Would the Ghostbusters get tenure?

They may be the ones you call when an oversized marshmallow is attacking New York, but would they make it through the hoops needed to get tenure? I recently saw the new Ghostbusters movie and was struck by the role of tenure at the beginning of the movie. While some of the details weren’t very accurate, the specifics around tenure made me ask the question: Would the Ghostbusters get tenure?

Who you gonna call?

Kristen Wiig’s character Erin Gilbert is going up for tenure at Columbia University. She is worried when a book she wrote years earlier regarding the paranormal is suddenly available on Amazon. No self respecting physicist—and certainly not one receiving tenure at a top university—would write such a ridiculous book.

There is a scene early in the film with her department chair or maybe dean (I don’t think the person’s role was identified). He states that Gilbert has a referral letter from Princeton, but “their department isn’t what it used to be so she should get someone from a more prestigious university.” “More prestigious than Princeton?” she asks incredulously.

I won’t spoil too much, but Gilbert is fired after a video of her saying “ghosts are real” appears online after a run-in with a ghost. The department chair says, “you represent the university when you get tenure and this isn’t what we stand for at this university.”

The story brings me to a real issue that I’ve experienced personally and is one of the biggest challenges with tenure: interacting with senior colleagues.

The criticisms of tenure are well-known: it supports lazy and unproductive faculty, emphasizes research causing poor teaching, you can’t fire faculty who deserve to be fired.

Occasionally, you will hear the criticism that tenure allows senior faculty to clone themselves rejecting junior faculty who have research agendas and methodological approaches that they disagree with for philosophical and not quality reasons.

Probably in part by virtue of the fact that I teach higher education and not a more controversial field, I have never felt the need to have academic freedom to protect me from state legislators or from public backlash. However, I have needed the protections of tenure and academic freedom when dealing with senior colleagues and administrators. In both big and small ways, I have had colleagues attempt to influence or intimidate me into changing my position on an prospective graduate student applicant, on a dissertation committee, or on a faculty search committee.

Sometimes these were unintentional attempts while others were more malicious. The reality is that there is a power dynamic between senior and junior faculty.

And like it or not, senior faculty hold most of the cards in the tenure awarding process.

This brings me back to the Ghostbusters story. Setting aside some of the technical details about tenure that the movie got wrong (such as the fact that Gilbert was immediately fired without an appeals process or an out year), the story raises an interesting question.

If Gilbert had chosen to study the paranormal as a formal part of her research agenda, would she have gotten tenure?

Yes, I know this is a little silly in light of the Ghostbusters, but stick with me here.

If Gilbert had used rigorous academic methods, published in the right places, would she have gotten tenure?

I suspect not. I would guess the other faculty in her department would not want someone who studies ghosts sullying their department’s reputation.

I know– this is all silly because there’s no such thing as ghosts.

But, what if we put this in another context?

What about a faculty member who uses qualitative research approaches in a department that values quantitative work?

What about a faculty member who takes a critical lens to inform her work?

What about women and scholars of color who sometimes approach their fields differently than their older and white colleagues?

The question isn’t so silly any longer.

I am a huge proponent of tenure. I believe tenure and academic freedom are an invaluable part of higher education and their decline is cause for great concern.

Yet, I also believe we need to be willing to identify flaws in the system and this may be one of the biggest.

While senior faculty don’t set out to clone themselves, it is very easy to fall into this trap.

We look for people who have been socialized like we were, have similar academic values and expectations, and have worked with leading scholars from top programs.

Moreover, we all have a bias when it comes to what is acceptable academic work. These expectations include where an assistant professor should publish (while ignoring the biases that publications hold) and the type of methods that should be employed to answer research questions.

No tenure committee will come out and say that they don’t believe in the value of the research questions that a pre-tenure assistant professor is asking. Instead code words such as impact or rigor might be invoked.

To be sure, we should be judging our tenure candidates on their impact and rigor. Both of these ideas are important to showing the significance of one’s work.

However, I do worry that at times they can be used because senior colleagues just don’t like the questions being asked.

In Provost: Experiences, Reflections, and Advice from a Former “Number Two” on Campus, Larry A. Nielsen tells the story of a department that rejected a tenure candidate because the candidate hadn’t published in the “A journals” that the department had identified. The candidate’s work was in a subfield that wasn’t published in the department’s journal list, but had been published in equally outstanding journals. As provost, Nielsen overturned the decision and chastised the department for not recognizing the bias in their requirements and the lack of openness in their thinking.

I’m not sure every provost would make the same decision as Nielsen and I suspect every year tenure candidates are denied for similar reasons.

This is a problem that tenure committees, deans, and provosts need to be addressing.

I also fear this issue is impacting women, underrepresented minorities, and interdisciplinary scholars to a greater degree to most faculty. Three groups that nearly every university in the nation would say that they want to grow.

So, would the Ghostbusters get tenure? I don’t think so.

And that should make us afraid.

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