How Getting Tenure Is Supposed to Work

The other day Geoff Challen posted a blog entry about his negative tenure vote. Having spent roughly equal time on the getting-tenure and having-tenure sides of the table, I wanted to comment on the process a little. Before going any further I want to clarify that:

  • I know Geoff, but not well
  • I wasn’t involved in his case in any capacity, for example by writing a letter of support
  • I have no knowledge of his tenure case beyond what was written up in the post

Speaking very roughly, we can divide tenure cases into four quadrants. First, the professor is doing well and the tenure case is successful — obviously this is what everybody wants, and in general both sides work hard to make it happen. Second, the professor is not doing well (not publishing at all, for example) and the tenure case is unsuccessful. While this is hugely undesirable, at least the system is working as designed. Third, the professor is not doing well and the tenure case is successful — this happens, but very rarely and usually in bizarre circumstances, for example where the university administration overrules a department’s decision. Finally, we can have a candidate who is doing well and then is denied tenure. This represents a serious failure of the system. Is this what happened to Geoff? It’s hard to be sure but his academic record looks to me like a strong one for someone at his career stage. But keep in mind that it is (legally) impossible for the people directly involved in Geoff’s case to comment on it, so we are never going to hear the other side of this particular story.

So now let’s talk about how tenure is supposed to work. There are a few basic principles (I suspect they apply perfectly well to performance evaluations in industry too). First, the expectations must be made clear. Generally, every institution has a written document stating the requirements for tenure, and if a department deviates from them, decisions they make can probably be successfully appealed. Here are the rules at my university. Junior faculty need to look up the equivalent rules at their institution and read them, but of course the university-level regulations miss out on department-specific details such as what exactly constitutes good progress. It is the senior faculty’s job to make this clear to junior faculty via mentoring and via informal faculty evaluations that lead up to the formal ones.

If you look at the rules for tenure at Utah, you can see that we’re not allowed to deny tenure just because we think someone is a jerk. On the other hand, there is perhaps some wiggle room implied in this wording: “In carrying out their duties in teaching, research/other creative activity and service, faculty members are expected to demonstrate the ability and willingness to perform as responsible members of the faculty.” I’m not sure what else to say about this aspect of the process: tenure isn’t a club for people we like, but on the other hand the faculty has to operate together as an effective team over an extended period of time.

The second principle is that the tenure decision should not be a surprise. There has to be ongoing feedback and dialog between the senior faculty and the untenured faculty. At my institution, for example, we review every tenure track professor every year, and each such evaluation results in a written report. These reports discuss the candidate’s academic record and provide frank evaluations of strengths and weaknesses in the areas of research, teaching, and service (internal and external). The chair discusses the report with each tenure-track faculty member each year. The candidate has the opportunity to correct factual errors in the report. In the third and sixth years of a candidate’s faculty career, instead of producing an informal report (that stays within the department), we produce a formal report that goes up to the university administration, along with copies of all previous reports. The sixth-year formal evaluation is the one that includes our recommendation to tenure (or not) the candidate.

A useful thing about these annual evaluations is that they provide continuity: the reports don’t just go from saying glowing things about someone in the fifth year to throwing them under the bus in the sixth. If there are problems with a case, this is made clear to the candidate as early as possible, allowing the candidate, the candidate’s mentor(s), and the department chair to try to figure out what is going wrong and fix it. For example, a struggling candidate might be given a teaching break.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there is quite a bit of scrutiny and oversight in the tenure process. If a department does make a recommendation that looks bad, a different level of the university can overrule it. I’ve heard of cases where a department (not mine!) tried to tenure a research star who was a very poor teacher, but the dean shot down the case.

If you read the Hacker News comments, you would probably come to the conclusion that tenure decisions are made capriciously in dimly lit rooms by people smoking cigars. And it is true that, looking from the outside, the process has very little transparency. The point of this piece is that internally, there is (or should be) quite a bit of transparency and also a sane, well-regulated process with plenty of checks and balances. Mistakes and abuses happen, but they are the exception and not the rule.

Phil Guo, Sam Tobin-Hochstadt, and Suresh Venkatasubramanian gave me a bit of feedback on this piece but as always any blunders are mine. Sam pointed me to The Veil, a good piece about tenure.

9 thoughts on “How Getting Tenure Is Supposed to Work”

  1. Great post.

    I always wanted to know a little bit more about the tenure process and this post cleared most of my doubts.

    We have nothing like that here in Brazil, at least not in public federal universities, such as the one where I work.


  2. John,
    I’d be interested in knowing if you have hard empirical evidence (i.e. data) for your assertion that “Mistakes and abuses happen, but they are the exception and not the rule.” It’s a genuine question, BTW, not any kind of bait.
    I’m glad to know you have clear (and written, I suppose) rules at Utah. That’s not always the case at other places. And you’d be amazed (I think) at what could enter the equation.

  3. Hi Antonio, I have no data at all. I agree it would be nice.

    I’m surprised that universities (in the USA) can get away with not having clear rules, this strategy would seem to fail as soon as someone appeals a decision. Can you name some institutions where things are done more informally?

  4. My department has a very vague tenure/promotion document that is 30 years old. Every few years they try to get together and make a new one but there’s an even split for/against and the discussion just collapses.

    It even has mathematically impossible clauses (it indicates that everyone should have above-average teaching evaluations).

    I’m up for tenure next year, so we’ll see how it goes.

  5. I have a rather jaded view of any process governed by human committees with a conflict of interest designed in. Faculty hiring, tenure, and paper reviewing all have this issue. RE faculty hiring one of my economist friends said “faculty hiring their competition– what could go wrong?”. My limited subjective impression of hiring and tenure in computer science is that if it were possible to do principle components analysis of tenure outcome, it would correlate weakly with long-term research contribution, somewhat stronger and negative with teaching, and somewhat stronger still with fundraising. But actually getting some data would I am sure yield surprises and many departmentally local effects.

  6. Here is a useful exercise:
    1. Read the book Secrets to Winning at Office Politics by Marie McIntyre. It is an absolutely excellent book, and in spite of the connotations of the title every suggestion the author makes is both ethical and, essentially, applied common sense.
    2. Re-read the blog post linked above.
    3. Using exclusively information disclosed in the blog post, identify the political errors made by the writer.

    As a tenured faculty member myself, I would second everything John said about the process in this post. What I would add is that, no matter how clear and unambiguous criteria may appear to be, there will always be a subjective element of interpretation that can be completely unconscious. When the department is asked to vote, each member filters the evidence of success or failure through the lens of their own personal interactions with the tenure candidate.

    Consider, for example, the issue of interpreting teaching evaluations. When, as a department chair, I have examined a pile of evaluations for a tenure candidate, I will always see a mix of positive and negative issues arise. The relative seriousness with which I assess those issues is filtered through my own biases as a teacher as well as my own perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the tenure candidate.

    Consequently, if a person has made some enemies within a department, those enemies may be very sincere in trying to assess the candidate, even sincerely considering themselves to be unbiased. But because they are human, their experiences with the candidate will be a filter through which they view the evidence at hand.

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