The Role of Your Tenure Committee and Department Head

Continuing in the new series on tenure (this is #4, although I do have some earlier prior posts on the tenure process, all of which can be found in the “Tenure – How To Get It” Category) —->

Today I want to say a few words about the roles played by your tenure committee and the department head.

As with all things tenure-related, processes and policies will vary greatly among institutions and departments. No advice can be universal.  I will share what I have observed but as I note in every post, you must confirm the case for your own situation with tenured colleagues in your own department.

Tenure committees can take two forms in my observation. You can have your own dedicated tenure committee that is convened to consider your individual case, or the department as a whole can maintain a general Tenure and Promotion Committee, whose purpose is to manage all of the tenure cases in the department.  In my own career, I exclusively encountered the former, but I have heard of the latter.

The committee (whichever form it takes) will work with you to make sure all of your materials for evaluation are collected in a timely manner.  It is generally convened in the Spring prior to your tenure year because the task of collecting your materials to send to the external reviewers happens then. They will also examine the materials to make sure they are complete. If you are lacking teaching observations (which often happens in disorganized or irresponsible departments, so as you move through your probationary period, PLEASE take the initiative to make sure you are regularly observed and a record put in your file) members of the committee may rush to observe you in that Spring or in the early Fall of your tenure year.

T & P committee members may also work with you to help you collect your set of names of external reviewers, and also make sure that the department generates its list of names in a timely manner.  The committee, especially the chair, should ensure that your particular research area is properly understood and reflected in the list of reviewers.  This cannot be guaranteed, and many assistant professors experience much anxiety about doing work that is not well understood or respected by their colleagues. Often they may have been hired to do “experimental” or “cutting edge” or “interdisciplinary” work, only to find it met with confusion, ignorance, or dislike at the time of tenure. It is important that the candidate do everything in their power to talk to the committee members to explain their true profile, and alert the committee to possible points of controversy or danger.

In particular, in the list of external reviewer names that the candidate is permitted to supply, generally there can also be a short list of one or two names of scholars who must not be asked for letters, precisely because of intellectual tensions or fractures in the field. Again, the committee should be alerted to this intellectual landscape.

The committee will also gather the tenured faculty’s list of names, and may well have the task of culling an over-long list to an appropriate length, based again on what they have learned of the candidate’s profile and location in the field or fields.

In the standard procedure I’m familiar with, the committee will combine the candidate’s list of names, and the department’s list of names, into one master list of approximately 10-12 names, and present that to the department head, who will have the responsibility of making the final decision as to the order of contact, and also, managing the process of getting 5 to 6 individuals to actually commit to the work (difficult because of potential reviewers’ illness, research leave, sabbatical, overcommitment, and so on).

After the letters come in, in early Fall, the committee then thoroughly studies them, as well as the candidate’ teaching, research and service record, confers closely in one or more meetings, and then writes up a report summarizing the candidate’s record, and their recommendation for or against tenure.

They present this document to the tenured members of the department, which then devotes a meeting to lengthy and intensive discussion of the candidate’s suitability for tenure, and a vote.

I explained this in more detail in the previous post:

“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.”

The department head plays an absolutely critical role in this juncture, when the file moves from the department- where everybody knows the candidate – to the college level, where they don’t.  Assuming the department vote was positive, the department head is the “translator,” using her knowledge of the field and its disputes and tensions to contextualize the candidate’s work, boost up the achievements, and provide explanation for any red flags. Particularly when an external letter has some whispers of doubt, the department head is indispensable in laying those to rest by providing wider context.

If the department’s vote is negative, the department head is equally critical in articulating the reasons why. Because negative tenure votes at most institutions are such a deviation from the norm, they don’t reflect well on departments (which, the thinking goes, should have done a better job of mentoring and supporting the candidate), so the head has to provide compelling evidence that the candidate’s record is truly insufficient, and that the negative vote is not just evidence of a dysfunctional department.

Indeed, if there are concerns at the College level, the department head may be called before the College T & P committee to defend the candidate’s file and/or the departmental vote.

So, as candidate,you want to have as strong a connection with your department head as you possibly can. Because that individual will play a major role in the “articulation” of your tenurability for those constituencies on campus who do not personally know you. Not all department heads are equally skilled at this. As I wrote last time:

“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.””

You can’t transform your department head into a brilliant and compelling writer, but you can work to ensure that your relations with the head, and all senior colleagues, are as warm and collegial as possible. This does NOT mean you sacrifice yourself on the altar of service. Far from it. What they want is a robust publishing/grant/teaching record that allows for a “slam dunk” case.  But while executing all of that publishing and teaching, work to make yourself, as far as this is possible, a well-liked member of the department, and a central element of the departmental community.  When I advise on tenure I always say that it’s equal parts an academic and a social process. You MUST have the required record, but you NEED the good-will of your tenured colleagues. Don’t neglect either.

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The Role of Your Tenure Committee and Department Head — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Karen,
    What if your department head is your former bully? Someone who voted against you and terrorized you during the first year on the TT. This is a serious question, by the way.

  2. Thanks for these posts about tenure. I will definitely share them with my junior faculty. I appreciate the level of detail and agree with many of the things you have described.

    Both of the departments I have been in have done the tenure committee slightly differently than you describe, so I wanted to share it here. In each instance, all tenure line faculty voted a subset of tenured faculty onto a committee (5-6 people) to represent the vote of the department. That committee served for everyone up for tenure (or under review) that year. So, there was neither a faculty member-specific committee, nor a committee of the whole. The stipulations of the committee constitution varied slightly – my former institution stipulated the number of full vs associate professors. My current department requires at least one member be from a regional campus.

    Just wanted to share this slightly different format with you.

    • Thanks for this. I think I mentioned this option in this post or another, didn’t I? I know this is quite common. Anyway, appreciate your sharing very much, and feel free to keep sharing other practices that might differ from what I describe.

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