• July 25, 2014

Know the Vital Players in Your Career: The Tenured Factions

How voting groups in the faculty decide to support or oppose your P&T candidacy

Know the Vital Players in Your Career: The Tenured Factions 1

Natalya Balnova for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close Know the Vital Players in Your Career: The Tenured Factions 1

Natalya Balnova for The Chronicle

When it comes time for your faculty colleagues to vote on your tenure case—aye, nay, or abstain—you need to know that most of them aren't voting entirely on their own. They're voting in packs.

In this series about the players who can affect your career, I focused first on the chair and then on the head of the department's promotion-and-tenure committee. Now I'd like to turn to the role played by tenured faculty members. How they vote is rarely idiosyncratic or random. There tend to be constituencies of like feeling and opinion. Understanding those constituencies early in your career and identifying which faculty members fall into which category will give you some sense of who will decide your fate, why, and what you might do to win them over.

By-the-bookers. Quite a few faculty members base their tenure decisions on a straightforward, if not always predictable, reading of your record as measured by the department's published guidelines. Their viewpoint is, "We voted to install these rules; we should follow them." And the by-the-bookers do just that, or try to, depending on how clear and precise the tenure specifications are. If, say, a certain number of publications in certain journals is demanded, then these literalists will demand them of you. Case closed, hopefully in your favor.

Dealing with by-the-bookers is clear-cut:

  • Read the rules they cherish. Make sure you know what their interpretation of the rules is if they are not self-evident and precise.
  • Follow the rules. The result: You will very likely get their vote.

Ascenders. As an administrator, I must, by vocation, fall into the by-the-book contingent. But I have to admit that my sympathies lie with the ascenders—the faculty voting bloc that takes a wider and longer view.

Giving tenure to a 27-year-old costs a great deal of money over the length of a career, sets in stone a quasi guarantee of employment, and affects hundreds of future colleagues and thousands of students. The ascenders argue against the premise that, "OK, he barely passed the bar, so he's in." They demand more: a sense, and quantitative evidence, that the candidate is on the ascent. That is, that the candidate's trajectory of productivity is rising and will continue to do so. Ascenders make tenure decisions for the future, not just the recent past.

By-the-bookers might vote in favor of a candidate who had published "enough" but did so early and then seemed to lose steam. Ascenders would vote against that same candidate. Or perhaps a candidate's teaching evaluations were fine in the first few years but then declined. Or worse, a candidate was heard in the hallways chortling with anticipation, "You know, the moment I get tenure, I'm going to put my feet up and relax!" Ascenders are also keenly aware of the legions of un- or underemployed Ph.D.'s who could take a mediocre candidate's place and ascend to glory.

Winning the ascender faction to your cause is a nuanced undertaking. Keeping your scholarly productivity on a steady incline is difficult anyway, given the vagaries and uncertainties of lab experiments, journal reviews, and book publishing. As a young colleague put it, "This category is unique in that there isn't anything a person can really do other than work their butt off to appear like an ascender."

Indeed, if you are just faking it and plan to petrify upon winning tenure, well, good luck trying to fool all of us. But you can control your public attitude and utterances. If you intend to keep at your research and teaching, and just get better and better in the years after tenure, then make sure everybody knows that.

Collegials. Long ago a veteran faculty member told me that he'd never vote for jerks. Many tenured professors—even those with their own behavioral oddities—agree. To some extent, one of the unwritten tenure standards is to ask the question, "Do I really want this person to be down the hall from me for the next 30 years?"

Purists in this faction will base their vote on this criterion alone. But even people who take into account other factors when voting may consider the collegiality issue. The most dedicated by-the-booker may hesitate to vote "aye" if she perceives that you are a supervillain in the making.

Ethical and legal issues arise when we talk about personality as a tenure benchmark. I recall the argument made to me by a colleague, the late political scientist Tim Cook. He felt strongly that, to be fair to everyone, tenure should be based on nothing more than the "on paper" achievements of the candidate, and not on their charm or lack of it. I agreed in theory but admitted that I would find it hard to vote in favor of someone who was truly malevolent or unstable.

The more common outcome is that tenure standards are ignored altogether, and membersof the collegial faction vote yes simply because they like the candidate or because "He's a nice guy and loves his kids." This faction of like-minded professors is the bane of department chairs who have been hired to "raise the bar" and "improve productivity."

In practice, of course, senior professors will vote the way they want to vote, and if their reason for opposing your promotion is personal, you can't stop them. But the good news is that you have some six years to show people that you are indeed somebody they like working with, now and in the future. You can exceed the tenure standards and be a good person, thus satisfying the by-the-bookers, the ascenders, and the collegials simultaneously.

In-my-dayers. Tenure standards change over time. There is no field of which I am aware, at least at research universities, in which research expectations have not increased over the past two decades. In many cases, such as in my field, they have shot up drastically.

The result is an unresolved and often simmering tension, since tenured faculty members may well end up sitting in judgment of someone who has published more research than they have. At many institutions, of course, the financial support for junior-faculty research has risen commensurably. At my own college, we offer standard research start-up packages that would have seemed to me like winning the lottery when I became an assistant professor.

Nevertheless, some senior professors feel strongly that tenure standards should never change, so they will vote based on "what was acceptable in my day." That faction is dwindling in size, but it still exists. In most cases the result is favorable to tenure seekers, as they will have exceeded the productivity demands of the past. In other cases, the in-my-day standard can be problematic. What if, for example, in the days of yore the main criterion for tenure was teaching, but over time your institution has come to favor research? Your teachingevaluations may thus satisfy some colleagues but displease an antiquarian.

Most in-my-dayers can be brought to a reasonable accommodation. Certainly teaching will retain its prominence in their worldview, but you could convince them that:

  • You appreciate the importance of pedagogy.
  • You don't consider people who value teaching to be out of date or lesser faculty members than researchers.
  • You do a good job in the classroom and you really care about being a good teacher.

Fulfill those standards and the in-my-dayer will likely vote for you, albeit with a grumble.

Politicals & hobby-horsers. I've combined the last two factions because they are so similar. Politicals vote for your tenure bid if they deem you an ally in office politics, and vote no if they decide that you are a foe or "not friendly enough."

Likewise, hobby-horsers usually have a sacred cause—such as the department's 101 course—that they feel is so important that everything else must be subsumed to it. And you are judged on whether you have supported the sacred cause or not.

Both of those factions are as hard to deal with as one-issue voters in presidential elections. They often see promotion and tenure as simply a means to achieve or protect their own goals. Worse, if the department is bitterly split on an issue, then no matter what stance you take—even if you follow the general advice not to get involved in politics as an assistant professor—you will still make enemies.

So what should you do? If you find yourself in a department where tenure is determined by politics alone, then you have six years to escape to a more rational venue (unless you enjoy that state of affairs). But if the sole-fixationor political types are a small minority, and the clear majority does not let them dominate, then ruminate upon the following options:

  • You don't have to keep your head down for six years, but there's no point in poking silverbacks with sticks. There is a difference between taking a stand on a truly vital issue and needlessly antagonizing people.
  • Pick your battles. If you take a strong stand on everything or get obsessed about one thing, you are becoming a political or a hobby-horser yourself.
  • In a functional departmental culture, a one-issue professor's opposition to your tenure bid will draw sympathy from more-broad-minded types.

Tenure is, by and large, one of the forces that have made American higher education so successful for decades. But giving anyone such a high level of responsibility for the fate of another assumes that most people will act responsibly, which is never a certainty.

At the same time, there is a strong centripetal and rational force in many departments toward consensus on promotion and tenure decisions. Senior faculty members may walk into the room with different opinions but emerge with a unanimous verdict that they agree is fair.

I have enough faith in governance to believe that. in most cases, consensus will favor you if you are truly good at your job, if you are not an outright Dr. Evil, and if you seem to be passionate about continuing your ascent after tenure.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor 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.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.