Last spring, I signed 18 letters to University of Toledo faculty members. They stated in part: "I am pleased to inform you that the Board of Trustees approved my recommendation that you be granted tenure."
Tenure, in higher-education terminology, is permanent appointment to a position. Its intent is to enable faculty to pursue the creation of knowledge without fear of persecution by the academic establishment.
Those otherwise formulaic letters held special significance. They marked the first time I had made my recommendations based not only on the candidates' dossiers, as has been traditional at UT, but also on a 30-minute personal interview I had with each tenure candidate.
I learned much from those interviews. I learned of the wide variation across the university in the volume of published material that departments have decided qualifies a candidate for tenure.
In some departments, a corpus of several peer-reviewed writings is expected. In others, a publication requirement hardly seems to exist. The degree to which other forms of communication, such as artistic performance or a work of visual art, may offset a publication requirement is not codified at all.
I learned that in the 21st century, tenure is much less about academic freedom than job security. Particularly fearful to candidates is the six-year, up-or-out anachronism to which our university still subscribes. Those fears are understandable in light of the poor academic job market in many disciplines.
I learned much about new and fascinating fields. That knowledge left me feeling throughout the interviews that I was the winner in the conversations. I felt indebted to those 18 wonderful people.
However, a president can hardly justify disrupting the placidity of the university just to enjoy learning something. I decided to conduct personal interviews with each tenure applicant because they are a minimal and appropriate exercise of presidential responsibility.
In October, 2009, I wrote in a note to our provosts: "In view of the net present value commitment inherent in the granting of tenure, I propose to interview personally all applicants for tenure." I estimate the value of tenure for a 40-year-old faculty member to be in the range of $2.5 million, with a potential impact on the institution for two or three decades.
I now understand why tenure has been called the "third rail" of higher education. Many reactions to my interview plan were extremely negative.
Others were less critical, and suggested that the interview could be construed as an opportunity to showcase their work and build a positive relationship with the university president. I, of course, subscribe to that view.
The questions I asked in the interviews were standard: Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your research. Do you enjoy teaching? The candidates handled them with ease.
The Faculty Senate passed two resolutions opposing my idea. The first one asked me to "reconsider." I did. I consulted mentors and advisers, and lost sleep. In the end, however, I came out in the same place.
Later last winter, the senate passed a second resolution expressing "in the strongest possible terms its disapproval of the President's decision to interview tenure candidates prior to approving their application."
That resolution was preceded by an open letter from faculty members to the university's trustees, published in The Independent Collegian, our off-campus newspaper. "However appealing to commonsense notions it [a presidential interview] might be," the letter said, "it is not a 'usual' part of the assessment of tenure candidates."
The board rejected those arguments and formally stated its support of the interviews. In view of the controversy my decision caused, I made what might seem to be a cowardly decision, and certainly a pragmatic and expedient one: I decided to recommend tenure for all 18 candidates unless they were clearly unqualified.
There were no candidates who could be so described. No utterance or gesture from any of the candidates during the interviews caused me even to pause.
I'm planning to interview tenure candidates again this academic year, and I am resolved to raise the bar. I am prepared to make a negative recommendation if I encounter a marginal candidate.
I'm looking forward to the interviews, hoping that I will contribute, however infinitesimally, to the university's pursuit of excellence.
Lloyd A. Jacobs is president of the University of Toledo.