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Taking the Pain Out of Tenure and Promotion

Clarity and communication can enhance morale and ensure a credible process

August 7, 2014
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Even as the tenure process has grown more exacting — and anxiety-provoking — in recent years, universities can ease the burden on early-career faculty by communicating early and often about policies governing promotion, according to a white paper issued by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

As part of its “Benchmark Best Practices” series, COACHE surveyed faculty at its member institutions — more than 200 colleges and universities across the United States — about tenure policies, paths to promotion, and clarity of procedure around both. In follow-up interviews with leaders of institutions with the highest reported levels of faculty satisfaction, a set of shared practices emerged that can serve as a blueprint for universities seeking to improve morale and ensure the credibility of the tenure process on their own campuses.

“This report highlights several institutions — in this case, five liberal arts colleges and one private university — who seem to be doing the tenure track right,” says Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator of COACHE. “We have been working with some of them for nearly a decade on making tenure and promotion processes fair and equitable.

“Still, all of the provosts and deans who join COACHE deserve credit,” adds Mathews, “because it takes courage to ask their faculty, ‘How are we doing?’”

Among the key recommendations:

  • Talk about expectations for tenure as early as at the interview stage, and hire faculty with the explicit belief that they will succeed. Reiterate expectations prior to arrival on campus and again in orientation sessions during the first year.
  • Be clear and consistent about which factors carry the most weight in the tenure process, allowing early-career faculty to prioritize their work.
  • Define the terms. What does collegiality or service actually mean in the context of the tenure process?
  • Ensure that documentation about the tenure process is easy to find and that messages about criteria and timeline are consistent across all sources.
  • Provide clear feedback — in the form of annual reviews and comprehensive mid-point reviews. Ensure that department heads have the tools to deliver such feedback.

Similar recommendations apply to associate professors on the path for promotion to full rank. Associate professors are often overwhelmed by service obligations, administrative and leadership duties, and teaching — all of which can slow or halt progress toward promotion, particularly when expectations and timelines are fuzzy.

In addition to offering general advice on tenure and promotion, the white paper cites specific examples from Hamilton College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Kenyon College, Middlebury College, Stonehill College, and the University of Saint Thomas. For a public university perspective, see Success on the Tenure Track: Five Keys to Faculty Job Satisfaction, a book written for an audience of provosts, deans, and chairs.

Read the full COACHE benchmark report on tenure and promotion, with examples of successful initiatives by member institutions.

Illustration courtesy Amber D. Marcu

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