The Tenure System and the Chase of Global Rankings by Universities

Published April 02, 2013

Mak Yuen Teen

The news that Cherian George has been denied tenure at Nanyang Technological University has sparked a debate that I think may have missed the point.  To link his failure to obtain tenure to possible political interference is pure speculation. A far more important debate should be about whether the tenure system and the chase of global rankings by Singapore universities, which have led to an obsession with publications in “elite” academic journals, is harming the quality of education and making these universities irrelevant to society.

Many people outside of the university system do not understand why there is such a thing as tenure in the first place. It’s easy to see why. There are few jobs in the world where strong performance in the first few years of your career straight out of school (albeit doctoral school) effectively guarantees a job until retirement, which at universities here is now 65. Tenure was invented to protect “academic freedom”, but seriously, how many academics in Singapore or elsewhere today do work that puts them at risk of offending someone and losing their jobs? Academics here are, by and large, an obedient lot – certainly when it comes to not creating controversy through their work.

 It would be easy to see the perverse behavior that the tenure system can create, and the system has certainly created some “dead wood” within universities in the past. Of course, there are annual performance reviews, and poorly performing academics may have their pay frozen and receive no bonuses for many years. But if an academic does not care too much about this, he can almost literally stop contributing after getting tenure and not get fired.

Universities reformed their promotion and tenure processes in an attempt to make the process more objective, transparent and rigorous. In theory, this should reduce the risk of undeserving academics getting tenure.  The problem is that while the bar for tenure has been raised considerably over the years in terms of academic research, the criteria have become largely uni-dimensional and the definition of what qualifies as quality research very narrow.  

Of course, the quality of teaching and other contributions count too. But they are more like “hygiene” factors. They should be present but they are not going to swing the case. If the academic research record is strong, teaching quality can be very average and other contributions can be minimal. In fact, “rookies” are often hot-housed by being given reduced teaching loads and minimal teaching preparation and shielded from having to provide service (such as to the department, university or industry) in their first few years.

I was one of the pioneer batches of NUS academics who had to go through the new tenure system when NUS adopted it in the early 2000s, which largely bases the grant of tenure on academic research, evaluated by a panel of external reviewers. I was somewhat lucky that I went through the system as a transition case, and the bar for academic research had not been raised to the level that it is set today.  If I go through the system today, I am quite certain that I would not be granted tenure, even though at the time I went through the system, I had half a dozen of academic publications in journals in accounting and finance that are ranked in the top 10 in the world. Today, top 10 would not be good enough – it is more like top 3 or 4 – and without at least three to four in these “tier 1” journals, one would almost certainly not stand a chance.

As I reflected on how my academic publications have contributed to practice, policy or society at large, I have to sadly conclude “virtually nothing”. For many disciplines, including business, there is often a disconnect between academic research and the real world. The work I have done since attaining tenure, which is focused on practice and policy, has arguably had a far bigger impact on the real world. But they would not have counted for much if I had to go up for tenure today – although to be fair, the university does recognize my work as “service”.  

If the “rookie” does not get tenure within 6 years, he or she may get a short contract extension or a final 3-year contract. Realistically, that is more to allow him or her to find another job. Before anyone starts feeling sorry for the rookie who fails to get tenure, they should note that these rookies are often hired fresh out of doctorate schools with no working experience and paid salaries that are higher than those have been teaching in the universities for many years. It’s a high risk-high reward “game”. Sort of like in investment banking.

I think it is time for boards of trustees of universities, the Ministry of Education, the government and taxpayers to ask whether the heavy emphasis on so-called “tier 1” academic research in promotion and tenure decisions has led to serious unintended consequences. So what are these unintended consequences?

First,   I believe it has considerably weakened teaching quality and the student centricity of universities.  Of course, universities will claim that teaching and impact on industry and policy are also important, but the fact is that generally “tier 1” academic research figures disproportionately in tenure and promotion decisions.  Some schools may have the clout to ameliorate this to some extent, for example through what are considered “tier 1” journals, but by and large, it is academic research published in a very small number of journals that counts.

Universities may have separate tracks for those who are outstanding teachers or who are practice-oriented, but tenure is only available for those on “research track”. It is another indication about the primacy of academic research compared to teaching and other contributions.  This has, to some extent, created a “class” system within universities between those on the “research track” and those on teaching or practice tracks.

Second, the chase for rankings and the tenure system have led to fundamental changes in recruitment and talent development within universities. Universities now tend to hire a lot from doctoral schools in the US. One reason is that the top-ranked journals tend to be US-based and most papers published in those journals use US data (or certainly data from large markets which are of interest to US readers). The other reason is that US universities are perceived to produce better quality doctoral graduates – a not unreasonable assumption if “quality” is defined in the context of the ability to execute highly technical academic research, particularly in the area of business research, but arguably untrue if this is defined in the context of teaching quality.  Some of these doctoral graduates – often foreign students in the US universities – may be able to do highly technical research, but struggle to write or speak good English. 

Universities have largely abandoned doctoral scholarships for Singaporeans, whereby promising Singaporeans are sent to good overseas universities for fully-funded doctoral education and who are then bonded to serve the universities. Developing talent has given way to just buying talent. Some schools have also copied from US schools the practice of not hiring their own doctoral graduates for the purported reason of avoiding “in-breeding”. When so many of the professors are hired from overseas, I just do not see the risk of “in-breeding” by hiring your own graduates. I just see a wasteful loss of opportunity to develop and use your own talent – or a lack of confidence in our own graduates.

When “talent” is defined so narrowly, it will undoubtedly lead to a lack of diversity in universities, and over time, a decline in number of good teachers. Ironically, the narrow focus on academic research may eventually lead to decline in certain rankings, such as those for MBA and executive MBA programmes because, often, those who are inclined towards highly academic research are not sufficiently connected to the real world to be able to teach competently on such programmes or to contribute much to improving the future prospects of these graduates.

Third, academics here fail to exploit their comparative advantage of being located in Singapore and Asia and do research that is relevant to this region, but instead do research using data from US and other large markets and for which we have no comparative advantage. Ironically, overseas universities in Europe, North America and Australia often set up Asia-focused research centres and programmes to study Asia.  It is quite possible that one day, they will become experts in our frontyard, while we pick up scraps from their backyard.

The worrying thing is that we may now be experiencing what I may call the “Lance Armstrong” effect. After we started feeding on “tier 1” research and started winning accolades, we cannot break out of the habit, knowing that if we stop, we will start “losing” and our rankings will fall. With the media fixated on rankings and stakeholders watching over these rankings, we dare not loosen the focus on “tier 1” research. As we climb higher, the incline becomes steeper and we have to do even more of the same to continue the climb. I wonder whether those responsible for the university sector have considered what the endgame in all this is. I certainly hope it’s not the same as the endgame for Lance Armstrong.



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