The tenure decision process

The tenure decision process varies across institutions. All colleges and universities value teaching, scholarship, and service in slightly different ways and the tenure decision process is built upon institutional culture, nuance, and sheer historical quirks. While there is no way to fully describe all of the variations that exist in the tenure decision process, today’s post will describe the broad parameters and levels of review that exist at most colleges and universities.

Photo credit: UConn

At most institutions, there are three basic levels of review:  department, college/school, and institution. Again, each institution is different, but I suspect these 3 levels exist at the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States.

Department level review

The first step in the review process takes place in the academic department.  A committee will be created either specifically for an individual case or the department may have a standing tenure and promotion committee.

The membership of this committee will be comprised of tenured professors in the department and the membership may be drawn from all tenured faculty in the department or smaller subset.

Faculty in the academic department are, in many ways, in the best position to review a tenure case. They are most likely to be related to the tenure candidate’s areas of research and somewhat familiar with the candidate’s teaching ability.

The department committee will review the tenure dossier and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. At the end of this discussion, a vote will likely be taken where each member will vote yes or no on granting tenure and promotion to associate professor.

At the end of this process, the chair of the committee will likely draft a letter conveying the committee’s review and vote.

Following the department committee review, the case will move to the department chair where the chair will provide an assessment of the tenure case. In some cases, the chair’s review is independent from department faculty while in others the department faculty review gets incorporated as part of the chair’s review.

The chair will draft a letter of registering views on the case and a vote before the file moves on to the next level of review.

School level review

A committee of tenured faculty will review the candidate’s dossier. This committee will be comprised of faculty from across the school and will review all candidates up for tenure and promotion during the review cycle.

In many institutions, the school committee will operate independently from the department level review to provide a kind of “checks and balances” evaluation while in other cases they may be privy to the discussions and evaluations at the department level.

In either case, the school level committee will review your file, discuss the strength and weaknesses of a tenure candidate’s case, and take a vote regarding tenure and promotion.

Next, an evaluation report or letter will be drafted summarizing the review discussion and vote. This letter will be sent to the dean to be included as part of the dean level review.

Dean level review

Following the completion of all department and school level reviews, the dean (and possibly an associate dean) review all materials related to a tenure case.

These materials would include the dossier and all previous reviews that have been completed by the academic department, department chair, and school tenure committee.

The dean will take all of these evaluations and materials into account before making a decision to support a case or not.

After making a decision, the dean will draft a letter summarizing their judgment and decision regarding the tenure case. Depending on the institution, you may or may not receive the reports from the earlier levels of review at the department and school level, but candidates should at a minimum receive the letter from the dean regarding the decision.  At this stage, all reviews in the school are complete in the case will move to institutional level reviews.

Institutional level review

The amount of review that a tenure case will receive at institutional level can vary tremendously particularly depending on the size of an institution.

At smaller institutions, candidates may receive more in-depth reviews at the institutional level as there are fewer cases to review while in very large universities there is no logistical way to give all candidates a thorough evaluation.

Reviews at the institutional level may include a faculty committee or be reviewed by senior members of the Provost’s office.

The provost may be the final reviewer of a case or the president may take an active role, the latter more common at smaller colleges.

The description below describes the most involved type of review that candidates will receive at institutional level.

Because of the range of disciplines represented on campus, the institutional tenure and promotion committee often relies on the representative from the candidate’s home school to help provide context for the case.

The primary purpose of this review is to provide advice to the provost (or president) in making a final determination on a case.

Rather than the overly specific review that you might receive at earlier levels, institutional tenure and promotion committees often emphasizes the need for a fair and consistent review across all units on campus. As a result, this committee plays much more of a “checks and balances” role to ensure that all policies and procedures have been followed in addition to evaluating the specific aspects of a case.

After discussion of the case, the institutional level committee will also draft a report as well as take a vote whether to support a candidate. This report goes to the senior administrator who has the final decision in your case and not to any department or school level administrators.

While the Board of Trustees may have the final say on a tenure case, this level of review is perfunctory as they almost always rubber-stamp the recommendations of senior administrators and support faculty evaluation as a central tenet of the process.

As a result, the decision of the provost or chief academic officer on campus will almost always be the deciding vote in a tenure case. This person will review all previous votes, evaluation reports, and then make a decision regarding the case.

While they have access to the dossier, it is unlikely given the time constraints and the number of candidates to be reviewed that this person will have time or the interest in an exhaustive read except in the most controversial of cases.

In most instances, the Provost will review all the votes and assuming there has been a consistency across the various levels of review will make a decision in line with earlier votes.

For example, if the department, school, dean, and university committee support a candidate, a provost is highly unlikely to reject a candidate.

Conversely, a candidate that has failed to receive support in earlier levels of review is unlikely to see the provost override absent a major breach of policy or some other major issue in the process.

Upon making a determination, the provost, or their designee, craft a letter to the candidate rendering their decision regarding the tenure case.

Conclusion

A natural part of any hierarchical process majority is that the first stages of review tend to be determinative.

For instance, the provost or the dean has the power to overturn whatever decision is made at the early levels of the review process. However, the more overwhelming the vote, the costlier politically and therefore the more hesitant an administrator may be to change the course of the vote.

If a tenure candidate had unanimous votes from the department faculty, the department chair, school-wide tenure committee, and dean, the provost has the authority to override the decision, but unanimous support at earlier reviews make overturning a case a politically difficult.

At the vast majority of institutions, the tenure decision process will look somewhat similar to what I describe here. Of course, individual circumstances may be different, but this should provide you with a sense of how the tenure decision process will play out across all the various levels of review.

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