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2011-01-24

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Provost proposes to lengthen faculty tenure period to 10 years

By Kyle Swanson, Managing Editor
Published January 23, 2011

University Provost Philip Hanlon will discuss a change to restrictions on the University’s tenure process when he addresses the University's leading faculty governance body later this afternoon.

In an exclusive interview with the Michigan Daily on Friday, Hanlon said he is evaluating a potential change to bylaw 5.09 — a University Board of Regents policy that governs the tenure track process for faculty members. If Hanlon decides to move forward with the change he is considering, faculty members could stay on tenure track for a longer period of time.

The bylaw, originally implemented in 1944, currently allows schools and colleges at the University to set their own timetables for tenure track faculty. However, no school is allowed to exceed seven years of probation and a one-year terminal period for faculty who don’t receive tenure.

“The limit that made sense in 1944 makes less sense today,” Hanlon said.

Hanlon’s change — originally proposed several years ago by an advisory board that reports to the provost — would extend the maximum probationary period a school or college can offer a tenure track faculty member by two years. This would result in a maximum nine-year probationary period and a one-year terminal period.

But Hanlon stressed that the change wouldn’t mean a school or college would be forced to change their probationary period, only that they would have the option to do so.

“This doesn’t actually require anybody to change anything, but it enables the governing faculty within each school and college to go to a longer tenure clock if they want to,” Hanlon said.

He added that the change wouldn’t extend the time it takes a faculty member to gain tenure, but rather the amount of time they have to build his or her case.

And while the governing bodies at schools and colleges may decide to change the probationary period if Hanlon moves forward with the proposal and the regents approve the revision, Hanlon said he doesn’t expect many changes to occur.

“I don’t expect there to be a big rush for people to change because right now there are very few schools who are up against the current limit,” Hanlon said. “They could already be changing if they really wanted to push the limit.”

Currently, most schools at the University actually have less than the maximum eight-year tenure clock in place. The Law School, for example, uses a five-year probationary period, and most other schools have a six-year probationary period.

However, a few schools on campus use a seven-year probationary period — including the Medical School, the Dental School and the Ross School of Business — which places them at the limit once the one-year terminal period is included.

Hanlon said he expects the Medical School would be the most likely to take advantage of the longer probationary period, if implemented. An informal poll of about half of the faculty at the Medical School showed 80-percent support for extending the probationary period to a 10-year maximum, Hanlon added.

“Nationally, medical schools have been leaders in moving to longer tenure clocks,” Hanlon said.

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has no maximum probationary period for tenure track faculty, and Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City uses a 17-year probationary period. Several other leading medical schools use longer probationary periods, often 10 or 11 years in length.

The reason for the elongated tenure probationary periods, Hanlon said, is because several factors have changed in recent years, especially for medical faculty. These include increased regulatory requirements for research that involves humans or animals. Additionally, Hanlon said an increase in interdisciplinary research has led many tenure track faculty members to require more time to adequately complete their probationary periods.

The research constraints have led to increases in tenure track changes at the Medical School, Hanlon said. A greater proportion of tenure track faculty has been opting for clinical appointments because they don’t have enough time to complete work for their probationary periods.

Outside of research constraints, Hanlon said he is worried about the amount of pressure on tenure track faculty members. Citing the increase in single-parent families and the number of households in which both parents are working, Hanlon said he believes faculty are feeling more stress regarding how to strike an adequate balance between work and family. Furthermore, Hanlon said, increases in life expectancy also mean many faculty members now face more extensive obligations to care for their parents.

Hanlon told the Daily he has consulted with numerous constituencies — including deans, assistant deans, executive committees and faculty groups — and that his talk with the Senate Assembly is the last group he needs to receive feedback from. He said the feedback he has received has been mostly positive.

Once Hanlon consults with the Senate Assembly today, the faculty group is expected to pass a resolution to support or oppose the change. It is unclear which side the Senate Assembly will take, but the body’s executive committee, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, is largely opposed to the change, Hanlon said.

“It’s likely to be a vigorous debate,” Hanlon said.

Hanlon said he expects to make his final decision about how to proceed before the end of the week.

“If my decision is to propose a change, it could be happening as early as (this) week,” he said.

If that happens, the proposed revision, which changes "eight" to "10" in the existing bylaw, would be opened for public comment before going to the regents for consideration. The University’s Board of Regents would then make the final decision to implement or ignore the proposed change.

In an interview following last week’s Board of Regents meeting, University President Mary Sue Coleman told the Daily she is happy with the proposal Hanlon may submit to the regents.

“This has been studied pretty extensively in the University by a number of committees for a number of years, and I am very satisfied with the proposal because it ultimately leaves it up to each school or college to decide whether or not they want to go this way,” Coleman said.

Coleman also stressed she is supportive of the change because it leaves ultimate control over the probationary timeline with the faculty, which she said is where the authority should lie.

If the change is passed, Hanlon said he would continue to monitor tenure rates to make sure tenure track faculty are not adversely affected by the change.

Asked whether the change would have any other effects on the University, Hanlon said he couldn’t foresee any financial ramifications, but each school and college would have to evaluate whether a change might affect its recruiting and retention abilities.

And while Hanlon appears to be advocating for the change prior to his meeting with the Senate Assembly, he said he won’t make a final decision until after his meeting with the group today.

“I think there’s a lot of this that makes sense, but I want to withhold final judgment until I hear from the Senate Assembly,” Hanlon said.


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