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MLA Report Calls for Tenure and Promotion Changes

New demands for research productivity, shrinking humanities lists by academic publishers and fears about limited opportunities for junior scholars are among the factors that prompted a landmark study released today by the Modern Language Association of America.

In 2004, the MLA’s executive council created a task force to examine current standards and emerging trends in publication requirements for tenure and promotion in English and foreign language departments in the United States. The council’s action came in response to factors including worries that forms of scholarship other than single-authored books were not being properly recognized, and concerns that a generation of junior scholars would have a significantly reduced chance of being tenured. The task force was charged with investigating the factual basis behind the concerns and making recommendations to address the changing environment, in which scholarship is being evaluated in tenure and promotion decisions.

The MLA survey showed that well over 20 percent of tenure-track faculty members leave the departments that originally hired them before they come up for tenure. Data from studies conducted by other groups found that fewer than 40 percent of the doctoral recipients who make up the pool of applicants for tenure-track positions obtain them and go through the tenure process at the institutions where they are initially hired. A somewhat larger number of modern language doctorate recipients — more than 40 percent — never obtain tenure-track appointments. Doctoral-degree holders in the fields represented by the MLA have about a 35 percent chance of getting tenure.

“There is a need for greater transparency,” says Domna C. Staton, chair of the Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. “We’re responding to the junior scholars who tell us that they are not clear about tenure expectations. It’s time for greater transparency to occur throughout the process. We want them to know what’s expected of them from the outset.”

According to the survey, tenure candidates cite increased demands for publication. They say rising expectations are driven by some of the country’s most prestigious research universities, causing a ripple effect throughout all sectors of higher education. The concern is that while heavy emphasis is placed on publication when it comes to tenure and promotion, consideration is not always given for those at institutions with heavy teaching loads. 

More than 62 percent of all departments report that publication has become more important in tenure decisions over the past 10 years. While publication expectations for tenure and promotion have increased, the value that departments place on scholarly activity outside monograph publications remains within a restricted range. Refereed journal articles continue to be valued, with only 1.6 percent of responding departments saying it was “not important.” However, other activities were more widely devalued, such as translations (rated not important by 30.4 percent of departments); textbook authorship (28.9 percent); bibliographic scholarship (28.8 percent); scholarly editions (20 percent); and editing a scholarly journal (20.7 percent).

More troubling is the devaluing of the electronic medium, an extensively used resource for scholars across the humanities: 40.8 percent of departments in doctoral-granting institutions report no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7 percent report no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format.

“We’re finding that it’s mostly a lack of experience. It will work itself out over time,” says Donald E. Hall, a member of the task force and chair of the foreign languages department at West Virginia University.

The results of the MLA survey covers the academic years from 1994-1995 to 2003-2004. The most significant data-gathering instrument was a spring 2005 online survey of 1,339 departments in 734 institutions across the country, covering a range of doctoral, master’s, and baccalaureate institutions.

The task force offered 20 recommendations for department heads and provosts to consider as they evaluate needs at their institutions. The recommendations included suggestions to calibrate expectations for achieving tenure and promotion with institutional values, mission and practice; rethink the dominance of the monograph; promote the scholarly essay; establish multiple pathways to tenure; and use scholarly portfolios.

The report also recommends that a study of minority faculty members be conducted and it suggests that scholarship, teaching and service be the three criteria for tenure. Departments should also facilitate collaboration among scholars and evaluate it fairly, the study says.

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