Surviving the Checkback

April 02, 2009

For six years, as an assistant professor, the primary focus of your career planning and angst has been tenure. Now comes that postpartum moment when you are notified that your complete packet, including the outside letters of evaluation, has been sent up to the universitywide promotion-and-tenure committee, and then possibly on to senior administrators. Finally, there is nothing left to print out, file, or sign. Sure, you are concerned about the outcome, but you're also relieved that the long quest is about to end, for better or worse.

However, there is one last step in the process for which you need to muster all of your mental wiles and bureaucratic skills. That step is known as the "checkback," and it can pose the ultimate hurdle, threat, or opportunity.

The checkback is a request for more information about your case. It can come from a college P&T committee, from a universitywide committee (most commonly), or from the senior administration. They bring fresh eyes and minds to your tenure file, and may see defects or omissions that your departmental colleagues and even your outside evaluators did not notice. It can be a simple matter of providing a minor piece of information that is somehow missing from your file. Or perhaps you have to clarify the acceptance rate of a journal in which you published. You may be asked a wide-ranging series of questions that require a detailed (but speedy) monograph. Or the checkback may be so extensive that you would be wise to freeze the tenure process and not go through with it at all.

The rules of the checkback vary: Sometimes the tenure candidate is asked to answer questions directly. Alternately, the checkback request may be sent to a candidate's department chair or the head of the departmental P&T committee, with the candidate informed of the contents but not directly involved. Almost always the turnaround time for a response is short — weeks, or even days.

For the most part, the checkback is a normal part of the process and not necessarily a sign of trouble. But it is serious business. Tone, style, content, and even timing are crucial. Whether you draft the reply or someone else does on your behalf, you need to be prepared, bureaucratically and cognitively.

Be on call. The world is run, a politician once told me, by people who show up. How many crucial votes in faculty meetings were determined by the fact that somebody was off at a conference or playing golf that day? You don't want to be a no-show at your checkback.

If at all possible, find out if there are set times and dates during which checkbacks are most likely to be sent out. Be around and available then. Of course, in this age of BlackBerry and voicemail, you don't have to be constantly in your office, awaiting word from on high. But avoid the fate of the assistant professor who, away on a trip when a checkback came, failed to retrieve his phone messages for days. You don't have unlimited time to respond to the checkback, and, indeed, the longer it takes to craft a response, the more it implies that you were either unprepared for the question or are spinning your wheels to formulate an answer.

Plan ahead. Obviously, you should have all your promotion-and-tenure documents organized and available for immediate consultation when the call comes. I have known assistant professors who kept a copy of the complete file at home just in case the query showed up in their e-mail at 4:59 p.m. on a Friday.

Sometimes you have a hint of the issues to come. One assistant professor in the sciences at a small college got contradictory advice about whether to include certain material in his tenure packet. The consensus of his mentors was that the material was not required. Sure enough, the checkback came with a request for that very information.

Other times you are well aware of the points of debate, controversy, or even deficiency in your case. Over the course of this series, I've heard from several readers who were either denied tenure or won it after a contentious process; all of them said they knew exactly which aspect of their case was going to cause trouble. For example, one reader said he had had several years of poor teaching evaluations because of illness, and the checkback in his case focused on those evaluations. He had already prepared a written explanation, which evidently satisfied everyone because he was awarded tenure.

There's a chance you may be completely surprised by the questions that arise during the checkback. All you can do is be mentally prepared to scramble and get the right information assembled.

Follow procedure. Academics, by nature, tend to be people who don't enjoy filling out forms or fitting into prescribed boxes, mental or paper-drawn. But the checkback is one bureaucratic procedure for which you must, at all costs, follow protocol. If you haven't already, consult your institutions's P&T guidelines; seek clarification from your mentors or from department leaders. Take notes at meetings about your case to discuss how to respond; save the e-mail exchanges on the topic. Your best source of information might be a friendly senior professor who has had long experience on the university's tenure committee. A checkback is an attempt to fill in a missing hole; make sure you are prepared to plug it with a peg of the correct size and dimension.

Answer the questions comprehensively and concisely. If the checkback in your case is simply a document request, such as for a certain year's teaching evaluations or a published journal article, your task is rather straightforward.

Things get thorny when the question is more complicated and requires a written response. Suddenly, you are crafting an essay of sorts in a genre with which most of us have no practice.

Try to focus on only the most relevant facts and numbers. Say the checkback concerns your lower-than-average teaching evaluations. Perhaps you can mobilize the statistics to show that your teaching scores have risen steadily and that outlying lower scores were in the earliest years on the tenure track when you were just getting the hang of teaching some difficult courses. While you should write a narrative explanation, it also might be useful to provide a graph. Then schedule a meeting with the people in your department who are in charge of your case; make sure they understand and approve of your answer (assuming you feel they are on your side).

Be factual, not defensive. A checkback is not a personal attack nor an invitation to vigorous debate. You might be offended by a question about something of which you are particularly proud — say, a certain publication or service work you performed for the university. But even if your feelings are hurt, or you sense that people are indeed out to get you — which is always a possibility — you must be businesslike and even-toned in your response. Avoid incendiary words or phrases.

Sabotage of a tenure case by someone on an internal tenure committee is rare, but it happens. An acquaintance at a regional state university told me that members of its universitywide committee had strongly opposed his going up early for tenure. "They tried to get tricky," he said, "and hide or ignore external peer reviews, make up incorrect retention numbers, and state that the file was missing complete documentation." He uncovered the iniquities during the checkback phase. After much paper shuffling and detective work, he was able to make his case to the top administration and the university P&T committee, and was awarded tenure despite the opposition.

Sometimes, because of the huge workload of tenure committees and their unfamiliarity with your discipline, items and issues that are straightforward to you might need further explanation to them. A professor at a community college told me that he had been irritated by his checkback because a major item said to be missing from his file was, in fact, included. His response to the committee was curt. Fortunately, his department chair wisely rewrote it in polite and informational terms. He got tenure and now admits that nothing would have been gained by putting his ire into print.

The same point applies to humor: Academe needs more levity, but making sarcastic, ironic, or sardonic remarks in a checkback response will likely mean the joke is on you.

Explain insider items for outsiders. Sometimes a checkback arises from a misunderstanding or mistranslation across fields or disciplines. Or a committee might seek clarifications of matters that are obvious to someone in your field but require explanation for outsiders.

Remember, the people on the campuswide tenure committee are seasoned faculty members who face one of the heaviest service tasks in academe. If you are, say, a violinist, you might have a committee of physicists, sociologists, and librarians trying to decipher your achievements, while the ultimate arbiter, the university president, is an archaeologist.

For example, one veteran committee member described getting a tenure file that said the candidate was primary author on most of his published research. Yet several committee members noted that he was listed last in every multiple-authored paper. A checkback was necessary to learn that, in the candidate's discipline, authorship was always assigned alphabetically, no matter what the contribution of effort. (The candidate in question had a family name that began with the letter Z).

In general, if your case is less than clear-cut at the department level, with a split vote, or outside letters of support that disagree on your qualifications, small items may count for much. Therefore, when crafting your response or providing information to those who will judge you, make sure the information is user-friendly — that is, decipherable to those outside your specialization. Refrain from using jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations.

All the above conditions and considerations assume that the checkback is a routine one of minor or moderate consequence. In some cases, however, the checkback is one of a series of warning signs that your tenure bid is in deep trouble. At that point you will need to make the toughest choice of your academic career in an attempt to save it: You may have to withdraw your tenure bid. That option will be the subject of next month's column.


David D. Perlmutter is a professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.