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Some Thoughts on the Tenure Decision

Many professions have thresholds of review that document stages of accomplishment. For those aspiring to the tenure-line faculty there are three: the hiring into an assistant professor tenure-line position, the promotion to a tenured associate professor, and the promotion to a full professor. The first is increasingly fiercely competitive, with hundreds of PhD’s competing for one position. The second two are based on judgments about individual contributions to a specialty while at the institution. Each of these hurdles is continuously being raised, as fields evolve and knowledge is expanded.

The decisions of a university to grant passage across these thresholds are taken seriously. The move from assistant professor without tenure to associate professor with tenure is a particularly important step because of the security it provides the candidate and the commitment the university gives to him/her. Tenure is granted by the university not a department or school. Thousands of person-hours are spent reading the scholarly product, discussing the case, and writing evaluative reports. The process is hierarchical in one sense – the unit colleagues of the candidate read his/her work, the dean of the school reviews the evaluation and makes a separate judgment, a university-wide committee reviews the candidate, and finally, the provost and then the president make judgments.

The evaluations have three foci: scholarly product, teaching quality, and service to the profession and the university. (These are the same criteria used in annual merit reviews, and are often weighted to give more emphasis to scholarship and teaching than to service.)

In contrast to some professions not much of the evaluation can be quantified. We can count the number of peer-reviewed articles and books published, the number of citations by other scholars of the work (a great contribution of Google and other internet based tools to academia), the mean scores of ratings on student evaluation forms, the number of invited talks given, the number of editorial boards and other professional committees, and the number of theses and dissertations overseen.

But the underlying question is always “What is the impact of the candidate’s work and what is his/her trajectory?” With a focus on the impact of one’s work, it’s clear why a manuscript completed is less valued than a manuscript accepted for publication, than a manuscript printed, than a publication reviewed and/or citeable. Further, large impacts come from choosing big, important issues to work on and pushing the frontiers of the field on those issues.

The impact of teaching is equally difficult to judge. Student evaluations are used. However, large, required classes tend to generate lower scores than small, elective courses. Student evaluations about whether the instructor was prepared for class, open to meeting after class, are helpful. In addition, departments that have senior faculty visit classes of the candidate and report on the interaction add to the value of the teaching assessments. But the lasting impacts of teaching on students are not commonly measured; we need to get better at this.

The impact assessment begs the counterfactual question of how diminished we would have been without the contributions. The trajectory assessment begs the question of how the future will continue the past. These involve subjective judgments. Hence, the routine is to seek judgment from many knowledgeable people, ideally as independent as possible from one another, but using consistent standards.

The departmental colleagues of the candidate read the work and make judgments. They often share sophisticated knowledge of relevant areas of work. However, biases can sometimes creep in at this level because the personalities of candidates or within-field intellectual disputes sometime inappropriately color the judgments.

To temper this, multiple reviewers outside of Georgetown are also asked to read the work of the candidate. Ideally, these are not friends, collaborators, former students, or mentors of the candidate. These letter-writers are identified to the Georgetown reviewers but kept confidential outside the group. (A breach of confidentiality ruins this process and must be taken very seriously.) Desirable attributes of the reviewers are that they have unambiguous credentials of academic excellence, are broadly read in the field, and are current with the latest developments in the field. We are less interested in the opinions of the less successful.

The most useful external letters are from those who carefully read the work, critically comment on strengths and weakness, assess its impact on the field, and compare the candidate’s work to that of others with comparable experience. Superficial letters, whether negative or positive, tend to be downweighted.

The department/program writes a critical report of the scholarly product, teaching performance, and service contributions. Unit colleagues of appropriate rank vote. In addition to reporting the outcome of the vote, a real value of the report is its critical content. A review report that is a superficial approving of the performance is quickly downweighted by those who read it later in the process.

As the evaluation proceeds from the department/program to the school to the university, the reviews by design attempt to leaven any unevenness across the units. Faculty and senior administrators whose job it is to review candidates from many units are asked to weigh in. All involved need to weigh the relative contributions of scholarship, teaching, and service. It is fair to say that not all successful candidates are equally accomplished in all three areas.

Ideally, feedback to the candidate on the results of the review provides more than just its outcome. Within the constraints of confidentiality of reviewers, the candidates deserve some identification of strengths and weaknesses identified in the review process.

In sum, the process is designed to surface diversity of judgments. However, its nature doesn’t provide a crisp answer to a fundamental question of candidates — “What exactly do I have to accomplish to be successful?” For them, it is useful to compare themselves to others recently jumping the threshold at comparable universities in the same field. It is useful to get multiple opinions from senior colleagues inside and outside the department/program. It is useful to nurture a relationship with a knowledgeable, wise, constructive critic.

But the process doesn’t yield itself to checklists that, once completed, assure success. Hence, however challenging, the thousands of hours of independent review seem necessary. When all involved faculty and administrators take the process seriously, it is key to building a stronger university.

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Tenure Decision

  1. “Student evaluations are used. ”

    the problem here is that students are biased, and it’s largely emotional. How well they do and how hard it is for them are strong factors in student evaluations. This is not a measure of how effective a teacher was at delivering information or causing personal growth for the student. An emotionally insensitive but effective teacher would do poorly. A teacher for whom it’s difficult to get high marks would do poorly. The easiest way to get high ratings is to be personable and easy. The next easiest way is to be emotionally sensitive/personable and actually teach a decent but not-too-hard class.

    plus, teaching on tenure committees really comes down to whether they’re ok enough and not screwing stuff up if you weigh it against research. research is the overwhelming factor especially with grant money.

  2. “These are the same criteria used in annual merit reviews, and are often weighted to give more emphasis to scholarship and teaching than to service.”

    I would like to emphasize the latter portion of this statement as it relates to merit, promotion and tenure decisions. As a Jesuit school, we embody the value of service to others. We expect this value to be held in common with our students as members of this community, so to place less emphasis on what we claim sets us apart from other elite institutions indicates a fundamental disconnect between what Georgetown says is of value institutionally, and what, in the end, is truly valued, in those who teach our students, i.e., accolades for the institution.

  3. Dr. Groves has given a good description of the tenure process, as it should ideally work. However, in practice the process is not always as smooth and painless as it is presented. A number of issues need to be examined as follows:
    1. Georgetown made its name as providing a quality undergraduate liberal education, as well as very good pre-professional and professional education. On the main campus it was known as a teaching school with professors who were dedicated to their teaching and open to their students. The university’s limitation was that it was not sufficiently a research and publishing school. In the past 15 years or so, GU has made a major effort to become a full-fledged research university. This effort is certainly understandable and praiseworthy, and should continue if GU is to become a truly distinguished university. So far, the school has managed to move towards its goal while keeping a delicate balance between teaching and research. However, since research and publishing are a sine qua non for tenure and are much more heavily weighted than teaching and service, there is danger that the quality of teaching could suffer. Georgetown would lose a great deal if it becomes less known for the quality of its teaching, and falls behind its peers/competitors, the other medium-sized universities known for their quality undergraduate education, such as Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, Boston College and Tufts, while struggling to be accepted as a leading research university. Teaching should therefore be given a significant weight in tenure decisions (as much as 30%). Similarly, service should be valued and given weight in the decision (perhaps 25%). If not, this would discourage faculty to spend much of their precious time serving the school. Professors who perform significant service to the university such as acting in leadership or academic administration positions, or help in fund raising, should be given credit in tenure and/or promotion decisions. Research would still be given a weight of 40%-45%.
    2. Since standards for obtaining tenure at GU have become stricter in recent years, requiring a substantial amount of research and publications, new assistant professors should be clearly briefed as to these standards from the start. The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes annually a list of colleges that are great to work for. High on the criteria used for making the list are a clear view of the path to tenure, and the amount effort and resources a university invests in developing its faculty. Georgetown did not make the list in 2013 or in 2012.
    3. The requirements for obtaining tenure seem relatively clear in most disciplines and functional departments. It is up the leadership and the senior faculty of these departments to explain these requirements to junior faculty and mentor them towards achieving them. Annual evaluations and mid-probationary feedback are extremely important. What is less clear are tenure requirements in interdisciplinary programs, as some faculty members with interdisciplinary interests may not fit a disciplinary “cookie cutter”, and publish in more than one field and in a variety of publications. If GU wants to have some valuable professors with interdisciplinary interests, it should make allowance for them and not judge them by the requirements of a single discipline. Some flexibility is needed in such cases both in terms channels used for publications and the research methodologies used. Schools and programs with interdisciplinary faculties such as SFS should nevertheless find ways to advise and mentor junior faculty towards tenure.
    4. Of course, a published article is worth more than an unpublished manuscript. However, in some fields such as Economics, there are a large number of manuscripts by junior faculty chasing a limited number of leading academic journals. It is not unusual for assistant professors to be asked to revise their articles up to three times. It could take a new assistant professor several years before he or she sees his/her first article being published through no fault of his/her own. Some allowance should be made in these cases, and senior faculty should actively help their junior colleagues getting published.
    5. Hopefully, Georgetown, in its pursuit of academic prominence, will not become as rigid in its criteria for granting tenure as some top universities which are said to require x number of books published in top university presses and y number articles in the top academic journals of a field before granting tenure. This type of metrics or “counting of beans” does not take into account the quality and nature of publications. Some excellent books and articles on some very specialized or exoteric subjects may be published only by “niche” publishers or less known journals, and may not generate many citations. Senior administrators in particular should resist the temptation of using a primarily quantitative assessment (metrics), especially in the case of subjects they are not familiar with. Also, GU faculty members, being an international lot, quite often write books and articles in foreign languages such as French, Portuguese, Hungarian, Italian, German, Turkish, Chinese, etc., thus increasing GU’s global reach. These publications should not be undervalued because evaluators are not able to read them, or are not familiar with the foreign journals or presses that publish them.
    6. Impact should not be only defined as impact on a faculty member’s field of study. Georgetown professes aiming at serving society and the world. Therefore, articles written in reputable policy journals, that are edited but not peer-reviewed, should be taken into account for tenure, especially in the case of faculty teaching in the social sciences and policy fields. Such articles can have more impact on policy than articles in academic peer-reviewed journals. I my view, even thoughtful op-eds in leading newspapers should be given some consideration in the tenure process, as they can have a significant impact on public opinion and policy, although they should of course be given less weight than longer, well-researched articles in academic or policy journals.
    7. With rapid developments in information technology a growing number of on-line academic journals are appearing, and leading policy journals are posting on-line versions. The tenure process needs to be flexible enough to take into account faculty articles written in these non-traditional media.
    8. There may well be some cases of young faculty members who are excellent teachers, devoted to their students, but who are unable or unwilling to engage in the rigorous tenure “publish or perish” track. In such cases, it may still be wise to retain or even recruit some of them as non-tenured “teaching professors” or “professors of the practice.” This way, GU can have excellent teachers cover some courses, especially at the undergraduate level, while at the same time having more research-oriented faculty spend significant time conducting research and publishing Some of these “teaching professors” could even be specialists in teaching in their fields (i.e. science education, or math education). This practice has already been introduced at MSB and to lesser degree in the College (e.g. Biology Department), and could be used more widely, including in SFS. This type of teaching faculty would not receive tenure but some form of guarantee for continued employment subject to good performance and budget availability. In the case of young full-time non-tenured faculty, some system and criteria should exist for their promotion so that they are not stuck all their careers at the visiting assistant professor level.

    In brief, the tenure process should be conducted carefully, intelligently, sensitively, and transparently so that the young faculty members involved feel they have been fairly treated. .

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