Demystifying and Democratizing Tenure and Promotion

Unspoken rules and vague expectations contribute to holding down and pushing out scholars who have been historically marginalized in the academy, Kamden K. Strunk argues.

March 13, 2020
 
 

On a fall day, a large group of people gather in a well-appointed conference room with stacks of evidence piled on the tables. One by one, those being judged come into the room, present their evidence and answer questions. They are then excused, and deliberations begin. The people gathered argue about the meaning of key pieces of evidence, the centrality of some aspects of the case and the weight they should place on different components of the presentation. Finally, a vote is taken, and the results are read out. Judgment has been made.

I am describing my department’s tenure and promotion process, which often resembles, as it does in many places, a secretive legal proceeding. The process is, of course, much longer and more complicated than that single hearing. Candidates submit information months in advance, which is then evaluated by multiple faculty outside our institution. The candidates never see those evaluations, never know who wrote them or learn of their contents. After the faculty vote, the group writes a collective letter, and the department head writes one, as well. The candidate writes a response. The dean adds another letter. Finally, the university committee votes, and the candidate is eventually notified of the outcome. But, at most institutions, the most crucial component of this process, and the one that seems to bring up the most dread in candidates, is the department hearing and vote.

Positions that afford the opportunity to apply for tenure and promotion remain the exception, not the rule, in U.S. higher education. While recent trends suggest that the proportion of full-time faculty has increased, the American Association of University Professors reports that close to three out of four faculty positions in America are off the tenure track. For the lucky few (including me) who are in tenure-track positions, the allure of tenure and its related due process and academic freedom protections, is strong.

But at many colleges and universities around the country, pretenure faculty receive various and conflicting messages about what it takes to get tenure, with various notions of how many publications it might take, what kind of teaching evidence (if any) will be needed and how grants and funding factor into decisions. In other words, the ways these votes will be decided are often opaque and, in some cases, can be a moving target.

The particular moment with which I am most concerned, though, is the process of the faculty hearing, discussion and vote, which can seem quite secretive and vague at many institutions. There is often secret (or not-so-secret) politicking in the hallways in weeks leading up to the vote. Whispers of support or lack of support can add to the anxiety surrounding what is already a tense process. It seems that tenured faculty members frequently begin with a presumption that the candidate is unworthy or undeserving of tenure and promotion and are asking to be convinced otherwise. Candidates then feel compelled to create a kind of a sales pitch of their own value and worth, which they present to people who would, another day, be their colleagues and collaborators.

I recognize that the process is serious -- when we tenure a candidate, we give them a permanent spot on the department faculty. We recognize that person as an emerging nationally or internationally prominent scholar and/or educator. Perhaps most important, they gain job security and due process rights in any dismissal proceeding. Those are all important and serious matters. And, on the less positive side, a tenure denial at most institutions also means losing one’s job entirely.

So the stakes are quite high in these processes. But how can institutions better embody an ethic of care and support in this anxiety-inducing and high-stress process?

I will not pretend to have the answers to the problem of tenure and promotion decisions, but I hope these questions can help guide more humanizing approaches.

  • What would it look like to start from a presumption of worth rather than a presumption of unworthiness? If tenured/voting faculty started out by assuming every pretenure candidate deserves tenure and promotion, how might that change our conversations about the process?
  • If we presume candidates are deserving of tenure and promotion, what kinds of evidence would defeat that presumption? In other words, how could we be convinced that a candidate should not be tenured and promoted?
  • How can we reform the tenure and promotion hearing/presentation process so that is about recognizing the worth of our colleagues rather than critiquing their flaws? Can we move away from models that treat candidates like defendants and voting faculty like juries?

Colleges and universities can humanize the tenure and promotion processes while still leaving room for the rare “no” decision. For starters, tenure processes, requirements, steps and timelines should be made as transparent as possible. In many cases, it falls to individual pretenure faculty members to negotiate hidden rules, uncover concealed knowledge and construct their own ideas about what is required and expected. Tenured faculty can and should alleviate the need for such strategies by being explicit about what they expect. When we rely instead on hidden networks of knowledge and power, we create a system that will always disadvantage marginalized scholars and advantage scholars from privileged groups.

In other words, those unspoken rules and vague expectations contribute to holding down and pushing out scholars of color, queer scholars, scholars of/with (dis)ability and others historically marginalized in the academy. Such processes and norms were frequently created with exclusionary and sometimes white supremacist, cis-heteropatriarchal and ableist intentions. While academics need to have a deeper conversation about who came up with the rules and how we might rewrite them, simply being more explicit about the tenure and promotion process can serve as an equity intervention.

In addition, those of us in units that require a presentation or hearing about tenure and promotion can find ways to be more humanizing in those forums. Such hearings or presentations are certainly valuable -- it is helpful to hear candidates articulate how all of their work and achievements come together in their sense of scholarly identity. But those moments can also create anxiety and stress that is unhelpful.

Perhaps alternative formats would be useful. In particular, tenured faculty should consider formats that minimize the status differential and lend themselves to a more collegial, open dialogue. In my context, I suspect that would mean a move away from formal presentations to a more conversational format. At some institutions, the candidate for promotion does not attend the vote at all, though that presents other issues, because it effectively closes that person off from the process. However, we must move away from the model that treats tenured faculty as an impaneled jury and the candidate as the defendant.

Finally, we should identify ways to democratize these processes and seek to expand the ranks of tenured and tenure-like positions. Faculty should consider how clinical faculty, visiting faculty, instructors and adjuncts factor into their governance processes, including promotion and tenure. While most institutions have specific rules on who votes (for example, at our institution, associate clinical faculty can vote on promotion but not tenure for candidates for promotion to associate professor), many have no rules against seeking input or letters, or simply asking for an opinion of the candidate as a colleague. Alongside those sorts of efforts, faculty in tenured positions can advocate for converting lines, offering multiyear contracts to non-tenure-track faculty and prioritizing hiring new faculty over expanding the numbers of sessional and adjunct positions.

In considering how to democratize and demystify tenure and promotion processes, it’s also important to ask whom those processes were designed to lift up and whom they were designed to push down. There are striking patterns in who is promoted and tenured in U.S. universities. In particular, women and scholars of color are less likely to be tenured and promoted, including to full professor. Service and emotional labor burdens are also unequally distributed, with marginalized scholars taking up a disproportionate share. Other observers have argued more extensively that the tenure and promotion process exacerbates existing inequalities in education.

While deeper work is needed to truly create liberatory higher education institutions, we can take steps toward that possibility. Faculty can, and should, find ways to demystify and democratize their tenure and promotion processes.

Bio

Kamden K. Strunk is associate professor of educational research at Auburn University. His research work focuses on social justice and equity in education, with emphasis on intersections of racial, sexual and gender identities in higher education.

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