Transparency and tenure

I have a number of friends at various institutions that are up for tenure this year. Every school is on its own unique schedule, of course, so some of my friends are finding out right about now, officially or unofficially (mostly unofficially) whether they will be tenured or not. I am going to concentrate on two such friends and their situations in this particular post.

Friend #1 is at a school where the tenure requirements are very vague, and where there is almost zero transparency in the tenure process. Junior faculty have to rely on what amounts to smoke signals from departmental colleagues and the administration to figure out *anything* related to tenure and promotion, which of course opens itself up to all sorts of rumor and innuendo and misreading of conversations and such. (Good times.) Anyway, Friend #1 found out this week that he is not being recommended for tenure....and was pretty much blindsided by the decision, since all the early indicators pointed towards tenure recommendation.

Friend #2 is at a school where the tenure requirements are very specific. Teaching effectiveness as measured by X. Y publications in journals/year; Y*2 in conferences/year. And so on. I haven't heard anything definitive from Friend #2 yet, but last I talked to her, she was pretty sure she was not going to be recommended for tenure. Her publication numbers were good, but not quite Y, and she didn't think that her institution would be willing to budge too much on the publication numbers requirement, even if the rest of her packet was strong.

So. Two people, two institutions with completely different approaches to tenure, same results.

Now, I am a big proponent of transparency in the tenure process. I honestly don't see what's to be gained by shrouding the process in mystery, or not being honest and open about requirements and how candidates will be evaluated. (Honestly, the only benefit I see to not having transparency in the process is that it gives an institution the freedom to give tenure to, and to deny tenure to, whoever the hell it wants...but maybe I'm just being cynical.)

But part of me wonders which is worse: not knowing that you're not going to get tenure until it happens, and then dealing with the fallout; or knowing for a year or more that you're probably not going to get tenure, and having to deal with that kind of stress for a prolonged period of time?

Of course, with the latter scenario, you probably have a bit more control over the situation: You can try to publish more. You can apply for other jobs. You at least *know* what that yardstick looks like and can mentally prepare yourself for the expected outcome. But what if you know that you're not going to measure up ultimately? Does that end up causing more stress than, say, being blissfully ignorant?

I'm curious as to what you, my dear readers, think about this. Which camp does your institution fall into (opaque, transparent, or translucent) regarding tenure requirements? If you've gone through the tenure process, or are going through the process right now, successfully or unsuccessfully, did you have specific guidelines, and if so, did that make the process more stressful or less stressful? How would you answer the questions I've posed here?


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I think for explicit tenure systems you need to be working in a well-defined field. A growing number of academics do work in multiple scholarly communities. Also new academic communities merge. If you're a growing department, can you really have a requirement that says "X articles in Journal A" when you have N faculty all trying to meet that same requirement? Does Journal A even publish N*X articles in the time window for tenure? I guess I can understand counting publications that in a way that come from a list of journals, but I also think that's a bit of something from the past.

"...or knowing for a year or more that you're probably not going to get tenure, and having to deal with that kind of stress for a prolonged period of time?"

You don't. If your aim is tenure then you're wasting your time - and valuable publications - at the place. Seek new employment as soon as possible, and hold off on publishing any papers that you could bring over to your next place to make them count there instead.

If your aim is doing science then it really matters much less of course. I am comign to believe the US tenure system is actually detrimental to good science, rather than promoting it, its original purpose.

I work at a place that values transparency in the process. I find it liberating, because I can self-assess (hopefully!) accurately. Someone who is not meeting the requirements could look for another job ahead of time or push himself or herself (if there was time left).

I've thought that places who do not have a written down transparent process do have local norms about what counts as "enough," and then you're left having to meet with lots of people and talk with them about it.

My heart goes out to both of your friends.

My school is the seem to be transparent, but then have secret requirements that you don't find out about until it is too late type.

We're in the opaque camp. I'm up for tenure this year, and I'm fortunate that my chair is a pretty open guy, so I know that my department recommended me for tenure. I also know that the university doesn't usually overturn the department recommendations unless it's clear that the case is under borderline and the department is trying to make a case out of an inadequate record. My understanding is that a lot of it has to do with comparing you to other people in the (sub)field who recently got tenure at similar institutions. If your docket is like theirs or better, your case is stronger.

Academic, you raise a good point---I didn't think about it from the point of view of established vs. less-established fields. In the case of my two friends, though, the tenure requirements are equally transparent/opaque across fields. I guess I like to think that maybe there's a happy medium---not quite counting publications, but maybe something more like X publications in Tier 1 journals, Y in Tier 2 journals, etc., and then have each field have their own list of acceptable venues for each tier? and perhaps give those (increasing numbers) whose work crosses subfields some leeway to inform their departments about comparable journals? There has to be a good way to do this, I would think.

Ianqui and mommyprof, I think I would classify your institutions as "translucent". :) But I think you both bring up an interesting observation: that written policies (or the lack thereof) can be superseded by "how we actually do things", which then begs the question of why aren't your institutions making their written requirements more in line with what actually happens? (I'm not picking on your institutions specifically---I'm just thinking out loud, I guess, about the futility of having written policies that are ignored, or de facto policies that are so strongly entrenched that they might as well be written down.)

B*, I would love to work at your school! :) But yes, as you and Janne point out, if it's clear you're not going to get tenure, then you can (should?) leave, so again, that goes back to the control thing. So then I guess you have to ask if someone who stays is foolish for not leaving, and is that a failure of mentoring (at least partially)?

I've seen someone go through the tenure process in an emerging field where the requirements were opaque (it was a tenure line shared between two departments, making things even worse) and it was an awful experience for them, ultimately ending in them not getting tenure. IMHO, the necessity for clear and transparent requirements is even more important the less traditional and more interdisciplinary a person's work or department becomes.

I can't tell you what the tenure process transparency is like at Brilliant U, because I'm just a postdoc and haven't heard much about such matters (other than that the tenure sucess rate is dismally low).

I can tell you, however, that I would much rather see the negative tenure decision coming from a year off, as opposed to being blindsided by it. It allows for more planning and preparation. I would be overwhelmingly anxious if the process was opaque and I didn't know what was coming. But then again, I am someone who values the straight-up facts and sometimes brutal honesty more than other folks.

I wonder if something short of transparent might be a good thing, in the sense that it might give flexibility to departments who want to promote (or not) borderline candidates. Although I suppose that is probably the argument behind a totally opaque system, too. But, if your Friend #2 was in an institution where the guidelines weren't so strict, perhaps the department could argue that she is a big enough asset despite not quite having Y pubs. Also, are there some less objective attributes that should count? Should someone who is excellent for morale or contributes really creative ideas be supported, even if she is borderline? Should another person who is also borderline but starts arguments and causes strife be bumped down?

I'm asking these questions sort of non-hypothetically -- I'm not using them to state my opinion, because I don't have one. I'm not in a tenure situation so I can't exactly imagine the stress it must cause. I'm sure that intense pressure must make people want control wherever they can get it, particularly by knowing specific tenure requirements. But do you think it might be beneficial in some cases to not know everything?

I think what ecogeofemme is asking for is a little flexibility in a transparent tenure process, and that seems to make some sense to me, although not if it's used to get rid of the people that don't fit in the old-boys-club.

I'd classify MU as translucent, though pretending to be transparent. We have pretty transparent guidelines for publishing, but not for funding, teaching, service, or collegiality. We have annual reviews and a mid-pre-tenure reappointment, but it's not entirely clear to me whether good performance on those reviews actually guarantees tenure.

The thing I worry about is that I'll be doing OK when it's time for tenure, but as compared to male or childless faculty in my "class" or the one or two ahead of me, I'll look comparatively weak. I wish I had a sense of how the inter-colleague comparison dynamics actually played out.

My first reaction was that perhaps it was in part due to the economic situation. Is it possible that they didn't get tenure because the universities are trying to shrink costs? It seems like most universities at least at our own are most concerned with trying to keep the lights on.…

At our university a really good prof didn't get tenure, the process is relatively transparent. I say relatively because in this case, the one person at the top voted against recommendation of the faculty. Is the mind of one man really that transparent?


The problem with transparency is that it locks the department in. How would they deal with someone who didn't have grants but had lots of super-high-impact publications? Or someone who was absolutely critical to the teaching mission (say was the only one able to teach a specific lab class), but with weak papers and grants? Vague rules can work in your favor too.

The optimal system is transparency in the decision-making process more than transparency in the requirements. (The department voted X, the promotion-and-tenure committee voted Y, now we need to wait for the dean to sign off...) Being very clear about where one is in the process is very necessary to one's sanity. (At least it was to mine.)

The other key is transparency without restricting rules. In my U (research-oriented-state-U), in my department (basic-science-in-med-school), each year, our tenured faculty provide very explicit how-you're-doing feedback to the non-tenured faculty. So, although there aren't explicit rules, everyone always knows where they stand.

PS. Actually, as an interesting statement of transparency, my university *requires* that all letters, all official comments, etc be transparent. In fact, I had to sign a document saying that I had read my letters and did not have a response to them!

I'd prefer a more transparent system. I'm currently still a student, but I'm already stressed about my future employment options. I'd rather know in advance, than waste my time in a position that will never quite bring me to the point I'd like to get in my career.