Promotion and Tenure

To answer George’s call for blog entries explaining how an English department works, I’ll start by pointing to Jimbo’s entry, “The Tenure File.” I’m not yet in a tenure-track position, but from my understanding, Jimbo’s suggestions illustrate the factors that English departments use in determining whether or not to award tenure to a junior faculty member.

Tenure is important because it protects the academic freedom of the professor, preventing him or her from being fired for holding politically unpopular opinions (note: the Wikipedia explanations of tenure and academic freedom are also good starting points on this topic). The tenure system has often been criticized because it is believed that many professors become negligent or lazy once they have achieved tenure (which is probably part of a larger cultural perception that professors don’t work very hard), but it’s my observation that most tenured professors continue to work very hard to contribute to their field and to provide the best classroom experience possible for their students.

For readers who are less familiar with how English departments work, tenure-track professors are given from five to seven years, depending on the university, to earn tenure based on publications, teaching, and departmental service:

Publication expectations may vary based on the university’s teaching requirements and national reputation, but most top research universities require that applicant publish a book (although this policy is the source of controversy right now because of tighter budgets at most university presses) and several articles in respected academic journals. Jimbo also suggests that junior faculty keep track of citations of their published work. If a tenure applicant can demonstrate that his or her work has been widely quoted or has become influential in some way, then that will help to support the tenure application.

Universities also require professors to demonstrate their effectiveness in the classroom. Strong teaching evaluations can be very helpful here (some professors who have a lighter publication portfolio often benefit here). This effectiveness can also be demonstrated through syllabi, sample assignments, and samples of graded work.

Service work is the final major factor and includes committee work (looking at grad student applications, etc) as well as participating in the intellectual life of the department by bringing in guest speakers, setting up a lecture or film series, and so forth.

Of course, as the Wikipedia entry on tenure points out, a large percentage of English department faculty positions are adjunct or non-tenure track professorships, most of which pay less, offer fewer benefits, and require a significantly larger teaching load than tenure-track faculty members.

Suggestions and clarifications to this explanation are welcome.

8 Comments »

  1. George Said,

    August 21, 2004 @ 1:29 pm

    Thanks for the contribution, Chuck. A few extra thoughts (and if any readers think I get these wrong, please chime in):

    When it comes to rank, faculty are hired as “Assistant Professors.” Once they are tenured, they are usually (but not always) promoted to “Associate Professor.” After a few years , they may then go up for the rank of “Professor.”

    An additional part of the process at UMKC’s English Department is evaluation by a faculty member (perhaps more than one) at another, peer institution. This person must have no affiliation with our institution and is asked to consider whether we would get tenure at their institution based on our tenure file.

    When you are evaluated for tenure and/or promotion, your department first looks over your materials and then makes a decision. Next, your college looks over your materials and makes a decision. Thus, you could be recommended for tenure/promotion by your department, but denied by your college.

    If you are denied tenure, you may be given another year before you are expected to leave. People either find work at another academic institution or they leave academia altogether.

    In addition to tenure and promotions, faculty also get pay raises based on their performance. So the argument that tenure encourages laziness is predicated on the assumption that people don’t care about money (or about recognition from their professional peers).

    On scholarship and publishing, check out the Wikipedia entry on Peer Review and the letter on the changing publishing climate that former Modern Language Assocation president Stephen Greenblatt sent out to MLA members a couple of years ago, encouraging departments to revise their publishing expecations.

    As for evaluating teaching effectiveness, in my department, we are observed in the classroom by one of our peers each and every semester (at least until tenure). These peer observations go into the packet that we assemble and submit when we go up for tenure. Additionally, student evaluations carry some weight when it comes time to make tenure and promotion decisions.

    Finally, when it comes to service there are usually several standing committees (e.g. “Undergraduate Commitee,” “Graduate Committee,” “Curriculum Committee,” “Planning Committee,” “Promotion and Tenure Commttee,” and, if your department is hiring a new faculty member, “Hiring Committee”). You are assigned (by the chair of your department) to committees at the beginning of the academic year and are expected to attend all the meetings and complete all the work necessary, such as reviewing applications, deciding on new course proposals, making promotion and tenure decisions, etc. If you guest lecture in a colleague’s class, this also counts as service. Service expectations may also include community service, such as working as an individual with local organizations or incorporating service learning into your classes.

  2. Jimbo Said,

    August 21, 2004 @ 3:28 pm

    I’m not in an English department, though I think the format is more or less the same for most departments in the humanities. Some fields give great weight to citations, for instance, though my field is too small and the overall publication rate too slow for citations to accrue quickly enough to be useful in evaluating tenure.

    On the money issue, yes you get raises based on service, teaching and research, but of those three areas only research is truly mobile. In public universities, merit raises tend to be relatively modest (perhaps 2% above the average). An outside offer will often net considerably more (15-20%). So in fact the smart thing to do economically is ignore service as much as possible, put enough into teaching to be passable, focus on research, and seek outside offers.

    jwb

  3. Mel Said,

    August 21, 2004 @ 7:06 pm

    Just to add a bit more to George’s comments. As he mentioned, many universities require that the full contents of a tenure file be reviewed by several (3-5 is a usual number at a research institution) faculty at other institutions. In addition to not being associated with the candidate’s institution, these external reviewers frequently must also not have any personal connections with the candidate: no former colleagues, professors, or students, and no one with whom you have co-authored or collaborated on a research project. These external reviewers are asked to assess the value of the candidate’s scholarship and are sometimes asked questions like: “should this candidate achieve tenure at a research institution” or “is this candidate making an impact on her/his field of knowledge”.

    Additionally, many universities have a three-tiered process of evaluation: votes are taken at the department, college, and university level. A fail vote at any level usually determines denial of tenure.

    If tenure is denied, most institutions have policies governing the processes for appeal, grievance, or rehearing, if there are grounds for claiming that procedures were not adequately followed, personal bias, or other mitigating factors that should be considered by a university Grievance committee or other judging body.

  4. chuck Said,

    August 21, 2004 @ 8:14 pm

    Note: after reading this interesting Gadflyer article on the ongoing “culture wars” on college campuses, I came across Dennis G. Jerz’s definition of tenure while doing some digging on Google.

    Thanks, everyone, for clarifying my explanation!

  5. Steven D. Krause Said,

    August 23, 2004 @ 8:15 am

    Some additions to what I think is already a pretty good entry about tenure as is:

    * While generalizations about the process of getting tenure can certainly be made, the specifics about the process of tenure vary widely. At some schools, particularly at schools with a “prestigious” reputation, the process of evaluating who does or doesn’t get tenure is extremely secretive. At some schools, like the one where I teach, the process for tenure and promotion is very much spelled out as the result of years of faculty union contract negotiations. My only point is it is key for faculty seeking tenure to really have the pulse on their local institutions because generalizations about the process will only get you so far.

    * Along these lines, the scholarship requirements for tenure seem to me to vary quite a bit. In grad school, we’re told that we will need a book or a “book-plus” to get tenure at our jobs. But it seems to me that this is only the case at tier 1 research schools (and not even all of them) and some prestigious small schools. At most places where folks in English get jobs with a PhD– community colleges, regional colleges and universities, for example– the requirements for tenure are quite a bit more reasonable. Further, and I write about this in an article called “Where do I list this on my CV?” what actually “counts” as “scholarship” varies a lot too.

    I’ve been on the faculty at two different schools (both of which would best be described as “regional”), and I have a PhD and an MFA from two other schools (both of which would be described as “tier 1,” though just barely). At each of these schools, there were folks granted tenure without having a book.

    * The vast majority of faculty who go up for tenure get tenure. Where I teach now, they have not denied someone in my department tenure for maybe 30 years; where I used to work and where I earned my graduate degrees, I believe the situation was similar.

    Now, there are places where your chances of tenure are a lower and where tenure denials are more common– and again, they tend to be fancy schools– but they also tell you that when you get hired. And I know that there have been cases where I work in the recent past where they have told tenure-seeking candidates that they ought to consider going back on the job market because they weren’t making a good case for tenure. What I’m getting at is if a tenure-seeking faculty member’s tenure case is in trouble, that person generally has a chance to figure out what’s wrong and either fix the problem or leave the school before actually being denied tenure.

    * The “protection” of tenure is somewhat illusionary. It is comforting to advance up the academic food chain, but while I like to joke that “tenure means I can kill a man to watch him die,” it really doesn’t mean that much. At least for me. Sure, I can’t get laid off or easily fired, but that was the case before in many ways. I can say what I want without fear of official reprisals, but again, that was the same before.

    * Rather, tenure is academia’s way of saying “you are one of us, and we expect you to behave you’re like one of us.” On the one hand, tenure does give you the power to speak your mind. On the other hand, if “your mind” is really at odds with the institution and/or the department, “speaking” it can still get you into trouble. Just about every department has someone who is tenured and at odds with the rest of the way other faculty in that department are thinking about various things. These “at odds” faculty can’t be fired for their ideas, but they to tend to be isolated by the rest of the faculty and/or the department chair.

  6. Christopher Said,

    August 24, 2004 @ 2:17 am

    I would add that issues relating to academic feedom rarely arise anymore, and tenure’s primary purpose, beyond representing the imprimatur of professional and communal acceptance, is job security. With tenure, one cannot become the victim of an institutional salary dump. The adjuncts, and non-tenure-track faculty, on the other hand …

    And Dr. Krause’s point above should be reiterated: according to the AAUP 96% of those who go up for tenure get it. There’s just so much excellent work being done out there.

  7. chuck Said,

    August 24, 2004 @ 11:36 am

    Yes, you’re right about job security. I’ve been trying to think about a tactful way of discussing the adjunct/non-tenure-track problem because that’s certainly a problem.

    I’ve known of a few cases where people legitimately deserved tenure and didn’t get it, but again that’s an exception. Good to know that 96% of all candidates who go up for tenure actually get it.

  8. LiL Said,

    August 25, 2004 @ 11:10 pm

    I’ve known a few cases where someone deserved tenure, department wanted them, school didn’t think they were a catchy enough name. Could be that this is specific to my school – but 96% of tenure-track getting tenure is definitely not the norm here.

    I’ve also known a few cases where a lecturer, after putting in 20 or so years of excellent research and teaching work, got rank even though an exception had to be made. Often they were spouses of tenured faculty, so there was never a real “risk” of them leaving (and not doing said excellent research and teaching work at/for school in question anymore.)

    Then again there are lecturers (often spouses of tenured or tenure-track faculty) who just get yearly contract after yearly contract, until they finally leave academia.

    None of the above has anything to do with academic freedom anymore. In fact, I have the sinking feeling that you don’t usually get to the point of being considered for tenure if you’re saying things that don’t jive with the decisionmakers. If you even say not-particularly-controversial things but say them in a way that doesn’t jive with the decisionmakers. Of course, you can keep trying your luck at another place, until you happen upon one with which you’re a match. Of course, anything is possible. But it doesn’t happen very often.

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