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‘A seven-year-long job interview’: Exploring tenure at Brown

The Herald traces faculty protections from 19th century to 2020s

This article is the first in a series exploring tenure at Brown and in higher education. 

In 1897, then-Brown President Elisha Benjamin Andrews was at odds with the Corporation. The issue: his views on the coining of silver, at least on the surface.

The Corporation contended that Andrews’s support of free silver coinage was “so contrary to the views generally held by the friends of the University that the University had already lost gifts and legacies,” asking him not to speak on the issue, according to “Brown University: A Short History,” a book by the late Janet Phillips.

Andrews later resigned, claiming “that reasonable liberty of utterance ... in the absence of which the most ample endowment for an educational institution would have but little worth.”


National backlash erupted following Andrews’s resignation in support of academic freedom. Andrews eventually withdrew his resignation after the Corporation acquiesced to the criticism.

Throughout the early 20th century, academic tenure became codified into the fabric of American higher education to protect university members like Andrews from dismissal over their speech and scholarship.

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors released a statement defining the principles of academic freedom and tenure. In 1940, the AAUP restated these principles in a defining statement that has since been endorsed by over 250 educational organizations. 

Tenure — defined by the AAUP as “an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation” — is now commonplace among American universities including Brown, and threats to it continue to define the state of higher education.

It is meant to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression, allowing faculty to conduct research or speak out on controversial issues without fear of corporate or political retribution. 

The Herald examined Brown’s policies, procedures and committees surrounding tenure to better understand this cornerstone of academia. 

Tenure at Brown

Faculty usually begin the official tenure process during their seventh year at Brown, though some may opt to begin the process earlier.

But preparation for tenure begins with a professor’s appointment by the Dean of their division — a process that Lukas Rieppel, associate professor of history, likened to a “seven-year-long job interview.”

At Brown, faculty who are associate or full professors are normally tenured, according to the Handbook on Academic Administration. Assistant professors are appointed for four years at first and are reappointed following review.


In 2022, around 60% of full-time instructional faculty at Brown had tenure, with another 15% on the tenure track, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Brown has the third highest proportion of tenured instructional faculty in the Ivy League, behind only Dartmouth and Princeton.

Made with Flourish

In the past five years, there have been 88 internal tenure cases, of which only five have been denied, according to Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty Anne Windham. But around 60% to 65% of newly hired faculty members eventually become tenured, she said. Faculty may leave Brown before going up for tenure.

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During this reappointment period, assistant professors may have their contracts renewed for two, four or zero years. A two-year reappointment indicates a “general satisfaction” but “some concern” whereas a four-year renewal indicates that the candidate is “following an appropriate trajectory,” according to the handbook. Faculty who are deemed “unwilling or unable to respond to the department's repeated proffered suggestions for improvement” are not renewed.

“The vast majority get reappointed for some length of time,” Windham said, noting she can only remember one person in the last 12 years who did not get reappointed.

Tenure considerations: research, teaching and service

Research, teaching and service are the three primary considerations for tenure at Brown, but research and teaching are the most important factors for assistant professors, Windham said. Specifics vary across departments who have different criteria and may require a different number of research publications or presentations.

“We really encourage multiple modes of teaching evaluation,” including course feedback forms and peer observations, Windham added. 

The impact of course evaluations may lead some professors to be more conservative in their teaching. “You're not actually necessarily incentivized to try something and ‘fail’ because if you get terrible student responses — or even a few bad student responses — you're gonna hear about that” during the tenure process, said Thalia Field, professor of creative writing.

Service is weighted less when it comes to tenure appointments, but many assistant professors engage in service, some of which is informal and undocumented. “They do service in the form of informal mentoring with students,” Windham said. There are also other service activities — such as being a reviewer for journals — that bolster their tenure application and professional standing.

In April 2023, the Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty recommended improved guidance on documenting informal mentoring. Women faculty members expressed concern related to spending more time participating in service, and women of color “reported feeling disproportionately asked to perform service,” according to the report.

Tenure procedures at Brown

Candidates formally initiate the tenure process with a departmental tenure review and produce a tenure dossier with the help of a committee of tenured faculty. In this process, evaluators solicit at least eight letters to speak to the applicant’s scholarly work. Candidates also provide a short list of three to four outside individuals to serve as external reviewers. The letters are confidential, and candidates do not know who wrote their recommendations.

Alberto Saal, chair of the Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee and a professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, highlighted the importance of networking in the process. He urged junior faculty to give presentations at other universities, which helps with getting positive external evaluations. 

“A good presentation carries a huge amount of weight,” he said.

The departmental committee then presents an overview of the candidate’s “scholarship, teaching and service” to all tenured faculty in the department, and the candidate is given the opportunity to speak before the tenured faculty before they vote in support or against tenure, according to the handbook.

The tenure dossier, which is eventually sent to TPAC, contains the department's final recommendation and the candidate’s curriculum vitae, letters of evaluation and course feedback forms. The dossier also includes the department’s standards and criteria for reappointment.

All members of TPAC are elected, tenured faculty members who represent various University divisions and usually receive three-year appointments. According to Saal, TPAC meets weekly and handles around 90 tenure, promotions and appointments cases per year.

Saal highlighted the importance of departmental criteria in TPAC’s work. “You need to have a measuring tape, and the measuring tape for us is the standards and criteria of each department,” he said.

He noted that “most cases are very clear” and that faculty who are not performing are often made aware during reappointment.

The TPAC then sends their recommendation to the Provost. Upon approval, the appropriate dean informs the department chair who then signs the official letter to the tenure candidate. If tenure is denied, a dean will sign a letter informing the candidates of the reasons, and the case is sent to the Procedural Integrity Committee. The decision is reported to the president and the Corporation.

Though tenure is an important milestone in an academic’s career, whether a professor has tenure shouldn’t matter much for students, Rieppel said. 

“I would discourage students from trying to figure out exactly where your professors stand in the academic hierarchy,” he added. “I would definitely discourage them (from) making the mistake of thinking that just because someone is higher up in the academic hierarchy, they’re a better teacher or a more interesting intellectual figure — that's just not true.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the professorship appointment process and the number of TPAC cases handled per year. The preparation for tenure begins with a professor's appointment by the Dean of their division, and TPAC handles roughly 90 cases per year.  

Ryan Doherty

Ryan Doherty is a Section Editor covering faculty, higher education and science & research. He is a sophomore concentrating in chemistry and economics who likes to partially complete crosswords in his free time.

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