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Leader of nation's biggest campus taking on tenure

Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee answers questions during an interview Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio. The leader of the country's largest university thinks it's time to re-examine how professors are awarded tenure, a type of job-for-life protection virtually unknown outside academia. Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee answers questions during an interview Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio. The leader of the country's largest university thinks it's time to re-examine how professors are awarded tenure, a type of job-for-life protection virtually unknown outside academia. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Associated Press Writer / February 4, 2010

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COLUMBUS, Ohio—The leader of the country's largest university thinks it's time to re-examine how professors are awarded tenure, a type of job-for-life protection virtually unknown outside academia.

Ohio State University President Gordon Gee says the traditional formula that rewards publishing in scholarly journals over excellence in teaching and other contributions is outdated and too often favors the quantity of a professor's output over quality.

"Someone should gain recognition at the university for writing the great American novel or for discovering the cure for cancer," he told The Associated Press. "In a very complex world, you can no longer expect everyone to be great at everything."

Plenty of people have raised the issue over the years, but Gee is one of the few American college presidents with the reputation and political prowess -- not to mention the golden touch at fundraising -- who might be able to begin the transformation.

Still, some professors are already skeptical.

"The idea of awarding tenure based on teaching makes me anxious," said Jennifer Higginbotham, an English professor at Ohio State who's up for tenure in three years. By then, she will need to publish a book she's writing about conceptions of girlhood in the Middle Ages to have any chance at the promotion.

"There's a feeling, I think, that good teachers are a dime a dozen," said Higginbotham, 32. "I'm not sure what you'd have to do to distinguish yourself enough as a teacher to get tenure."

Tenure, which makes firing and other discipline difficult if not impossible, can seem ridiculously generous to outsiders. But the job protection gives professors the freedom to express ideas and conduct studies without fear of reprisal.

Tenure review, which took its current form in the 1940s, typically emphasizes publications over teaching and sometimes weighs whether a professor brings in research grants. Besides job protection, tenure also figures into salaries. A full professor with tenure at Ohio State earns about $126,000 annually.

The late Ernest Boyer, a former chancellor of New York's state university system, raised some of same issues in his groundbreaking 1990 book, "Reconsidering Scholarship."

A few universities have taken steps towards Boyer's model, including Portland State University and Western Carolina University.

At California State University at Monterey Bay, professors are graded on their teaching, research, service to the community and service to the university. Their teaching must be rated at least "commendable" -- the second highest rating.

"We're asking faculty to look at their teaching really as an area of scholarship, just like they would their research," said Marsha Moroh, dean of the school's college of science, media arts and technology.

Gee is not yet giving specific examples of how a reformed tenure system would work. In order to make sweeping changes, he would need cooperation from faculty and administrators across the university system.

Taking on tenure will be the third big academic undertaking for Gee, who was hired away from Vanderbilt University in 2007 for his second stint at Ohio State after a term in the 1990s. Time magazine last year named him the country's best college president.

The 65-year-old is seemingly omnipresent on campus, striding from event to event in his trademark bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses at a pace that exhausts younger aides. He's up daily at 4:30 a.m. to exercise and stays busy into the evenings, popping into student parties or attending athletic events.

Gee earlier reorganized Ohio State's arts-and-sciences division and switched the school from a calendar based on quarters to one arranged by semester. Both changes ruffled plenty of feathers.

He raised a record $1.2 billion at Vanderbilt and is aiming for a record $2.5 billion at Ohio State.

Then there's the little matter of keeping tabs on one of the nation's biggest athletic departments and its outsized football program at a school with a total statewide enrollment of more than 63,000.

Gee said a new approach to tenure is needed to ensure the university stays relevant to students and the outside world. The recession has helped highlight the importance of higher education to the economy, he said, so now is the right time to make big changes.

"The universities of the 21st century are going to be the smokestacks of the century," Gee said, referring to the heavy industry that once dominated the American economy. "The notion of the large, massive public university that can exist in isolated splendor is dead."

One challenge is the complexity of big universities, which have numerous divisions accustomed to doing things their own way. Ohio State has more than 100 academic units capable of granting tenure.

"In effect, there are a hundred different sets of criteria for granting promotion or evaluating an individual faculty member's case," said Tim Gerber, a longtime music professor and chairman of the university's faculty council.

The pressure to get tenure is also greater as universities rely more on part-time faculty and non-tenure track professors. While the number of tenure track positions grew by 7 percent between 1975 and 2007, the number of non-tenure track jobs more than tripled, according to the American Association of University Professors.

"There are many ways faculty members spend their time that may have been very important five years ago but may not be as important now," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "Maybe we need to free them up so their time can be directed in ways that have an impact on students."

Gee is the country's highest-paid public university president with an annual income of more than $1.5 million, including salary, retirement and deferred compensation.

His office is crammed with Ohio State memorabilia that includes a Gordon Gee bobblehead toy, but the first thing that grabs a visitor's attention is the framed poster of John Belushi from the 1978 college party film "Animal House."

The next poster to grab the eye is a quotation: "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."

(This version CORRECTS professor's last name to Gerber, not Weber.)