Tenure standards are not standard

(First, just a shout out to all of the new people viewing my blog, thanks mostly to a list of recommended blogs by xkyademiqz.  I can see from my WordPress stats that the average visitor is responsible for 4 page views, so I hope that’s an indication that you find my posts interesting.  But, if it’s more that you can’t look away from a trainwreck, that’s okay, too.)

Over at the Crockinal of Higher Education, there has been a series of articles by a frequent contributor about the tenure process.  Well, at large research universities.  Of course, this is never stated, it’s just assumed that everyone works at a research university, amiright?  And, that despite being arguably the most privileged people in academia, the people at those types of institutions need lots of advice and hand-holding that others don’t.  (While the infantilization of research faculty is amusing, if one has reached that level in one’s career, it’s probably better to assume that they aren’t idiots.  If they are, they are probably screwed anyway.)  Anyway, here is one of the stories and it doesn’t seem to be paywalled.

I don’t begrudge the author; dude’s gotta flog his book on the same topic somewhere, right?  (Actually, I do begrudge that; not because of the author, but because of the consistently questionable standards of the CHE.  This post is much more taking a shot at the CHE than it is at the author.)  Some of the advice is reasonably general.  But, it’s rather funny that many of the comments to the posts have been pointing out how his articles do not represent the tenure process at all institutions.  So, I’m going to pile on a bit from my perspective at a non-elite undergraduate institution in the hope of being more informative than snarky.  False hope perhaps…

I’m at a small school where we don’t have department tenure committees.  Why?  Because at a small school, departments can be quite small, down to mid-single digits.  For several years leading up to my tenuring, my department only had two tenured faculty and one was such a pariah that he wouldn’t have been allowed a vote anyway.  One person doth not a tenure committee maketh.  However, one person doth write a recommendation lettereth.  If you are in a small department and have bad relations with your chair, you are probably in bad shape anyway.  None of the chairs at our institution have an adminstrative assistant to hide behind, and the unofficial “open door” policy we have here extends to chairs.  That works both ways – you can run, but you can’t hide.  Bwahahahahahaha!

In any case, there’s no such thing as “department tenure criteria”.  The decisions by the college and campus committees tend to be rather qualitative.  In my department’s case, the main challenging thing we have to do is justify our research by emphasizing all of the undergraduate research mentoring we do.  The fact that most of us had grants pre-tenure means nothing to most people here, so we can’t rely on that to help with our tenure cases.  So we then try to get someone from the department on at least one of the tenure committees so the committee does more than just look at our numerical teaching evaluations and then take a nap. (Our teaching evaluations are generally pretty good, but not as good those who don’t teach a lot of service courses, or those who teach outside of STEM fields.)

The CHE articles imply that there aren’t strict standards on the format of the tenure document.  That’s certainly not true here.  We are given folders with labeled section tabs that we are to fill with the appropriate materials.  This is mandated in the Faculty Handbook.  For example, in one of the sections, we are required to submit our teaching evaluations in the specific format in which we are given them every semester in the first place.  We are also expected to provide a list of courses taught in a standard format.

Now, it’s true that there is some flexibility in how we present our research and service activities.  But, as an undergraduate institution, about 80% of getting tenure is about teaching and about 80% of that is from student evaluations.  Plus, those more flexible sections are expected to be prefaced with a bullet-point summary at the beginning.  One can’t really use the CV for that because it is not particularly respected here, while the author spends a considerable amount of time talking about various CV issues.

External letter writers.  These aren’t even required at my school!  I put one in my folder and I chose who wrote it.  (My chair did the honor of actually requesting the letter.)  I’m sure it didn’t make a damn bit of difference, but it’s always fun to have someone from an R1 institution say nice things about you!

Laughably for those of us at small schools, we sure as shit know the people who sit on the campus tenure and promotion committees.  On top of the fact that we all voted for or against their presence on the committees, with fewer than 100 faculty we certainly know who’s who.  We also are well aware of our dean, our provost, and our chancellor or president.  Comes with the territory at a small school.

(True story about my dean: he went up for tenure at the same time I did.  So, he had to write a letter of support for me at the same time he was submitting his own packet.  If nothing else, that’s how different institutions can be, a dean of a college pre-tenure is like seeing a fairy riding a unicorn on the Loch Ness monster for most institutions.)

To be fair about all of this, it is very rare for someone to go up for tenure here and not get it.  People are more likely to get dumped out before they get that far.  While the third-year review process has only been recently taken seriously, one is expected to improve upon one’s identified weak points from that review.  (Jeez, do I have a story to tell about administrators completely fucking up the third-year review process, but it’s too specific.)

For better or for worse, one really has to mostly rely upon well-meaning people at one’s institution to successfully navigate the tenure and promotion process.  Yes, look at what people at other institutions have gone through, and even read CHE articles about it, but don’t take that too seriously. Do solicit advice from people that you think you can trust, follow the proper procedures, and excel in the areas in appropriate proportion to the standards of the institution. Easier said than done, of course.

(In writing this post, perhaps the best part is that I happened to look at Inside Higher Ed, and lo and behold, they recently had a two-part “series” on getting tenure; here is the first part.  Surprise!  Same naive research university bias, again called out in the comments.)

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