The tenure decision is one of the most examined processes in tenure-granting colleges and universities, with criteria, policies, mentoring programs, and considerable amounts of blood, sweat, and tears invested on the part of those being evaluated and those doing the evaluating. Much has been written about what it takes to achieve tenure, and most institutions have clear procedures and numerous checks and balances to guide a decision that has immense impact on individuals, on colleges and universities, and on higher education more broadly.
Much less attention is typically given to day-to-day factors that can subtly yet profoundly influence the process by which tenure decisions are made. Given the significant attention to the robustness of tenure processes and the appropriateness of tenure decisions, these factors may have no or only a marginal effect on the validity of the decisions themselves. However, they can have a profound impact on the experience of those who go through the process (both as the person being evaluated and as one doing the evaluating) and on the department’s ability to enact the tenure decision by welcoming a scholar into a permanent role in the department.
Factors that Affect the Experience of Making Tenure Decisions
- departmental norms about giving junior faculty feedback prior to tenure
- how the 3rd year review was conducted
- faculty preparation for the tenure decision (reading the tenure packet vs. relying only on the discussion to inform their decision)
- transparency of the voting process (both secret and open voting systems work – but they have to be used appropriately)
- faculty understanding of the voting system (e.g., do faculty understand that abstaining=a no vote in our university?)
- whether the discussion and the vote match (the final vote should be easily understandable given the discussion)
- clear distinctions between fact and opinions (including each faculty member checking the facts they think they have)
- interpretation and weight given to external letters (e.g., when X says that someone else is better than our faculty member, are they making an appropriate comparison?)
- appropriately calibrated expectations (e.g., if they published in Science early in their career, is it a warning sign that they have not published there since then? Or is it a signal of their unusual capabilities?)
- an understanding of the difference between a unanimous decision and a decision made by majority (note – the only difference should be that the unanimous decision is typically easier – there should be no difference in how that scholar is welcomed into the department or regarded after the tenure process is complete)