Figuring Out What Counts in the Tenure Game

February 27, 2002

Just a few years ago, while I was an anonymous visiting professor at a "nationally recognized" liberal-arts college in the Northeast, I enjoyed a well-appointed, spacious corner office that was within earshot of the campus bell tower. When the winter wind wasn't howling, various melodies drifted in on the quarter hour from the floor-to-ceiling windows on adjoining walls, with one presenting an unobstructed view of a baseball diamond. It didn't matter that the "bells" weren't bells (they were recordings), or that the name on the door wasn't my name (as is the case for this text), or that the books weren't my books. The views were all mine. The office I now occupy, at another liberal-arts college in the Northeast, has a view of the residential corner of the campus -- squinting reveals some rolling hills in the distance. It is nice, but I miss the view of the ball field.

For me, with my interests in literary theory, I appreciated the postmodern futility of maintaining a "regulation" ball field. Grounds personnel were perpetually either adding or removing turf, rechalking baselines, and checking the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate either with a tape measure or by counting off steps. Just when the process seemed complete, it would rain lightly or a neighborhood kid would race across the field on his mountain bike, starting the flurry of activity all over again before game time.

We've learned from team managers who kick dirt on umpires' shoes as well as from contemporary French philosophers and quantum physicists that our attempts to quantify the universe are undercut by our own perceptual limits and the ever-changing nature of reality. Nevertheless, we measure. We measure ball fields and academic fields, the former in feet and inches and the latter in abstractly precise outcome-assessment criteria. We measure people, too. Not always in height, weight, and physical attributes, but in effectiveness as teachers or number of publications or number of committees. The tenure system is the "regulation" field on which we find ourselves; however, it doesn't yield to the accuracy of a tape measure or the corrective power of instant replay.

In order to earn tenure, all institutions require effective teaching, publications, and service, but in differing quantities and qualities. While the same categories of evaluation operate across academe, the tenure profile at an Ivy League school is markedly different from those found at lesser-known comprehensive and liberal-arts colleges. This doesn't mean that the lesser-known institution yields a lesser profile, although one would expect Ivy League faculty members to be highly visible contributors to knowledge in their disciplines. The different game on the same field also doesn't mean that the local should exist oblivious to the global, like some rural municipality with an unposted speed limit. Just as the bar should not be set extraordinarily high, it should not be set too low by either abandoning faculty assessment, tenure, and promotion, or by creating a private system of judgment.

All of us who are making our way toward tenure know the field, but few figure out the game; or, when we do it is too late and nothing can be done, or it is too early and the field inevitably will change. Recently a friend shared her tenure/promotion application with me. It was unassailable: one highly praised book on the shelf, one in production, one under contract; multiple refereed articles in leading journals; outstanding student evaluations; and a "s-load" of committee work. Everything was in place. If only she knew the game.

"Impressive," I said.

"Yes, but you never know," she said.

"Know what?"

"What counts."

Her tenure process, with "confidential letters" and colleagues in hushed conversation in the mailroom, made her acutely aware that she was playing on a familiar field, but it was an elusive game. Her most troubling thoughts had nothing to do with the prescribed guidelines. She had supported a new departmental curriculum in a close vote; had disagreed with a senior colleague about the role of theory in an introduction-to-literature course; had selected "difficult" books. Months went by as she considered what, if anything, would come back to haunt her. Should she bring in doughnuts? Bake double-fudge brownies for the departmental meeting? Have a party? Finish the book ahead of schedule? The department chair was ambiguously reassuring: "Nothing helps and everything hurts."

So, what counts? I posed this question with a promise of anonymity to faculty members at a range of institutions:

  • Professor A, at a community college: "Ten years ago I would have said teaching and committee work, but these days we get a lot of Ph.D.'s applying for jobs, many with publications already. We need to recognize that, but some of my older colleagues don't think so. Some think [tenure decisions amount to] 'we like or don't like you,' but that's changed, too. We're small, but we're professional."

  • Professor B, at a small college: "Historically, at this relatively small comprehensive college, the principal requirement for tenure was excellence in teaching and the advancement of substantial knowledge in the classroom. ... Other factors such as professional activity and growth and community service were considered, but classroom performance has been, and is, paramount."

  • Professor C, at a university: "As to what counts, here it is scholarship and then teaching and service, with less emphasis on service. I've found that solid scholarship translates into good and interesting courses, undergraduate and graduate. We also link tenure with promotion, so that explains our 'counting system.' "

  • Professor D, at a state university: "I can't come right out and say that I don't like someone [who comes up for tenure]. I can say, however, that this candidate 'has not met the publication, teaching, service requirements of the university.'"

Teaching? Research? Service? Baking? With assessment criteria in flux from institution to institution or even department to department, the untenured must "feel" their way around, working intuitively through the academic maze. Until a decision is made, more counts than one can imagine. Occasionally, campus folklore may provide a map across the tenure field -- "Margie's on the tenure committee so don't ever get on her bad side," for instance. A better test, however, is watching the way other decisions are made. Does the department chairman fudge the travel budget? Give more to friends? Do the same few professors receive summer teaching assignments? Playing fast and loose with such smaller issues may predict how the process works with the big issues.

For untenured faculty members inching their way past annual or third-year reviews there is a haunting ambiguity within the assessment process. Many senior professors and administrators complain about the untenured faculty's demand for clarity in assessment. It is viewed as an infantile reaction, likened to the response of students looking for a quantitative measure of their work. The unacknowledged difference is that students, unlike untenured faculty members, have a "right to know." Grading a paper entails commentary and explanation, an answer key. Voting on a tenure application is often by "secret ballot" and not open for review by the applicant until the process is completed.

What is the best strategy for tenure, really? Two things: Complete the specified requirements according to the faculty manual, and remain silent. The first is generally easy enough to follow. If everyone awarded tenure has a book, served on three committees, received good teaching evaluations, then assume that is the least that is needed.

The second is more difficult. By remaining "silent," I don't mean not speaking; I mean not saying anything of substance or anything that draws attention to one's thinking, and thereby lessening the possibility of petty conflicts entering into the tenure process. "Not saying" also keeps one on neutral ground, allowing the "apple cart" to remain upright. Perhaps the greatest challenge to young untenured faculty members is overcoming or, better, avoiding the "sentinels of the status quo" -- those who view the department as a "members only" club.

Recognizing the insider power of the sentinels therefore is paramount. In some instances decisions regarding departmental policy, or even something as simple as course assignments, may be purely a function of personal, longtime friendships. In other instances, these friendships may disguise various agendas, controlling a department's curriculum, budget, direction, and profile. This is dangerous terrain for an untenured professor because "adding" a new tenured position in the department may shift control from one "crime family" to another. One's success in being awarded tenure and promotion is closely tied to these arrangements, and if a departmental majority for one "family" hinges on one vote, tenure will be difficult, if not elusive. On the other hand, if the department is diverse, or if professional integrity is valued more than political outcome at the institutional level, the process will work fairly.

Ironically, the tenure process produces all the "evils" that tenure was designed to eradicate -- termination based on grudges, ideology, politics, or generic emotion. All too often, instead of focusing on teaching and research, untenured faculty members are devoting their energy to survival, trying to keep hidden any idea or accomplishment that may prick the ego of colleagues or initiate a feud. There may be some comfort in irony, but it is important to remember that negative tenure decisions are rarely if ever overturned. It is equally important, however, for those making judgments to be mindful of the standing of the institution. Perhaps the official process can go awry once or twice, but a tenure-and-promotion process that covers for "academic assassination" will take its toll on the institution.

As I begin to prepare my tenure application, I'll recap five years of well-above-average performance reviews, substantial scholarship, and inordinate committee work with the anxious hope that I remained "silent" long enough and in the right circumstances. As my friend awaiting word on her tenure bid says, "It is too bad it comes down to this, isn't it?"

Jacques Adso is the pseudonym of an assistant professor who has published widely in the area of theory and cultural studies and teaches humanities courses at a liberal-arts college in the Northeast.