Harvard introduced the practice of prioritizing research in the criteria for up-or-out promotion and tenure in the late 1930s, under the presidency of James Conant — although faculty members at the time cautioned against his narrow emphasis on research. Other elite schools adopted the practice in the higher education boom years after World War II, according to the research of Richard Teichgraeber, a historian at Tulane University. At most universities, the publish-or-perish rule did not take hold until the late 1960s. “This is how a lot of stuff happens in this country. Ideas and practices spread from the Ivies to the prestigious public universities, then to the midlevel schools offering master’s programs, to the middling bachelor’s institutions,” Hans-Joerg Tiede, the director of research for the American Association of University Professors, told me.
Ever since then, the pressure to publish quickly has driven faculty members down ever narrower lanes of inquiry, searching for some hidden byway no one has taken before in order to claim an original (if, to nonspecialists, trivial) contribution. In graduate school, aspiring professors often hear: Don’t be overly broad in your dissertation; you’ll have to get it done and published, because hiring committees care far more about that than how prepared you are to teach a wide range of subjects. Academic freedom no longer includes freedom to be a generalist.
No wonder most of us are hyperspecialized and write for tiny audiences of fellow experts. No wonder most Americans don’t really understand how professors spend their time and think higher education is “heading in the wrong direction,” according to a 2018 Pew survey. “There have been these trends over time. If you think about how departments form and then specializations within departments, pretty soon you’re a specialist in an increasingly narrow area,” Gilda Barabino, the president of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., told me. “We have to broaden that out. The disciplinary lines are blurring anyway.”
Olin College was founded in 1997 as an experiment in a different approach to institutional priorities. Funded by a large endowment from the Olin Foundation, the college has no tenure system or conventional departments. Faculty members are hired on multiyear contracts, with a review process that emphasizes student development (not just teaching), continual revision of courses and a broader view of what kind of external impact matters — including inventions and patents, collaborating with other institutions and public-facing scholarship such as popular writing and museum exhibitions. “We should be willing to have variable models of what success looks like and reward systems that make sense. Those things aren’t particular to Olin — they could happen anywhere,” Dr. Barabino said.
Giving up tenure may be well and good for engineers who are likely to land in industry jobs if they lose their teaching positions or for scientists who rely mostly on federal grants to fund their salaries and lab costs. And while there are certainly exceptions, professors in physics and chemistry are less likely than humanists or social scientists to venture into controversial political territory and find their academic freedom under attack.
Nonscientists are far more dependent on tenure protections — and the hyperspecialization of tenure culture is hurting us most. This is partly because of a double standard: People outside academia are happy to accept specialization in a physicist or a chemical engineer without expecting to immediately understand her jargon and research goals. But when a historian or a philosopher studies an obscure topic, it’s a sign of elitism and irrelevance.
Those of us teaching and researching outside the hard sciences need to find a way to stand by the value of our expertise while recognizing that perhaps our scholarship and teaching are more parochial than they should be. Specialization “leads the individual, if he follows it unreservedly, into bypaths still further off from the highway where men, struggling together, develop strength,” John Dewey, the philosopher and education reformer, wrote in 1902. “The insidious conviction that certain matters of fundamental import to humanity are none of my concern because outside of my Fach” — subject — “is likely to work more harm to genuine freedom of academic work than any fancied dread of interference from a moneyed benefactor.”