• November 24, 2014

Know the Vital Players in Your Career: The Head of the Tenure Committee

In every department, certain figures can profoundly affect your progress

Careers 04-12

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers 04-12

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

From my own experiences as a faculty member at seven colleges, and from the hundreds of informants I have for this column, I can attest that tenure criteria differ widely. So does how specifically those criteria are defined and how rigorously they are applied.

At some institutions, for example, the requirements are exhaustively laid out, as in "16 articles in Tier 1 journals from among the following listed below," or "teaching evaluation median should be no less than 4.0," and so on. Elsewhere the tenure guidelines are "know it when I see it" inexplicit—as in "the candidate must be a good teacher and a productive researcher."

What all tenure-granting colleges and universities have in common is that the process is run by human beings. Objective judgments and perfect efficiency are, thus, hard to attain. That is why it's important that you have a good relationship with the head of your department's promotion-and-tenure committee. I'm going to focus on the committee head in this month's column, second in a series on the key players who affect your career.

Here, too, many species exist. The committee head may be a tenured faculty member who draws the short straw to handle P&T matters for a year with no special brief or expertise. She may be the seasoned head of a semipermanent committee composed of only the most senior (and powerful) faculty members. He may hold an actual administrative post within your department, such as associate dean for faculty.

Whatever his or her title, position, power, behavior, or opinions, the head of P&T in your department will play some role in making or unmaking your future. Accordingly, consider the following tactics to get the most help from that faculty member.

Appraise her philosophy of P&T. The committee head's views on promotion and tenure, and on her role in the process, matter in how she does her duty. She may hold very strong opinions about promotion criteria: "Only an outstanding teacher should get tenure here." Or she may treat P&T as a case-by-case matter. She may see herself as the true supreme judge of who gets tenure, or she may see herself as playing a ministerial role, deferring to faculty consensus. She may see herself as the gatekeeper of the department and discipline, unwilling to let anyone unworthy pass by her guard post; or she may see her duty as simply making sure that the logistics of the process are correct. She may be convivial, helpful, and approachable or forbidding and standoffish. She may play favorites and politics or be apolitical and practice her work with disinterest.

Often you can suss out the committee head's sense and sensibility toward tenure very early—perhaps even during the hiring process.

One job candidate described meeting a committee chair who was "very engaged" during the campus visit and proceeded to review all of the department's tenure guidelines in detail. More commonly one gets such intel after the hire, in direct meetings or by overhearing comments. Only once in my career have I heard of a P&T chair who was completely cryptic about the process and refused to answer any questions.

Appraise his past P&T practices. As we all know, what people think, say, and do are not always in accord. I have met and heard of P&T heads who talk the talk of "high standards," "rigorous vetting," and "guarding the gates" but turn out to be permissive softies when the time comes to vote. Then there are the ambushers who seem mild-mannered and jovial about the process but become vindictive pedants behind closed doors.

What is the history of the P&T process under the committee head's reign? That will be a likely topic of common discussion among junior faculty members, so you won't have to play detective to find out. People who have just undergone promotion to associate professor from the tenure track are obviously the best sources.

Be tactful about your intel gathering. Your inquiry should be conducted with some nuance. First, as I wrote in a previous column, academe is not a place where secrets and confidences are well kept. You want to find out what people know, but you don't want to sound like you're digging for dirt—especially about the head of the tenure committee. So even though you are, in part, seeking information about a person, don't make your inquiries personal. Don't say: "So, what's the dope on Professor Jones? Is he a super-stickler on P&T or what?" Instead, focus on process: "I'd love to hear about your P&T experience."

Don't be a sycophant. By the time people get to be head of a promotion-and-tenure committee, they are sensitive to being lobbied or overly flattered to influence their vote. So when asking around about the committee head, be a straight arrow: Ask for information, not tips or tricks. Some of the latter may well emerge in your years on the tenure track. But you come off as unseemly or political if you dive for them too deeply or too openly.

Conversely, don't radiate overconfidence or disrespect. Especially in an assistant professor's first year, there can be a temptation to see yourself as a casino whale on a winning streak: star undergraduate, star graduate student, maybe star postdoc, and now heavily recruited star tenure-track hire.

Added to that heady mix is another factor: As promotion-and-tenure guidelines have gotten more demanding over the years, it is common for new faculty members to be more published than some of the seniors judging them.

Just remember: No matter how good you are, and no matter how necessary it is to make sure the powers that be are aware of your accomplishments, nobody likes a braggart. I know of a tenure tracker who viewed himself as a sure thing, and lectured the committee head, "There's not much for us to talk about." He forgot, to his own later dismay, that in the closed room where the silverbacks gathered to vote, they could follow their individual consciences or prejudices.

Meet regularly and identify deadlines. Take a balanced approach to meeting with the committee head. Regular meetings—say once a semester or once a year—are good. Weekly pestering is not. Realize that your brand, for want of a more dignified term, is that of a competent professional. Too many hapless mistakes, like failing to turn in your annual review materials on time twice in a row, don't help promote the feeling that you should be promoted.

That's why I advocate creating your own annotated promotion-and-tenure chart—six years or so of to-dos and what-whens. Construct that chart in consultation with the P&T committee head. It can't hurt to show right away that you are deliberate, focused, and mindful of the committee head's time. Have the departmental tenure guidelines in hand to review as well, so both of you are in sync about what is expected of you.

These meetings may also allow you to pick up on the chair's preferences from the minor (all materials should be three-hole punched) to the major (assistant professors must publish at least four articles from their dissertation, or the whole thing as a book).

Calibrate the chair's opinions with the rest of the department. In my previous column on the role of the department chair in a promotion-and-tenure bid, I closed by cautioning that you should never place all of your career hopes in the hands of any one person. Likewise with committee heads: They might retire, leave the university for another position, or otherwise abdicate the post. Their interpretation of tenure guidelines may be a minority view on the committee. And they may see their role as bureaucratic, conducting the process but not influencing it. They are important, but rarely all-important.

So develop an expansive view. Many people will affect your bid for promotion and tenure. Some of them hold actual titles, like department chair or committee head. Others tend to fall into informal groups. The subject of next month's essay will be the faculty constituencies that can affect your career.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor at and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, "Promotion and Tenure Confidential," was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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