SWM-005: The Tenure Process, with Craig Schwalbe and Elwin Wu

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At the Columbia School of Social Work, as many as eleven faculty members have been awarded tenure over the past ten years. This episode's guests are CSSW Associate Professors Craig Schwalbe and Elwin Wu, both of whom were awarded tenure at the end of the 2012-13 academic year. Professors Schwalbe and Wu describe the process of amassing the tenure dossier to meet the criteria set by Columbia for evaluating their research productivity and impact. In addition, they discuss what happened to their other priorities—such as teaching and serving social work clients—when under so much pressure to prove their merit as publishing scholars and hence to earn the privilege of life-time employment at a major research university like Columbia.

Background information & key points:

Elwin Wu & Craig Schwalbe

  • Within the university system, tenure affords you, the professor, with the opportunity, the safety and security, of pursuing research topics that are of interest to you, the findings of which may not be popular or successful, without worrying about job security. It is an “amazing privilege.”
  • The road to tenure is a long and arduous, consisting of doctoral education, post-doctoral work, and pre-tenured faculty service—a strategic sequence of activities that build on each other, typically about fifteen years in the making. Then, once you finally near the end of the road and finally apply for tenure, the pace seems "glacially slow." It takes a full year before the decision is made.
  • It is good to have colleagues who are going through the same thing, to support each other until you get the decision on your promotion.
  • The tenure dossier takes a while to prepare. That said, writing the 20-page-long personal statement can be gratifying because it gives you, the scholar, a moment to step back and think deeply about what you have worked on and what kinds of contributions you have made to the scholarly community—and even more importantly, how all of that translates into a future trajectory of research and scholarship.
  • The lengthy period of self-focus and self-involvement that tenure necessitates may be a unique aspect of academic. as opposed to other kinds of, careers. In the case of social work professors, they always facing the risk of working more towards their own promotions versus towards the advancement of services for the populations they serve, such as sexual minorities (Elwin Wu) or delinquent kids (Craig Schwalbe). You risk a loss of humility with the process, as well as a loss of balance among the three main tasks of teaching, service, and research. You have less time and energy for your students, as well as for the people your scholarship serves.
  • How does one maintain one’s integrity? Most professors do a calculus that if they sacrifice something now to obtain job security, they will be able to redress any shortcomings in the future.
  • Receiving the tenure decision can be anti-climactic as you are still the same person and nothing in your day-to-day life has changed. That said, relationships with other faculty members are altered somewhat as you don’t have to tiptoe around as much. Also, other faculty may pressure you to speak up at meetings, something you couldn’t do before.
  • The tenure process may be particularly fraught for those in the social work profession, as social work is designed to be inclusive, whereas the tenure process is exclusive. There is a disconnect or dissonanace between the goals the researcher has and the goals s/he sets for the client population. Craig Schwalbe:  “I can’t imagine a tenured social worker would establish a tenure process for a client population.”  Elwin Wu: “We have privilege of being able to exist and thrive within that double standard.”
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