to pick up your pace to win, but to talk big while slowing down does not give one much confidence.
Evidently, what these scientists are saying is this: It is not inspiring but rather demoralizing for university leadership to speak of "top three" status when the real task at hand is simply trying to do better than eleventh in the Big Ten.

Part 2: Normal scientists and their paradigm shifts

The ScientistAt the same time I got messages regarding The Periodic Table and Pharyngula (both written by natural scientists employed within the University of Minnesota system), I received a carefully wrapped package from my old school. It contained, among other things, the September 2007 issue of The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences. Deaning rocks, but it doesn't leave much time for strictly intellectual pursuits. I was excited to renew my acquaintance with The Scientist.

Even as contentious voices across the legal academy debated the institution of tenure earlier this fall — see, e.g., Paul Caron, Brian Leiter, Anonymous Dean, and Brian Tamanaha — real scientists were taking an extraordinarily careful look at tenure in the life sciences. The Scientist's lead article for September 2007, Does tenure need to change?, generated suggestions that law professors might have overlooked, or at least haven't articulated. In addition to suggesting regular reviews to eliminate dead wood, an idea with some support in the legal academy (including Tom Sullivan, who as dean spearheaded the UMN Law School's system of post-tenure review), the editors and readers of The Scientist suggested these measures: downplaying the importance of citations, downplaying the importance of grants, and extending the tenure clock.

Richard Gallagher, editor of The Scientist, summarized his magazine's coverage of the debate:
Should tenure disappear?The lofty goal [of tenure] is to secure freedom to pursue one's chosen path, in both teaching and research. There are likely some life sciences researchers who pursue ideas so unpopular that they need to be protected from retaliation. And tenure gives breathing room to pursue some long-term goal that could be well off the beaten track. It's a buttress for novelty, creativity and chance-taking — assuming a grant can be secured — and that's the currency of academia.

But those are the exceptions. In reality, the tenure selection process seems not so much about safeguarding unfettered inquiry as it is about enforcing an orthodoxy. Research papers, impact factors, grants, and income are the criteria on which judgments are made, and to do well by these measurements almost demands that a researcher engages in a mainstream field. . . .

Tenure, it seems, is the worst form of employment of academics apart from all the others that have been thought up.

Unfortunately the argument for full-blown tenure doesn't translate easily to the non-academic arena. Creativity and chance-taking are not an ends in themselves, businesses need to be financially viable. However, fixed-term tenure might be worth considering, providing the opportunity for employees to develop themselves and the business over a longer term. As with academic tenure, this may attract high-level candidates.
Perhaps most creatively of all, The Scientist produced this speculative look at tenure in 2012. Roll your mouse over each paragraph in Amy Scientist's CV to see The Scientist's assessment:


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