The Path and Timeline of Your Tenure Application

Part 2 of my series on Tenure

Every institution has its own conventions, expectations and practices for tenure, and the single most important thing you must do, if you are on the tenure track, is bring your research A-game to the task of figuring out what those are for YOUR field, in YOUR department, in YOUR college, on YOUR campus.  No general advice of the kind I can provide here can anticipate every variation on tenure timelines and policies.

Speak first and most often to your department head, but don’t stop there – also talk to other senior members of your department. The fact is, your head may not be experienced or savvy, and may have only the dimmest ideas of what constitutes a normative tenure case. So, seek information widely.  And, utilize ALL resources at your disposal, including any and all tenure workshops given by your department, college, or campus. And go to these regularly each year, so that you can track evolving tenure expectations. Because these are always in flux, especially at “aspirational” mid-tier campuses, which are getting increasingly greedy for research outputs. More on that later.

Anyway, all of that to say that the path and timeline of tenure on your campus may deviate from what I write here. In particular, be aware that small teaching colleges and regional public institutions may not include any external reviewers in their tenure process. They may rely only on selected internal reviewers.  And likewise, some campuses may have a 5, 7 or a 9 year tenure timeline (instead of the more typical 6), while for some individuals your timeline may be shorter because you have arranged to come up early.

But in all four of my departments on two public R1 campuses, this is what it looked like:

Late Spring of candidate’s year 5, the Head calls you into the office to tell you your tenure process is starting.  She tells you who is on your committee and the timeline, with a deadline for your submission of all publications to be sent to external reviewers in about May.

Late Spring of candidate’s year 5, the chair of the tenure and promotion committee schedules a meeting, goes over the timeline, asks for your list of approximately 5 names of external reviewers. Your list will be added to the department-generated list of approximately 5 names, and the committee chair and/or the department head will cull that list to one master list of approximately 6 names, with 3 or 4 from department list, and 3 or 2 from your list.  The departmental names will “count” for more in the ultimate tenure evaluation, as they are perceived to be more “objective.” [I will discuss the criteria by which names are chosen in another blog post].

Possible:  the committee chair will quietly, behind closed doors, ask you for some names that you’d like to see on the department’s list, so that he/she can be sure and propose those, and work with you to ensure that the final master list has all “good” names on it. The purpose of this exercise is to make sure that the departmental list has no dangerous names on it, and also that the “best” and highest status people come from the department rather than you, the candidate. Note: not all departments will do this informal step for all candidates, so it may not occur and should not be expected as a matter of course.

The Head may have to move through many names to get to a list of 6 or so who will agree, due to potential evaluators’ illness, overcommitment, research leave, etc.

End of Spring, Candidate’s year 5, department Head sends out your packet of all major publications and the CV, and sometimes a draft/provisional tenure research statement, to all of the reviewers to read over the summer.

Early Fall of Candidate’s year 6, tenure reviewers send back their external review letters, evaluating the strength of your research and publication record and answering the question: “would this candidate get tenure at my institution?”

Early Fall of Candidate’s year 6, you submit ALL elements of your record to the department:  all publications, syllabi and supporting teaching materials, evaluations, records of service, awards, and so on.  You also submit all required tenure statements, covering research, teaching, service, and any other major element of your position (such as outreach and/or administration). All of these elements are held in a tenure “box” (or digital file), to be reviewed first by the tenure and promotion committee.

Mid-Fall, year 6, the tenure and promotion committee evaluates all of your submitted materials and the external review letters, and writes up a report making a recommendation to the department for or against your tenure.

Mid-Fall, year 6, this committee report is shared with all tenured faculty members in the department, and your complete file of materials is made available for review by them.

Mid-Fall, year 6, a departmental tenure vote is held at a special meeting that leaves time for extensive discussion of your file. This vote is supposed to be confidential but somebody may leak the outcome to you, especially if it’s positive.

Mid-Fall, year 6, the department Head takes the results of the committee report, the departmental vote, the departmental discussion (including aspects of the case that may have been shared verbally but not reflected in the vote), and the recommendations of the external reviewers, and synthesizes them in a lengthy “Head’s Report and Recommendation.” This lays out the case for or against your tenure for the upper-level committees who will be evaluating you next. This document is the most important element of your tenure case. This document will draw heavily from the tenure and promotion committee’s report and recommendation, but will elaborate further based on the department-wide discussion, and the Head’s wider perspective on you in comparison to other tenure candidates past and present.

Late Fall, year 6, the entire file, plus the Head’s Report, is given to the College level tenure and promotion committee for review and vote.

Early Spring, year 6, the entire file, Head’s Report, and completed vote/report of the College committee is sent to the Campus level tenure and promotion committee for review and vote.

Mid-Spring, year 6, all elements of the file are sent to the Chancellor’s office for a final review and approval.

Mid-Late-Spring, year 6, the final campus decision on tenure is communicated to the department Head and to you, the candidate.

While in the majority of cases a successful departmental vote bodes well for all other votes moving up the food chain, it does NOT guarantee it.  Deans have been known to overturn departmental votes, as have Campus-level committees.  There are politics at play at every level.  Some campuses have a culture of trust in departmental judgment, and some do not. In addition, there are departments that due to histories of dysfunction have little or no credibility on campus, and so their tenure decisions are held in doubt and closely scrutinized.

Finally, in a close case, much hinges on the skill of the department head – is she savvy enough and a skilled enough writer to successfully contextualize any weaknesses and play up all possible strengths?  I once had a department head who truly could only be called an academic Eyeore.  He could take anything, no matter how exuberantly positive, and render it dismal. His praise was so faint as to be invisible: “she usually completed all service tasks in a timely manner and mostly performed adequately in the classroom.”

The best way to get around these issues is not to have a close case. What you want is a “slam dunk” case that cannot be undermined no matter how ham-fisted your Head, how racist or sexist your colleagues. I realize the latter issues constitute a potential penalty in themselves, but there it is: white women and people of color must do twice as much for half the credit. I will elaborate on this point many times in the tenure posts to come. The most important thing you can do is to accurately determine what actually counts for tenure in your department and campus and put laser focus on producing exactly that. Do not spend your time and energy on what you think “should” count, spend it on what DOES count.

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The Path and Timeline of Your Tenure Application — 1 Comment

  1. curious grad student here trying to see what life looks like on the other side of a job.

    are there benchmarks for how many publications, records of service etc candidates up for tenure should generally have? for grad students, you’ve given us a lot of these benchmarks such as at least one publication that is sole-authored, organizing a panel, regular attendee of national conferences, teach at least one class on your own, etc…

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