University News

Tenure process varies among departments

For 76 percent of faculty members, tenure offers lifetime employment, academic freedom

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Complicated, controversial and misunderstood are words that could be used to describe a number of topics in higher education, but tenure, a title 76 percent of University faculty members garner, is perhaps the academic policy most defined by them.

Tenure guarantees faculty members lifetime employment to protect their academic freedom “to pursue their research wherever it leads them,” said Dean of Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12. Tenured faculty members can only be removed from their positions if there is “egregious” behavior, such as academic or sexual misconduct, McLaughlin added.

The University typically reviews between 15 and 20 tenure cases a year, McLaughlin said, adding that only one or two usually get rejected. The Corporation expects the University to manage the tenure track so that 70 to 75 percent of the faculty members are tenured to maintain “a percentage of the faculty that is always refreshing,” McLaughlin said.

Process

The internal tenure track for a professor begins the moment someone is hired as an assistant professor. After an initial four-year probationary period, assistant professors are reviewed for reappointment for an additional three years in which they must continue to teach and produce research that is reviewed by the Dean’s office annually, McLaughlin said.

During an assistant professor’s sixth year, the department considers tenure.

Candidates write a “career narrative” that is filed in a dossier with all relevant published work, said Johanna Hanink, assistant professor of classics who recently completed the tenure process.

The chair of a department then assembles a committee of senior faculty members who are tasked with forming a list of potential external sources to evaluate the dossier, said David Weil, professor and chair of the economics department. Candidates may both propose external evaluators and make the committee aware of any sources they think would fail to report unbiasedly, Weil added.

When at least eight external evaluators have written letters of evaluation, the committee reads through the dossier containing all of the candidate’s information and the external evaluations and writes a report, McLaughlin said. The entire department then assembles to discuss the candidate’s career and votes to grant tenure. If the department recommends tenure for the candidate, the dossier is sent to the Tenure Promotion and Appointments Committee for recommendation. From there, the candidate’s case must be approved by the Provost, the President and the Corporation for the “pro forma” final confirmation, McLaughlin said.

If a tenure case is turned down, it is reviewed by the Committee on Faculty Equity and Diversity to review the process for discrimination or procedural discrepancies, McLaughlin said. But the University tries to minimize tenure case rejection through transparency, he added.

“Being turned down for tenure is a very serious setback professionally,” McLaughlin said. To relieve this issue, the Dean’s office’s annual reviews aim to inform professors who are “not proceeding in a way that it looks like they will receive tenure” of their progress so they can potentially find a new position before being evaluated and rejected, he said.

External tenure is “not initiated by a clock reaching a certain point,” but is instead given to faculty members who did not rise through the ranks at the University. Departments grant tenure to assistant professors at other universities or retain the tenured position of senior faculty members who are hired, Weil said.

The University aims to “demystify” the complicated tenure process for junior faculty members by hosting workshops that clarify the expectations and review the checklist of demands, Mclaughlin said.

“I found people to be very transparent along the whole way,” said Hanink, adding that her department chair kept her informed of the tenure calendar. “I know that’s not the case for some of my friends at different universities,” she said.

In computer science, the department gives strong recommendations and feedback without the expectation that junior faculty will follow the directions exactly, said Ugur Cetintemel, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science. The department should be a guiding force for junior faculty members expecting tenure, but feedback should not limit different professors’ own notions of achievement, said Cetintemel. “There are many paths to success,” he said.

Standards

The University uses the three dimensions of research, teaching and service to evaluate tenure candidates, Cetintemel said. While service is important, research and teaching are weighted more significantly.

The standards are system-wide between similar universities, but differ amongst departments, McLaughlin said. “Our expectations are not very divergent from those of our peer groups,” he said.

Tenure candidates in the sciences are expected to have received research funding from organizations such as the National Science Foundation or other grant providers “as sign that research is promising and successful,” McLaughlin said. Candidates should also have a number of published articles in top peer-reviewed journals that are cited in other researchers’ work, he said.

In the economics department, “tenure is a very high hurdle to jump over, so most people are going to want to have as much publication under their belt before they get to it,” Weil said. A good economics article could take as many as five years to publish, he said, citing 6 percent as the acceptance rate for top journals.

“Any junior faculty member at a top university economics department is exquisitely conscious of how difficult this publication process is and how long it takes and how bad timing can mean that you don’t get tenure,” Weil added.

Tenure review in the computer science department focuses on peer-reviewed publications, peer-reviewed conferences and software development, Cetintemel said. Unlike other sciences, the department does not use research funding as a metric for successful research but merely “a means to an end,” he said.

In the Department of Classics, there is “an understanding that you need to publish a book to get tenure” which usually stems from the professor’s doctorate dissertation, Hanink said. In addition, professors are expected to have evidence of a second project underway, she added.

These are “reasonable expectations for a hardworking assistant professor that comes out of a PhD program with a dissertation,” McLaughlin said.

Though teaching and research are weighted equally in determining tenure, teaching is “notoriously difficult to evaluate,” so research standards are more measurable, McLaughlin said. But “it’s almost impossible to get tenure at Brown if teaching is weak,” McLaughlin said.

While the committee reviews students’ teaching evaluations, professors’ teaching materials and peer observations of classes, many variables of teaching assessment are unaccounted for, McLaughlin said.

For example, some classes are inherently less popular due to class size or subject matter, McLaughlin said. In addition, studies show that professors from underrepresented minority groups frequently get lower scores on student evaluations for variables such as “knowledge of topic.” These discrepancies “need to be interpreted and contextualized,” McLaughlin said.

Results

Though tenure provides job security for professors, it does not slow down their research, McLaughlin said. Rather the program is designed to “protect the integrity of the research that (faculty members) are doing and their freedom to pursue it,” he added.

In fact, tenure can increase faculty productivity and creativity, encouraging crossing disciplinary boundaries and pushing research further, Hanink said. Since being approved for tenure, she has engaged in more ambitious, longer-term research that she previously would not have considered “tenure-safe,” she said.

“A lot of those field-changing books took a decade to write,” Hanink said, adding that tenure’s ability to provide freedom is especially important in the humanities.

“(Tenure) allows you to take bigger academic and intellectual risks,” Weil said, noting that untenured faculty members are fearful to pursue research that “might not pan out” in time for publication.

But as faculty members move up the ranks, priorities may shift from the highly sought-after research of junior faculty members to service for the University, the department and the greater community, Cetintemel said.

Pride and ambition continue to motivate professors even after receiving professional security, McLaughlin said, adding that professional regard is worth more than salary to many faculty members.

The ambition to succeed in their fields is “human nature for people who are high performers.” Even after receiving tenure, there are still awards to receive, research funding to earn and problems in each field to solve, McLaughlin said, adding that “the ambition doesn’t stop.”

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