Managing the tenure process
Professors should not count on fairness to survive.
My stint at Loyola University (Md.) turned out to be my pre-retirement career and the longest in a succession of careers - 27 years. Becoming a tenurable professor at age 49 can be an invitation to failure. Expectations for an older professor are much higher and transitioning successfully from a professional into a scholarly academic writer is not a given.
But tenure was not my chief concern. All I wanted was 6 years of productive employment - enough to get my two children through college on a free tuition ride. Then at age 55. I could plot my next move. The moment I stepped on the campus in May of 1984 that old school Catholic atmosphere won me over. After 16 years in public higher education, I was ready for a Jesuit value-centered school. Getting a tenure-track appointment fulfilled a long hidden objective.
With only a masters degree, my selection would be bucking a national trend in higher education. However, the stars were definitely positioned in my favor. My journalism degree from Columbia University gave me that Ivy League sheen and my New York professional and academic experiences, all supported Loyola’s repositioning itself from a local to a regional powerhouse. Rev. Joe Sellinger SJ, president, didn’t fail to notice that my early Catholic School background included a freshman year at the Jesuit run Brooklyn Prep.
Undoubtedly my Catholic background was a factor. The head of the search committee was Dr. Sue Abromaitis (English chair) who had read my news book on the first papal visit to the US, “The Pilgrimage for Peace.” However, her decision to support my candidacy was based on my declaration of no intention to form a journalism major. The fact that I had done so previously at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and The School of Visual Arts (NYC) may have been cause for alarm.
Little did if know that the academic VP, Tom Scheye’s objective was just that. Both he and Dean David Roswell (Arts and Sciences) understood that moving to the next level required that there be a communications major. I was their man, a steal at $22,000 per year. My surreptitious presence on the campus was a hidden threat to them.
In fact, when tenure time rolled around, I was told by Dr. Abromaitis that Tom Scheye would oppose my application. And she would too because I had lied about my plans regarding a journalism program. I assured her that at the time of my interview I had been truthful, and it was only after hiring that the administration had set my course. Proof was the summer grant Dean Roswell gave me to plan the new journalism curriculum. Sue’s support flipped to my side.
My strange tale begins in year one when Tom Scheye and I walked casually across the campus and he volunteered, “No faculty member has ever had more impact on this campus in their first year than you have.” I didn’t get it, but puffed up at such a personal declaration of support and approval - rare in higher education, unless there was another objective. Perhaps he anticipated the pressures that were headed my way in the push-pull involved in establishing a new major.
Where I started slipping in meeting the administration’s expectations still is not clear to me. As faculty advisor to the student newspaper there were always a steady stream of complaints, the most startling of which came to President Sellinger through Baltimore’s Cardinal from the Papal Nuncio in Washington, DC. The student editors always sought ways to tackle difficult subjects under the noses of critical faculty and admins. This one time they decided to review a book on abortion that had been published quite a few years ago. Well some local parish complained to Rome and it was sent to the Vatican Ambassador for action. I hadn’t realized that the Jesuits’ were directly responsible to the Pope. It took a rapid tap dance, but I avoided the inquisition.
In other flash points, I was the departmental rep to the always contrarian Faculty Senate. And then to the more powerful Faculty Council. I was also a member of the national AAUP, a Union-like labor organization of university faculty.
Well the next year on a reprise of my walk with Tom Scheye, he blurted out another observation, “You know it’s easy to be popular with students, but getting the respect of the faculty is what counts.” That was all the hint I needed. At the next campus-wide election for President of the Faculty Senate, I ran and won. And did it again.
The Senate was a quasi official body. And I knew that I needed to find some turf where I could engage Tom directly. So in another campus-wide election, I was voted on to the Faculty Compensation Committee, probably the most important college committee after Rank and Tenure. And in short order I moved to the position of Committee Chair. From there I employed negotiating tactics not ever seen by constantly referring critical issues and revolutionary proposal to faculty referenda. Armed with such support I was able to get a stronger say in compensation, even establishing a basic COLA before monies were allocated for merit pay. The Business faculty on the Committee chafed, and some years after I left they managed to kill COLA. Since merit pay was determined mostly by publications, the Business faculty were able to rack up bigger numbers with flimsy submissions to rather suspect journals. I never understood why a reward for a single publication would be compounded over the length of a career, when a single substantial payment could have sufficed.
And in case the administration did not appreciate the support I received from most faculty, I decided to go national. Always active in the Association for Education in Journalism, I became head of the Magazine Division, where I instituted a national competition among students plus other innovations.
When I first accepted the administrations mandate to create the journalism major I requested that my proposal and curriculum be counted on the publications side in my tenure package. Annual meetings with Tom and David indicated it was an easily forgotten unwritten promise. Nor was there much enthusiasm over my extensive op-ed pieces in local and national dailies. My approach to the form was to frame them as “contemplations” rather than hard news commentary. Not enough!
I now saw that my scholarly publications record would be my Achilles heel. The few I had, including a book collection on internships, would be singled out as inadequate. So I decided to expand output by partnering with faculty from other disciplines and getting peer reviewed publications in related fields. Meanwhile I continued to publish in Journalism Educator.
My idea wasn’t to just publish, but to hide my work from the administration. It cost me a few dollars in merit pay, but my work never appeared in my annual reports. However, they came into full sight in my tenure package. As a result the administration letters against me were weak and I sailed through to tenure.
There was one piece of unfinished business. My wife, Judy Dobler, was up for tenure in the same year. We had decided to get married before the stress of the tenure process. Well the administration didn’t get me, but they did stop Judy. Of course this caused and uproar on campus because, like me, Judy had been promised her work in “Writing Across the Curriculum” would count for her publications. Luckily we found Tom Scheye’s commitment tucked away in one of the grant documents, and on the Presidents recommendation, the Tenure Committee reversed her denial. I had told the President that I would be refusing tenure if Judy’s situation was not righted.
So I entered 1990 having overcome significant obstacles to tenure. As I watch the Netflix series on “The Chair” I hope that I see more about methods of “outfoxing” administrations when they are less than pure in motive or place dollars before values.