Making the tenure and promotion process more productive (opinion)
Landing a tenure-track job is arguably still the coveted grand prize in academe. It’s understandably a big deal: an institution puts it in writing that a person has a job for life. As long as the person doesn’t try to have sex with students or run naked through campus yelling “fire,” they can usually stay as long as they wish—that is, unless their department folds or the institution declares financial exigency.
So colleges and universities want to be assured they’re making good choices of whom to keep. Faculty members who are already tenured also have a stake in the game, as they want to be sure to have fine colleagues. That leads us to some key questions: 1) How are institutions making solid choices when it comes to whom they grant tenure and promote? and 2) How might we improve that? How, in a process deemed this important, might we make it more productive, meaningful and streamlined for all parties—including the candidate, outside reviewers and the institution?
A Parallel Process
Before we delve into the tenure and promotion process, we should consider a similar one that precedes it: the vetting that search committees conduct to select candidates for phone and Zoom interviews, campus visits, and, ultimately, the job. In addition to submitting a cover letter and CV, applicants are usually asked to send supplementary information to support their file, including but not limited to: statements of teaching and research; writing samples; evidence of teaching effectiveness such as teaching evaluations, syllabi and sample assignments; three letters of reference; a transcript; and, most recently, the often-contested diversity statement.
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It’s reasonable to need and want most of this information in the final stages of a search and before offering someone a job, yet it seems like a full-on game of charades to ask every single person initially applying for all this information. For example, if a search yields 75 applicants for a position, that means the committee is asking for recommendation letters that 225 separate people probably authored. Does it really make sense to waste the time of that many people at such a preliminary stage of the process? Further, let’s say 75 people apply and each submits a 25-page writing sample. That would produce a total of, at least, 1,875 sample pages across the candidate pool. (And we all know more gets submitted than what is asked.)
Who’s kidding whom? Who can carefully read all of this? It would be close to if not impossible, especially with everything that members of search committees have to do, including their own teaching, research and service—let alone, one hopes, having their own lives.
The Problem of Excess
The demands for excess that characterize the academic search process lay the groundwork for a pattern of expectation of excess that saturates a person’s academic career. If someone is lucky enough to land a tenure-track job out of this, then the next time they have to prove themselves as intensely is when they go up for tenure and/or promotion. If committees make one thing abundantly clear in the process, it’s that the burden of proof lies squarely on the candidate. So it makes sense then that candidates for tenure and promotion will stop at nothing to showcase all they have done. The time is tender, and the stakes are high.
The elaborate range and vast quantity of what faculty are too often expected to submit includes but is not limited to: a detailed table of contents; a condensed one-page CV; a full CV; a personal statement; statements of teaching, research and service; future goals and plans in those areas; student course evaluations; peer observations and evaluations of teaching; letters from former students; syllabi; assignments; exams; photographs of successful student projects; evidence of collaborative scholarship with students to showcase mentoring; copies of all books, peer-reviewed articles and book chapters; nonrefereed publications; conference presentations; essays; exhibits; works in progress; consulting work; invited talks; evidence of service on multiple levels including the program, department, university, community, region, discipline and the greater public; annual reviews; internal review letters; external review letters from colleagues previously unknown to the candidate; the department chair’s letter; material that is generated and duplicative of what the university has on file, like the person’s offer letter, departmental and university criteria for tenure and promotion; and more.
In the long months while I waited to know the outcome, my husband jokingly asked if I thought I’d ever miss the feeling of forgetting to add a certain document to my file. It put into perspective how both in my mind, and in the expectations of this process, there would always be just one more thing to add or do. His humor helped me lighten up, take a step back and see the absurdity in much of it.
Lessons in excess permeate every academic hurdle, even leaving an indelible imprint as tenured faculty move along in the process for promotion to full. I’m ashamed to admit that my complete file for full totaled 3,837 pages, including all the supplemental documents highlighting my scholarship, teaching and service. After submitting all this material, I received official word of my promotion 10 months later. It turns out that it takes a few weeks longer to find out the official news about this than it does to make a person, if a full-term pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks.
In fact, I’ve also observed a curious thing that we rarely talk about: the process is anticlimactic. Yes, there was relief, and it felt good to have achieved such important milestones, yet the sheer joy that should accompany these victories was muted. Sure, there were calls, cards, hugs, gifts and dinners with family, friends and cherished colleagues, but by the time the decision was made official, so much time had elapsed.
Of course, institutions vary both in terms of what they expect to be submitted for tenure and promotion and how the review process works. But regardless of the aspects that are idiosyncratic to each college or university, one thing seems all too common: the excessive quality that’s baked into the process.
One of the damaging fallouts of asking candidates to submit what can amount to hundreds or thousands of pages is that people come to meetings of the tenure and promotion committee having zeroed in on entirely different aspects of files. As a result, productive discussion is stymied.
The Need for Curation
The fundamental problem is that the dominant narrative in academe, certainly cultivated in graduate school, is that we, the individual faculty member, are never enough and there’s never enough—enough funding, resources, time, space and so on. And like so many good girls and women, I was steeped in a tyranny of perfectionism that I had been working so hard to let go. I had built levees to prevent future seepage of it into my life, yet the intense pressure of the tenure and promotion process often breaks those levees, or surely threatens their strength.
For me, the most challenging, demoralizing and draining part of preparing my files for tenure and promotion was the emotional aspect of working with what had become competing narratives: the never-enough paradigm in academe juxtaposed with the gentler idea that I’ve tried so hard to channel in my life: that I am indeed good enough.
As a public sociologist, I have come to see that my greatest contribution is to make my work available and accessible to people outside academe. There is tremendous value, meaning and fulfillment in translating knowledge in ways that make ideas and concepts understandable. Similarly, one dimension of our teaching is to figure out how to distill the major contributions of a discipline into a series of class sessions. As such, we’re like curators charged with thoughtfully editing a collection of sorts. We have to be judicious.
What I find puzzling is why we have not harnessed this same strategy for rethinking the tenure and promotion process—or the hiring process, for that matter. The current conceptualization is that if some is good, more is better. But if the act of curation matters in our teaching, writing and public-facing work—and I think it does—then perhaps less really is more.
Ideas for Improvement
It’s high time for us to re-envision this process. Here are some ideas we might consider.
- Change our guidelines. Candidates going up for tenure and promotion should only have to submit a few key, representative pieces that they are most proud of in each area of scholarship, teaching and service. The poet William Stafford wrote, “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread.” We would benefit from borrowing from this line of thought. It encourages the faculty member to more thoughtfully assemble a portfolio, carefully reflecting on the thread they’ve followed in their career trajectory.
- Consider presentations to tenure and promotion committees. Dissertations require an oral defense, and job interviews involve a teaching demonstration and/or research talk. So why shouldn’t candidates, at such a crucial juncture, present a short retrospective of their work, demonstrating a few key things they most want to showcase and responding to questions? If so much of our career is predicated on curation, dissemination and presentation, it would seem that this is a milestone where those tasks should come into play.
- Create better mechanisms for evaluating candidates who’ve had other careers outside academe or at prior institutions. Just as places hire faculty for the expertise they bring, we should be honoring those very experiences when it comes to tenure and promotion. I remember being told not to showcase too much of the work I’d done at previous institutions, yet that type of information can form a far more comprehensive picture of a faculty candidate.
- Make it easier for faculty members to agree to be external reviewers. First, they’re serving as consultants and should be compensated. Second, they need to be given a proper amount of time to do the assignment. For example, I’ve been asked to complete my reviews right when classes for the fall semester have begun. Such a timeline is unreasonable. We should also think about how much material the institution sends to outside reviewers so it’s a manageable task and provides what committee members most need and want to know. Most of all, reviewers need a context in which to evaluate so they’re making appropriate comments and comparisons. That’s especially true if someone is going up for tenure and promotion at a teaching-intensive institution, for example, and someone at a research-oriented university is evaluating them.
- Train and mentor committee members. Once faculty are on the other side of the table and evaluating files for tenure and promotion, one thing becomes strikingly clear: they often don’t naturally know how to review those files, nor do they know how to talk about them. And why would they? Being on these committees is a way that we are socialized into the profession and learn the processes, formal and informal rules, and guidelines. So without real mentoring and guidance for how best to fairly, ethically and legally review files, much will remain status quo, risk being unprofessional or focus on the wrong thing. I’ll never forget a young colleague’s cringeworthy comment about a candidate as a great office mate when they shared a space together. Of course, student evaluations of teaching become another debatable arena, given the research showing its limitations. Yet some colleagues still comment on “quantitative data” even when a class of just four students have weighed in about a candidate.
Such a process replicates itself. When new faculty members join the tenure and promotion committee, they see such comments as typical when they should not be. And even when the process is reconsidered—and thorny issues emerge and things that could be improved upon are revealed—the urgency to deal with the files at hand supersedes everything else. The result? We continually confront the same perennial issues: an unwieldy amount of information, not enough of the right kind and an inconsistent review process.
In short, the ways we evaluate candidates for tenure and promotion need an overhaul. Stripping away the pretense and preciousness of it all and creatively rethinking the task before us can breathe new meaning, purpose and shape into this crucial process.