New Scholars and Questions about Tenure

In response to a tweet from a student and an in-class question from another student, I want to assuage your fears – somewhat. In most tenure documents and procedures, professors are evaluated on the quality -and often quantity- of three measures: scholarship, teaching, and service. Usually the importance matches my ordering, scholarship is most important, hence the adage “publish or perish,” teaching matters secondarily, and service remains tertiary. Of course, that ordering, known informally, does not often actually appear in the documents.

The Professor at UND, if the article in The Forum is correct, met or exceeded expectations for scholarship, teaching, and service, yet was denied tenure. Your tweets and questions reflect frustration and confusion at how this could happen. As you know, all evaluation includes objective and subjective components. In tenure decisions, the subjective components range from opinions about the quality of certain publication venues to the usefulness (or lack of it) in student teaching evaluations, especially instruments deemed unsound by outside experts as our SROI’s have been. Some Promotion and Tenure documents include another subjective piece, a “collegiality” expectation. Such expectations have the purpose of requiring some level of professionalism and cooperation with one’s colleagues in an environment that allows a good deal of autonomy. The AAUP describes the problems with collegiality clauses here, stating that they can assist “practices that exclude persons on the basis of their difference from a perceived norm.” While the Forum article does not specify whether the UND Modern Language documents include a collegiality clause, the concept of collegiality surely works into their decision to deny tenure.

The AAUP provides a number of arguments for non-inclusion of a collegiality requirement in tenure materials, and those arguments are compelling. In my eyes, the most important argument concerns how such clauses are usually used to deny tenure or promotion to faculty members from underrepresented groups, such as people of color and women. Not surprisingly, the UND case involves a woman, and importantly, a woman who made a sexual harassment claim against a male colleague. But what recourse does a department or University have when a faculty member is truly disruptive or damaging to their co-workers? And who decides what is disruption?

Closer to your current academic home, the tenure guidelines for the English Department at NDSU do not include the word collegial. Of course, faculty members probably harbor unspoken, or unwritten expectations for behavior. And for some who wasted spent their pre-tenure years working to be collegial, that document might not be very convincing. To be more clear, the expectations for collegiality in our department, as in all departments, change over time. For example, years ago people expected attendance at departmental social functions, like the picnic, but that expectation has eroded over time. Being aware that expectations change will help you surf the written and unwritten requirements in any job situation, not just academic ones.

I advise aspiring faculty members like students in Graduate Scholarship to be pleasant or at least unobtrusive socially, and avoid gossip, both listening to it and carrying it, as best you can. In addressing departmental issues be honest and assertive but avoid unnecessary aggression. There may be rare times when aggression becomes necessary, but most of you will escape such events. Finally, find non-faculty member friends with whom you can commiserate, kindly, any frustration with your colleagues.


One thought on “New Scholars and Questions about Tenure

  1. Adam J. Copeland

    Thanks for this piece. Indeed, subjectivity connected to tenure and promotion decisions is unavoidable, and biases against women and minorities show themselves more clearly in these times of evaluation. I have to run, but I did want to note quickly that promotion, tenure, and evaluation criteria can be slightly different at small liberal arts colleges–the same criteria are involved, but perhaps weighed with other factors (hopefully, named clearly in faulty handbooks). More later…


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