This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Simpson calls some tenure practices "inappropriate"

Published: October 14, 2004

Contributing Editor

President John B. Simpson told the Faculty Senate Executive Committee yesterday that in reviewing how UB handles applications for tenure, he and Satish Tripathi, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, "have found some of the practices in applying these policies are inappropriate."

Peter A. Nickerson, chair of the Faculty Senate and professor of pathology, had asked the senate's Tenure and Privileges Committee to look at several issues regarding promotions, prompting a lengthy discussion of these issues at yesterday's meeting. In response, Simpson outlined what he believes the faculty should be concerned with in thinking about promotions.

"The first is that we want to have a fair and representative judgment. Faculty across the university should be judged with the same criteria appropriate for their discipline, and that follows as teachers and as public servants," Simpson said.

"Inherent in this is that they have the same time frame. I do not believe we should be in the business of allowing people some number of extra years because the book has been delayed, because the dog ate it or something like that. It's a six-year world. You do what you have to do in six years or you do not belong in this university."

The committee also discussed the practice by some departments of allowing candidates to extend their teaching time—in effect, buying extra time to prepare themselves to qualify for tenure—by transferring to "qualified lines" as visiting or clinical researchers.

"As president, if I have anything to say about it, I will very rarely allow something like that to happen," Simpson responded.

"This is not to say that if somebody has an entirely legitimate reason for turning off the tenure clock, such as they have a family leave. Of course, but we all play by a certain set of rules."

Another issue that needs review, according to Nickerson, is the quality, quantity and source of the letters of recommendation that tenure candidates include in their dossiers. Samuel D. Schack, chair of the Tenure and Privileges Committee, noted that past candidates have sometimes included several internal letters, written by UB colleagues, without an equal number of letters from sources at other institutions. Simpson advised the group to set its own criteria regarding these letters.

"We need whatever information we need as faculty to make the appropriate judgment. You cannot and should not ever let the quality control reside with anyone but your faculty. You do not want the dean or the provost or the president making your decisions for you. You have to think what you need to make the judgment," Simpson said.

"My view? I'm looking at somebody who is an assistant professor in my department to be promoted? I want good, external validation from the universities that I believe are my peers or superiors to help me evaluate whether this person is, in fact, qualified."

As far as faculty who elect to spend a year or more as visiting professors at other institutions, Simpson offered a similar opinion.

"My reaction is, 'the clock is running.' I can imagine contriving easily what amounts to unfair use of the rules. I call my buddy up in California and say I want to come spend a year and, in effect, take myself off the clock to get an extra year to, quite frankly, compete unfairly."

William H. Baumer, professor of philosophy and parliamentarian for the Faculty Senate, summarized the current guidelines in place at UB regarding tenure decisions and offered his own opinion of some of the loopholes that have been used to get around them.

"Our (SUNY) board of trustees put in place the standard AAUP (Association of American University Professors) longstanding criteria, which is that any appointment beyond seven years is a tenured appointment or, in our jargon, a continuing appointment," Baumer explained. "The approach that we have taken to that, I think right across the university, is that in the sixth year—since we are supposed to give people at least a year's notice if they are not going to be reappointed—in the sixth year, at the latest, the individual will be considered for promotion to associate professor with continuing appointment, and that if that promotion is granted, fine. If that promotion is not granted, the practice in the past has been to issue a termination letter as of the end of the seventh year.

"Some cases have, if you will, evaded this standard—and I use that term deliberately—by using a qualified rank appointment and that means that the title, for payroll purposes, is either visiting researcher or clinical because those are the recognized qualifications to the ranks in the trustees' policy," Baumer said.

"I have known (these appointments) to go as long as three years. The excuse or the explanation or justification has been we have a very good candidate here who, for one reason or another, has been delayed in getting a book published. In the few cases that I know well, it hasn't been worth the extra time."

Simpson also told the FSEC that the actual ceremony tomorrow during which he will be invested as UB's 14th president "is really a minor event" in terms of the month-long inaugural celebration now under way at the university.

"It is not about me, it's about the university," Simpson said, adding that he prefers that the focus of Friday's ceremony will be "to celebrate our academic enterprise."

The Faculty Senate also heard a report from the Information and Library Committee, chaired by Mary B. Cassata, associate professor of communication, who described libraries "as the central nervous system of the university."

Stephen M. Roberts, assistant vice president for university libraries, told senators that UB has a new five-year contract with Elsevier/ScienceDirect that will provide the university libraries access to 1,800 journals by January 2005 at a cost of $1.2 million annually.

Roberts also told the group that the library storage-facility project, to be built behind the Holiday Inn in Amherst, is in a rebidding process and "if all goes well, construction will begin in March." The facility is designed to hold 1.5 million volumes "or half of the content of our existing libraries," Roberts said, thus providing room for new materials and study spaces for students.