University News

Professors face rigorous promotion process

Faculty members must excel in classroom, produce top research to achieve full professorship

staff writer
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Updated Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 12:39 a.m.

As the University aims to improve its faculty pipeline and diversify the faculty to match the diversity of the student body, many faculty members find the process of becoming a full professor fairly straightforward to navigate.

Promotion from associate professor to full professor is a three- to four-month process that involves a long chain of decision-making, according to Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty.

Recognition is one of the main benefits of becoming a full professor, said Timothy Herbert, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences. “It’s not that it provides incentive because I think that most of us do what we do because we love it,” he added. But the position of full professor provides faculty members with a goal after tenure, he said.   

Being a full professor comes with prestige, McLaughlin said. “Full professors are recognized as being the leaders in their field,” he added. “It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of prestige and the kind of cultural capital it gives a faculty member to be a full professor.”

Most professors will strive for full professor status after achieving associate and tenure, said Andrew Scherer, associate professor of anthropology and of archaeology and the ancient world. “You briefly bask in the glory of tenure, and then you immediately think to the next step,” Scherer said.

The timeline for an associate professor is not entirely clear-cut, Herbert said. “There is no exact clock for full professors, which makes it a little ambiguous,” Herbert said, adding that associate professors usually teach for six to eight years before going up for full.

When a faculty member requests to be reviewed for promotion, a promotion committee compiles a dossier for the candidate. The dossier includes class materials, teaching reviews, a record of the candidate’s service activities and at least eight letters written by outside experts that review the candidate’s work.

These letters can be a frustrating part of the process because candidates are not given the names of their letter writers, McLaughlin said, adding that it can be “uncomfortable” and “unpleasant” for candidates to not know who is reviewing their research and merit.

The external letters are the most detailed scholarly assessment of a professor’s work, yet they are kept private within the promotional process, said Deak Nabers, associate professor of English. “That feels a little goofy sometimes,” Nabers said, as such rigorous reviews could help professors improve their work.

Using the assembled dossier, the candidate’s department votes on their eligibility for promotion, and the case is then passed on to the Tenure, Promotion and Appointments Committee, which is chaired by Professor of Biology Judith Bender.

After the TPAC votes, the promotion case moves on to the provost, who reviews the TPAC’s recommendation and makes a final decision. This decision is reported to the president and nearly always accepted, at which point it will be officially approved and published.

The University’s standards for promotion reflect those of its peer institutions, McLaughlin said, but the specific criteria for promotion vary from department to department.

During the process of promotion, an associate professor is examined for “a combination of scholarship, teaching and service,” Herbert said. Candidates are expected to excel in the classroom, be independent, productive scholars and give back to the community through service within or outside the university, Herbert said.

Scherer said he expects his application process for full professorship to be just as “fair and transparent” as his experience with getting tenure. As long as he conducts research and scholarship that is nationally recognized as significant, he doesn’t predict “any major hurdles.”

The process was clear and easy, said Shouheng Sun, professor of chemistry and engineering. “If you are productive in research and your teaching is excellent, it will all go very smoothly,” Sun added.

“You just do the same thing you were doing before you were an associate professor,” said Anna Aizer, professor of economics. “You have to continue to publish interesting and important work that’s brought impact.”

“I think that faculty of color and women face some unique challenges in getting to the next stage,” said Rolland Murray, associate professor of English. “There is a different expectation in terms of service because there are fewer minority and women faculty” members who are then asked to support underrepresented populations on campus, provide representation on committees and do more service to search for other historically underrepresented faculty members, he added.

“Willingly and rightly they serve. … But nevertheless, you take on a different responsibility than perhaps some of your white colleagues in a similar rank,” Murray said.

Such service puts a different kind of burden on the promotion process for faculty members of color. The additional responsibilities slow professors down in their progress toward promotion because of the time and work they require, Murray said. “The University is sensitive to these issues and has taken steps to try not to overburden people with these kinds of responsibilities, but I think it’s a structural problem.”

The Committee on Faculty Equity and Diversity is responsible for reviewing the University’s process of promotion every year, McLaughlin said. The CFED looks for possible errors and discrimination in the process, especially in the cases of  faculty members from historically underrepresented groups. McLaughlin reports to the committee “about promotions, how many associate professors we have, how long they have been in rank (and) what … the demographic composition of that group (is),” he said.

The University could also avoid discrimination by looking at faculty members who have been associate professors for a long time without being considered for promotion, Herbert said.

This was the case for Aizer, who said the promotion committee was “proactive” in her promotion. The economics department has made significant improvement in its faculty’s gender diversity in the past years, Aizer added.

The same is true of the English department, whose faculty is much more evenly split between men and women now than 37 years ago, according to Mutlu Blasing, professor of English, who joined the department in 1979. The process of becoming a full professor involves establishing yourself, and that applies to everyone regardless of gender, Blasing said.

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