Tenure Track Offers Security for Both Parties
When Diane Martin came to Finland, she considered Aalto University's tenure track system as an asset.
Diane Martin knew that she wanted to make one more career move. Just one, not two or three.
Born in 1958, she had already worked as an entrepreneur, as an associate and an assistant professor in the University of Portland, and as a visiting professor in the University of Gothenburg.
Ms. Martin was attending the Consumer Culture Theory Conference 2011 in Evanston, Illinois in July, where she met doctoral students from Aalto University School of Business. The way they spoke of the university sounded good to her and John Schouten, her husband.
Within two weeks they were in Helsinki.
— I frankly just thought that we were maybe going to do a research presentation and see what was going on. We left with offers, and started sending out letters to our colleagues for recommendations. It was that quick, Ms. Martin says.
In December 2011 Ms. Martin and Mr. Schouten became two of the first tenured faculty members of Aalto University School of Business, as an Associate Professor and a Professor, respectively. Their positions are in Marketing in the Department of Marketing.
New Career Paths
The tenure system at Aalto University was established in 2010, as the new Universities Act came into effect and opened up new ways of building an academic career.
When in the old system people built up their credentials and waited to find an opening that would fit their expertise, the tenure track offers a more predictable career path.
It consists of three levels: two fixed terms as Assistant Professor, followed by permanent employment as an Associate Professor, and then as a Full Professor. You can enter the tenure track at any level, and to progress to the following level, you have to meet the criteria in research, teaching and activity in scientific community. The criteria are established in advance.
The Aalto model was created after a wide-ranging benchmarking of other countries. By early April, a total of 110 people had been appointed, 33 per cent of which were from countries other than Finland.
— Aalto's goals were ambitious, and it was thought that a well-established tenure track could make the university appealing to a larger group of potential applicants, says Deputy President of Academic Affairs Ilkka Niemelä.
According to Mr. Niemelä, there has been little need to adjust the system during the first few years. By the end of February, 4197 people had applied for various positions. The applicant numbers have grown 'surprisingly fast,' so the university has been looking for best practices and helping spread them to all departments.
Given that the professors have a big role in the tenure evaluations, the university is trying to make sure their time is spent on academic evaluations and not the bureaucracy. Mr. Niemelä says the university has improved its methods in that respect.
A Familiar System
Coming to Finland was an easy decision—'almost no decision'—for Ms. Martin. Previously she had spent four years in Alaska, which had generated in her a deep love for Northern Countries.
However, appropriate job openings did not come by that often for a dual academic family. When they did, they usually were not equally tempting for both of them. Aalto University School of Business seemed like a place where they could concentrate on research.
The tenure system in its American form was already familiar to Ms. Martin. In fact, she was probably more familiar with it than many people at Aalto, given that she had sat on both sides of the table—both as an applicant and as a member of the faculty, reviewing the applicants.
At Aalto, the criteria set felt clear and understandable, and she thinks that with good work they can be met.
— I think the tenure system is absolutely necessary if you are going to be questioning old ideals from a new contemporary viewpoint, she says.
Ms. Martin studies sustainable marketing. In her opinion, the tenure system offers a firm footing for researchers who are willing to go against the grain and question conventional ideals from a new, contemporary viewpoint.
Having first proven you are competent, you are free to push scientific boundaries and ask difficult questions in order to make new theoretical contributions.
— With tenure, if you have a rationale for your work; you can continue, and not risk your livelihood. That is a huge benefit, she says.
There are potential pitfalls in the system, one of them being the application of the same kind of criteria for different fields of research. An applicant’s questioning of the tenure track committee's ruling might constitute another problematic situation.
— There is a real attempt to do this really well. I see the effort and that is unquestioned. Because it is such a big change for a traditional faculty, there are probably going to have to be some tweaks along the way, but I do not know if anybody is really sure what those are.
Paving the Way
It is probably not a great surprise that the biggest hurdles in settling in came from outside the academia.
There was a lot of confusion as to who was supposed to help Ms. Martin and Mr. Schouten figure out such matters as work permits, bank accounts, and what they could and could not bring to Finland– which is why their car is still in Switzerland.
They did eventually get a relocation specialist, who helped them deal with the problems. They have discussed the matter with the Dean, and Ms. Martin is confident that their experiences will ease the path for the people following them.
— In almost any culture there is so much you take for granted because you speak the language and know what is going on, it is even hard to imagine what other people do not know, she says.
Since then things have evened out. Ms. Martin has had a lot of help from her students, and she makes heavy use of Google Translator when shopping for groceries, for example.
They have not had second thoughts about Aalto and Finland. Apart from organic peanut butter, she does not miss much.
— We brought our furniture and our cat. We moved with the intention of staying.
Ms. Martin sees the tenure track as one of the very basic building blocks of a world-class university. The reasoning is two-fold.
First of all, a tenured professor is expected to work at an even higher level than before. The emphasis is on quality, not quantity.
Secondly, even though research is what attracts top talents, what makes their contribution really count is that they clear the way forward, so that others can follow in their footsteps.
— In my mind, what builds a great university is the willingness to collaborate. To look beyond your own time there, and leave behind a perception and a reality in which quality gets recognized and rewarded, she says emphatically.
text Olli Sulopuisto