Is the focus on tenure and promotion a red herring?

Whenever academics gather to talk about community engagement, it is almost inevitable that someone will argue that, for this kind of activity to really take hold in higher education, it needs to be recognized in tenure and promotion decisions. This call for change is based on two assumptions:

  1. More faculty members will get involved in activities such as Community Service Learning and Community-Based Research if these activities count in tenure and promotion decisions.
  2. The revision of tenure and promotion guidelines and the concomitant increase in faculty participation will signify that community engaged scholarship has become a legitimate stream of academic activity. The community-university engagement movement will have reached its goal of transforming the academy.

I believe both of these assumptions are flawed.

Incentives to engage

In a study involving more than 500 faculty members in 29 U.S. higher education institutions, Abes, Jackson and Jones (2002) found that faculty who used service learning in their teaching (about half the sample) were motivated primarily by improved student learning outcomes. Tenure and promotion was not a significant motivator. Fewer than 20% of faculty who used service learning indicated they might not continue to do so as a result of not being rewarded for it in tenure and promotion decisions. Some faculty made a point of saying that internal rather than external rewards drove their use of service learning. For the half of the sample that did not use service learning, concerns regarding promotion and tenure were not an important deterrent to its use. More important deterrents included time and logistical considerations as well as a lack of knowledge about service learning. Only two respondents indicated that recognition in promotion and tenure decisions would increase the likelihood they would use service learning.

This research mirrors my own observations. Faculty who engage in community-based activities are more motivated by their intrinsic concern for students’ learning and/or a passion about addressing a particular societal issue than by external factors. The reluctance of faculty to do community-based work seems to be based on more immediate concerns than calculations about future rewards. Many do not really understand what community engagement is or how to do it and they (rightly) fear it will be time-consuming and may present unfamiliar logistical challenges (e.g., managing risk in community settings).

Changing academic culture

Champions of community engagement in the U.S. have been advocating for changes to tenure and promotion guidelines for many years. Some valuable resources have been created (e.g., CCPH has created a guide for review committees and individual faculty on how to incorporate community engaged scholarship in tenure and promotion). Some universities have reformed their institutional policies to explicitly recognize community outreach (e.g., Portland State). But, overall, the call to change tenure and promotion has not gained much traction. Even among the first 76 U.S. institutions to receive the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement in 2006, few had tenure and promotion policies that recognized community engagement (Driscoll cited in Schnaubelt and Statham, 2007). A 2009 discussion paper by Saltmarsh, Hartley and Clayton observes that few U.S. universities have made the significant structural reforms that would signal that community engagement is valued as a core function. The paper asserts that the momentum needed for engagement to become institutionalized is waning in the U.S. The authors argue that, while many higher education institutions are undertaking activities in particular communities, few institutions have embraced deeper forms of community engagement whose purposes and processes challenge traditional epistemologies and practices. Not enough attention is being paid to how the work is done and why it is done. The authors call for higher education to embrace forms of engagement that are rooted in explicit democratic values. They contend that this will result in a transformation of academic culture and a fulfillment of higher education’s fundamental mission to prepare students for lives as engaged citizens.

The Canadian context

Canadian universities seem to agree that a primary purpose of higher education is to educate students to be responsible citizens. I recently reviewed the websites of the 30 universities who were rated the top 10 in each of the categories of the Macleans 2013 rankings. Of these 30 institutions, 25 had vision or mission statements or the equivalent on their websites. The statements of 72% (18) of these universities explicitly mentioned their aspiration to graduate socially responsible citizens. Forty percent (10) explicitly stated their intention to actively engage with communities in order to fulfill their mission.

The real disconnect

Those who argue that tenure and promotion policies need to change see this as an important bridge between institutional rhetoric and reality. But the call for more formal recognition for faculty in the absence of parallel arguments about the need to formally recognize other key players in community engagement represents a more fundamental disconnect that risks undermining the moral authority of the community engagement “movement.”

I believe that one of the most effective ways to teach the skills and dispositions of citizenship is by example. But the focus on tenure and promotion means that professors are essentially saying to students, “You need to get out into the community, learn about the issues, and altruistically contribute your skills and talents so that the world will be a better place. But it’s really unfair that I don’t get points towards my own career advancement when I get involved in the community.” What kind of role model does this provide?

The rhetoric about deep community engagement asserts that power must be shared in campus-community relationships. Community partners should participate as equals and their knowledge must be valued. But when community people learn that faculty champions of community engagement are focused on ensuring that professors get lifelong job security, higher salaries and more prestige, would it be a surprise that the community might wonder whether academics understand what is happening in the “real world” and whether the university’s commitment to solving societal problems is authentic?

The focus on tenure and promotion not only risks disillusioning and alienating the very people on whom the success of community engagement depends, it fails to address the real reasons why more faculty have not adopted activities like Community Service Learning or Community-Based Research. This effort also spends limited resources on a tactic that has so far not resulted in significant change in academic culture or structures. My next post will explore the question of what alternative strategies or tactics might more effectively move the community engagement agenda forward.

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.