Sixth Annual Survey
Great Colleges to Work For 2013
Well-Marked Paths to Tenure Put New Professors at Ease
By Peter Schmidt
Peter Seldin has visited more than 350 colleges as a consultant specializing in faculty evaluation. At nearly every one, he says, young faculty members have the same problem: "They are scared to death."
The reason, he says, is that unclear expectations about tenure generate apprehension among tenure-track faculty members who are worried their careers might stall or jump the rails.
Faculty members are not the only ones who suffer in such situations, says Mr. Seldin, an emeritus professor of management at Pace University and the author of several books on faculty evaluation. "Where there is vagueness, and expectations are not clear, institutions set themselves up for protests, for vigorous complaints, even for lawsuits," he says.
Among the institutions that fared well in The Chronicle's sixth annual Great Colleges to Work For survey are several that go out of their way to guide new faculty members along. Their promotion and tenure processes emphasize frequent communication of standards and deadlines, and, in many cases, call upon professors who already have tenure to nurture those who are seeking it.
Their goal is not to weed candidates out but to help them take root and flourish.
"If you are on the tenure track, we want you here," says Alec J. Engebretson, co-director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Nebraska's Doane College, one of 30 institutions the survey recognized for clarity in the tenure process.
"A lot of institutions look at tenure as a decision," says Mr. Engebretson, who is also a professor of information science and technology. "We also look at the process as an opportunity to really develop our faculty members. We can really help them develop into being more effective teachers."
Similar thinking was evident at another recognized institution, Manchester University, in northern Indiana. There the tenure process is viewed as "an investment on both sides," says Gregory W. Clark, a professor of physics and chairman of the college's committee on appointments, promotion, and tenure. "In the ideal," Mr. Clark says, "it is sort of a win-win."
Because many community colleges do not offer tenure, the Great Colleges survey questions only faculty members at four-year colleges about their institutions' tenure processes.
Murray State University, in Kentucky, was recognized despite being on a list of institutions censured by the American Association of University Professors for violating faculty members' tenure rights. That AAUP censure is nearly 40 years old, and stems from Murray State's firing of nine tenured faculty members in the early 1970s. The institution is in talks with the association to have its censure removed.
As a rule, the colleges that faculty rated favorably for their tenure processes have policies that comport with the AAUP's standards and with the recommendations in a 2000 report published by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the United Educators Insurance Risk Retention Group. In keeping with such guidance, these colleges clearly communicate expectations, enlist senior faculty members to mentor junior ones, give those seeking tenure plenty of opportunity to make their case, and have safeguards to ensure tenure standards are applied consistently, untainted by discrimination or other bias.
At Manchester, tenure-track faculty members are annually reviewed by their department's chair and by the vice president and dean for academic affairs. Midway down the path to tenure—at about the three-year mark—tenure candidates compile a dossier on their accomplishments that is reviewed by the university's committee on appointment, promotion, and tenure, to ensure they are on track.
Glenn R. Sharfman, Manchester's dean of academic affairs, says, "I don't want there to ever be any surprises when someone comes up for tenure. They should know where they stand."
Although Manchester emphasizes teaching, and frankly tells new faculty members that poor instructors are not kept on, it is careful not to measure teaching quality so rigidly that it would discourage new instructional approaches or technologies, Mr. Sharfman says. In terms of scholarship, Manchester advises tenure-track faculty members to prove themselves in multiple ways rather than staking their success on the completion of any one undertaking, like a book.
In emphasizing open communication throughout the tenure process, colleges not only give new faculty members guideposts to know whether they are en route to success, but also provide administrators and veteran professors opportunities to learn from newcomers.
Mr. Clark of Manchester calls the tenure process "a two-way street." Candidates for tenure not only get feedback, but "they let us know what worked for them and how we may improve," he says.
Says Mr. Engebretson of Doane: "The new faculty member brings things to Doane that existing faculty members can learn from, such as new learning-style strategies and new ideas that we have not thought of before."
"Our philosophy," he says, "is faculty supporting faculty."