Gatekeeping: A Self-Fulfilling Cycle, Part I

I’m pausing from the details of my tenure case to reflect a bit. Since my ultimate goal for this blog is to think critically and broadly about success and failure in the academy, it seems like a good time to start piecing together some thoughts about higher education and academia. I’m starting with gatekeeping, which I view as central to success and failure in the academy.

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I believe that the fundamental goal of higher education is to educate the next generation to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical thinking members of society. That’s a complex statement and may be controversial, but when asked over the years by students, friends, and family why I was a professor (and not a lawyer, for example), this has been the essence of my elevator speech. I don’t think it’s the only mission of universities and colleges – or faculty – and it certainly varies among types of institutions, but for me it’s the most important. And I think it’s true especially for political science.

I think we do our best in pursuit of this goal when we combine our dual roles of teachers and researchers (I could add service of many kinds, but that’s for another time). It’s wonderful when the connection is made by a single person, in a single class. I love when I can share what I know about a topic and how I know it as a model for thinking about and evaluating the world.

But the combination of teaching and research is not always applicable, and arguably, it doesn’t need to be. Instead, faculty rely on each other to provide the knowledge that we impart to our students. We are a community and our ability to fulfill the mission depends not only on our individual contributions, but our collective contributions. As researchers, we vary in the substantive and methodological focus of our work; as teachers, we vary in our topical expertise and pedagogical style. Some of us do more research than teaching; others do more teaching than research.

As a scholarly community, we do it all. Together, we are able to meet the goal of educating the next generation.

So the decisions about who gets to participate in meeting this goal—who succeeds and who does not—are extremely important.

If our value as a scholarly community in advancing subsequent generations depends on the sum of our parts, then the parts really matter.

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Viewed in this context, the academic gatekeeping process – at least as I’ve seen and experienced it in political science – is terribly flawed.

It is a self-fulfilling cycle, based on a narrowly defined playing field that supports and promotes like-minded players who reject those deemed unqualified by the narrow standards that they themselves have devised and from which they have benefitted.

I’m sensitive to overgeneralizing without systematic data on hiring and promotion processes and results—and oversimplifying, given the variation among institutions. But one needs only to talk to colleagues from different universities and colleges to understand that decisions about who plays and who stays usually favor (and significantly) research over teaching.

And it’s not that research is so highly valued—as it should be—but rather that (at many places) teaching is so undervalued—and it shouldn’t be.

Assuming the goal for most of us is a tenure track position, then the cycle often looks something like this:

Some level of published research is required to compete for tenure track jobs, which provide the only path to tenure and the primary path to advancement in the academy.

Publishing depends not only on merit, but on time—perhaps the most valuable of resources—and other resources (ranging from funding to mentorship), which vary in availability among graduate programs.

Competition for tenure track positions is fierce, so many talented people (some with research on their CVs and others without) turn to contingent positions as a stop-gap on the way to tenure track jobs. Yet, contingent positions—because they demand enormous teaching loads—provide little time and resources for research. This makes it very challenging to attain a tenure track job later, leaving many permanently outside the traditional academic gates and unable to participate in the gatekeeping mechanisms of the academy.

If one is fortunate enough to have the time and resources to publish—and then lucky enough to successfully compete for the relatively few tenure track positions—then promotion to Associate and eventually to Full depends, again, on sufficient research, which requires time and resources.

For many reasons, though, not all faculty are similarly situated—either professionally or personally—with regard to time and resources, and thus are limited in their ability to pass through the tenure and promotion gates. Thus, they are prevented from attaining status among the gatekeepers.

Those who do successfully navigate this system—not only on merit (and for some, not on merit at all) but on good fortune—are those who have benefitted from the time and other resources required to succeed. And they go on to perpetuate it by holding the gatekeeping positions. And the cycle of “success” continues.

This cycle is even more complicated. Not all research is equal, and the definition of “good” research is often very narrowly defined—not only by substantive focus, but by methodological approach.

The definitions are made by the very people who get the tenure track jobs and who advance to positions of seniority. And the value of that work is narrowly defined by publication in particular venues, which are ranked in ways that are also a product of those who have succeeded by meeting the status quo standards for advancing in the system. And they, then, perpetuate those standards through their status at their institutions.

And this says nothing about those venues themselves, publication in which often requires vast amounts of time and resources that are often available only to those who have had previous success.

And all of this at the expense—often—of teaching. There are some faculty who excel at both research and teaching; in my experience, this is uncommon and usually the product of ideal workers who are able and willing to dedicate themselves fully to professional productivity.

Teaching often takes a back seat to research for those who want to succeed on the tenure track. The saying—that I continue to hear graduate students repeat—is that your teaching can hurt you for tenure if it’s terrible, but it can’t help you if it’s good (no matter how good).

Thus, if teaching is a strength and something in which time and resources are invested, it will usually be at the expense of research. And this is likely to put the tenure track—and tenure—out of reach.

And if the tenure track or tenure is out of reach, then full participation and advancement in the profession and the institution are out of reach as well.

It is worth noting, too, that one of the institutionally valued and encouraged ways of obtaining more time and resources to do the research that will earn promotion is to buy out teaching with research funding. And, the likelihood of funding is greater for those with prior research accomplishments, which met the narrowly defined standards.

Among the many effects of this cycle is that it puts the burden of teaching additional courses on other faculty, who then have less time to do their own research and whose professional fortunes are increasingly limited because they’re less likely to break into the cycle that would bring success. And, it contributes to the need for more contingent instructors, for whom the ever-increasing teaching loads diminish the opportunity for research, the key to the academic gate and kingdom.

I could go on.

The implications of this failure to think broadly and inclusively about what constitutes meaningful intellectual contributions to higher education are serious.

Not only does it result in the inability of many individuals with multifaceted skills and expertise as researchers and teachers to participate and advance in the profession.

But it results in significant loss for students, who—in my view—are educated best by their exposure to faculty with a range of skills and intellectual approaches that help them develop the tools to sort through the complexities of the world and make informed judgments about their place in it.

In the end, this is a devastating failure by and for institutions of higher learning.

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I’ve been both outside and inside the gates, and I like to think I’ve been a thoughtful and attentive witness to and participant in the gatekeeping process. But I know that because I was largely successful in overcoming the many hurdles in my academic path, I didn’t understand or appreciate as well as I should have how problematic the process could be.

Sometimes it takes failure to understand success.