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Four questions to ask about tenure

October 31, 2008, 10:18 am

Over at the Young Mathematicians’ Network, I have an article today on four revealing questions that young faculty should ask about tenure. Since you have to have an account to post comments at the YMN web site, and since some readers who aren’t mathematicians might want to discuss this stuff, I’m going to reprint the article below the fold and open comments for it. Enjoy!

I’ve been fortunate to be on the Promotion and Tenure Committee at my college for the last three years and to be the chair of that committee this year. I did indeed say “fortunate”, because despite the large amount of work we have to do on the committee and the high-stakes nature of that work, it’s been a fascinating and highly educational job to examine what, exactly, tenure entails and how, exactly, we want faculty to prove they deserve it.

Part of that job has involved looking at the promotion and tenure processes of other colleges like us. I’ve also been reading and thinking about the processes of schools in the news and of those I’ve known in the past. I’ve found in doing so that there are some schools which have a healthy process and some that, well, are not so healthy — and some schools where there is really not so much of a “process” at all but rather a decision that might as well have no connection to the faculty’s work. I think you can tell a lot about the organizational culture of a college or university — which is so important for job-seekers and new faculty, but so often unexamined by them — by looking at how the institution handles the promotion and tenure process.

In particular, I can think of four questions that job seekers and new faculty should ask when looking at a school’s promotion and tenure process. Job seekers should ask these questions of each school at which they interview. The answers — or lack thereof — will reveal a lot of information about the school.

1. What’s the overall workflow and timeline for the tenure process? Ask a person in charge — usually the Vice-President for Academic Affairs — for a brief, clear synopsis of what happens each year and how the whole process fits together. There are two reasons for asking this. First, quite simply, you need to know that information and have it readily available. Second, if the VPAA can’t answer this question in a clear and concise way, watch out — it usually means that the process is byzantine in its complexity, or there is no process to speak of (just a decision based on whether the VPAA, or whoever, likes you or not), or else the VPAA doesn’t know what s/he is doing. Red flags either way. A promotion and tenure process that, for whatever reason, is not well-understood by the major players in the process is not one you want to enter into.

2. Who gives input about me as I go through the tenure process? Ideally, a promotion and tenure process uses a multiplicity of viewpoints from several stakeholders in your tenure process. Having more sources, and sources from several different areas of your professional life, will create a more balanced and believable review when it’s time. By contrast, if the only people who review you are the Dean and your department chair — or even just the Dean — then the likelihood of a stilted review is greater. A healthy P&T process includes regular reviews in which more than just a couple of the stakeholders in the process get their say, and you get to hear what they say.

3. How are tenure decisions actually made? Importantly, you want to determine who makes the decision and what information that person (or those people) use in making it. Does the VPAA make the decision unilaterally, or is it done in concert with the president or the P&T committee, or what? And is the decision based on the portfolio provided by the faculty member, or is there some other means of arriving at the decision? Here again is a place where a less-than-clear answer, or 2-3 contradictory answers, to this question will reveal some (rather disturbing) information.

4. How does the promotion and tenure process fit into the overall picture of professional development? Having worked so closely with promotion and tenure cases, I’ve come to believe that tenure is not an isolated event but ought to fit into a larger fabric of professional growth. Tenure shouldn’t be an isolated event used as a weeding-out process or as an initiation into an old-boy’s club. Tenure instead ought to reward and pronounce professional excellence, and therefore the tenure process ought to serve as a means of attaining that excellence through structured, evidence-based reviews and meaningful feedback from stakeholders. In other words, faculty ought to get more out of tenure than just tenure itself. If it looks at a school like the tenure process is just a game which you either win or lose, rather than a means of becoming an outstanding professional, then that school’s process has issues.

As you’re looking for jobs or finding your way in the job you have, ask these questions. Schools at which they’re happy to answer those questions and can do so in a clear and sensible way are usually just the kind of places where you’d like to get tenured.

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