Jacob Oakley, editor of Stage Directions magazine, asked me to write a comment about tenure and promotion for the Stage Directions blog. Here is what I wrote:
There has been a lot of discussion recently in higher education administration and so-called education reform circles about tenure, about whether or not it is still necessary, and whether it helps or harms higher education. Arguments in favor of continuing the tenure system argue that it is necessary to protect academic freedom while arguments against it argue that it is a counter-incentive to innovation, at best, and a protection for underperformers, at worst. Arts faculty were accepted quite late into the tenure fold and many institutions still have trouble defining the ways in which creative activities are analogous to research in the traditional academic disciplines of sciences, social sciences and humanities. Thus, the only area in which I think it would be a mistake for arts faculty to be on the vanguard is in reforming the tenure system. While I think that tenure has protected some underperformers in the arts, arts faculty, including theatre faculty, should not be the first to give up their hard won acceptance into the academic fold.
That having been said, our approach (by “our” here I mean that of theatre faculty and administrators) to tenure and promotion can be made more meaningful for the individual faculty members, for the institutions of which they are part, and for the discipline. Tenure and promotion criteria should not be easier for theatre than for other disciplines. Allowing faculty at research universities to get tenure based solely on the creative work done on their own campuses does everybody a disservice – most especially the students. We’ve heard the arguments in favor of doing this: “but scientists get to do their research in a campus lab, our theatres are our labs.” Yes, but those scientists do not get tenure and promotion unless the results of their research is subjected to peer review and published in national/international journals. So, yes, the creative work on campus “counts,” but only if it is seen and evaluated by more than just the folks on campus. Some schools (and no, I won’t name names) have semi-professional theatre companies on campus and contend that the work the faculty does in this affiliated company is equivalent to work done at any professional theater in the country. Um, no. If all the work a faculty member does is on the campus’s own “professional” company and it is seen only by the local community, receives no evaluation by national or international peers, and does not advance the discipline then tenuring someone on the basis of that work does a disservice to everyone, especially, again, the students.
On the other hand, the campus theatre can be a fertile ground for experimentation, artistic growth, and research. More faculty and students can be looking at the university stage as a lab. Rather than perpetuating “the show must go on” mentality endemic to theatre, consider what would happen if the university stage was used to explore new plays? New technology? Or, to paraphrase Chekov, new forms of theatre? And then, imagine if the work done on these stages was analyzed and written about in the journals of our discipline, from Stage Directions to Theatre Journal. Then, the work done on university stages would be truly tenure-worthy because it is advancing the discipline and not just maintaining the status quo.