Tenure or not?

Tenure should allow researchers to pursue high risk and unpopular research

Muhammad Hamid Zaman November 13, 2018
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The HEC, rightfully so, has decided to review parallel systems in our higher education sector. The tenure track system is a classic case of a new idea failing to get implemented. Introduced during the Musharraf era, under the leadership of Dr Attaur Rahman, the idea was to create incentives for high quality researchers. Given that Pakistan already had a basic pay scale (BPS) system at the universities, this new system caused tension, friction and much confusion. A decade or so later, the lines remain blurry and the incentives uncertain — but worse, the criteria for tenure have been often manipulated through plagiarism and poor-quality work. Like many other parallel systems in the country, the idea has failed to materialise and the outcomes have not been particularly impressive. My point here is to evaluate what tenure means, why it continues to fail in Pakistan, and what can be done to address it.

Before we talk about why the system has not been able to create the desired change, it is important to look back on the history of the tenure track system. While scholarly independence has been a pillar of academic research for a long time in many parts of the world, the modern tenure and tenure track system in North America is influenced in part by the success of the Germanic higher education system in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Germanic model emphasised rigour in research, in addition to teaching, and provided researchers with indefinite appointments. The foundation stone of the modern tenure system came in 1915 with the newly formed American Association of University Professors (AAUP) arguing for tenure in their report “Declaration of Principles.” In 1940 this original declaration led to the more formal statement on tenure by AAUP that argued for economic security of professors (to incentivise engaging in the profession) and freedom of teaching and research. A key argument in the declaration was that tenure would allow researchers to pursue unpopular or controversial topics, without having to worry about retribution from the university leadership or board of trustees.

Now let us analyse the situation in Pakistan. The first problem with tenure in the country is a bizarre emphasis on quantity over quality. The route to tenure doesn’t go through excellence, but through abundance. This has led to tenure track faculty manipulating the system and publishing papers that are sub-par, often plagiarised or highly unoriginal. One of the editors of a leading IEEE journal recently told me that for his journal and conference proceedings, when it comes to plagiarism Pakistani researchers continue to be among the top.

Second, tenure should allow researchers to pursue high risk and unpopular research without having to worry about any pushback from higher authorities. Given how our system operates, can we honestly argue that a post-tenure professor would not face the wrath of his/her administrators were he/she to pursue highly controversial and sensitive topics? So how does tenure protect a faculty?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there cannot be a central, national guideline for tenure. This remains the single biggest problem in our system. In the US (the model after which HEC’s system is based), each institution has its own approach and criteria reflecting its vision, mission and realities. Pakistan needs to do the same. A university professor who is required to teach extensively and has minimum resources to carry out research cannot be judged on the same criteria as one who has minimal teaching and extensive research resources. The guiding principles of a tenure system are sound and desirable, but we have to ask what tenure means for our faculty beyond a badge of honour. The solution to our tenure woes are not in more regulation, but in decentralisation and university independence.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2018.

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