Trower’s Tenure Troubles

The recent flurry of debate about tenure’s value has featured a revival of sorts for Harvard Education School professor Cathy Trower. The New York Times‘ “Room for Debate” section included a contribution from Trower, in which she proposed a “constitutional convention” selected through a kind of quota system—“selected to mirror the diversity the academy presumably desires”—to redefine tenure. Writing in Slate, Christopher Beam glowingly quoted Trower arguing that “the current system may actually be scaring talented young people away from academia. ‘This one-size-fits-all, rigid six-year up-and-out tenure system isn’t working well,’ she says . . . Don’t abolish tenure altogether, says Trower. Just rework it. Create a tenure track that explicitly rewards teaching. Give interdisciplinary centers the authority to produce tenured professors. Allow for breaks in the tenure track if a professor needs to take time off. Offer the option of part-time tenure, a lower-cost alternative for professors who want to hold other jobs. In other words, make tenure flexible rather than a monolithic, in-or-out club.” Beam cited Evergreen State College, a far-left, AAC&U-oriented institution (best-known nationally as the institution that produced the late anti-Israel “activist” Rachel Corrie), as the model for his and Trower’s vision.
I first encountered Trower in 2003, when Brooklyn College’s then-provost, Roberta (“teaching is a political act”) Matthews invited her to address all of the college’s 31 departmental personnel committees. The event was an eye-opener. Among other things, Trower proclaimed that “merit is socially constructed by a dominant coalition,” and “even if we don’t think we are biased, there’s a good chance that we are”; she suggested that opponents of affirmative action will ignore all evidence contrary to their beliefs and just gather all evidence to support their view. As part of her call for new personnel standards, she recommended white male job candidates demonstrate a commitment to “furthering diversity on campus” before being hired; redefining expectations for scholarly excellence to demand projects that achieved “improvement of society as well as advancement of knowledge”; and reorienting tenure standards to address the “accumulated disadvantage” for faculty of color that their teaching and scholarship don’t meet the requirements for tenure.


Trower packaged these extremist recommendations around a seemingly benign veneer of desiring more transparency. My then-colleague, David Berger (now a dean at Yeshiva), posed a reasonable question of Trower: how could a tenure proposal designed to achieve transparency be based on claims that “merit is socially constructed by a dominant coalition” and that current, measurable research standards discriminate against African-Americans? Trower dismissed Berger by confining his vision of the academy to the “20th century,” while hers, she said, reflected a “21st century” agenda.
Trower’s national profile had seemed to diminish a bit at about the time of her Brooklyn appearance, as a few institutions implemented her schemes and found them wanting. The University of Arizona, for instance, proposed “recruiting not just one or even two diverse faculty members as isolated ‘targets of opportunity,’ but rather a critical mass of diverse professors who have shared intellectual interests.” “Diversity,” therefore, would become little more than a mask to ensure ideological conformity among the new faculty, as part of a broader reorientation of personnel policy: “In order to make significant progress in creating a more diverse faculty and a campus that truly embraces diversity, the advancement of diversity must be established as a primary indicator of quality.” Resistance from politicians who and trustees who oversaw the university helped water down the plans.
Now, Trower is back. However severe the current problems are in academia, I think I’d prefer the status quo over the tenure schemes promoted by Trower.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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