Tenure and the End of the Three-Ring Binder

Lessons from making the transition from paper to digitized promotion files

Creative Commons

August 06, 2014

Every year about this time, I dedicate a chunk of what was to be my vacation time to doing external reviews of candidates up for tenure and promotion.

In the old days, the postman hated me during this period. He didn’t care that it was part of my professional duties to evaluate professors I didn’t know (or know well anyway) who were coming up for tenure or promotion in other institutions. All he knew was that he was lugging boxes up to my doorstep—boxes containing several huge, heavy three-ring binders and lots of books.

In later years, the tenure files also got lumpy. They suddenly had all kinds of multimedia stuck in them, sometimes in formats for which I lacked the proper equipment.

These days, though, a tenure file might be a thumb drive. (Best part: You get to keep the thumb drive.) It might also be a temporary, password-protected link to a web platform. Or it might still be a great big clunky set of three-ring binders with lumpy parts.

I like the first two very much. And when I served as chair of the universitywide promotion-and-tenure committee on my own campus, I liked the digital version of the personnel file even more. It minimized the weekend pilgrimages to the dank, windowless room where the hard-copy tenure files were kept.

Unfortunately, however, when I first arrived at my university, it had no digital files for tenure candidates. This was in 2009, when both candidates and reviewers had retired their inkpots and quills for some time already. And that is how I backed into the job of leading a university transition to digitized promotion files.

After four years, we’re pretty much done. Oh, I know, you’re never really done. But we can operate digitally and fairly seamlessly across all the levels of the promotion process, and across the various offices of the university. We have a process that’s reasonably secure. That didn’t used to be true. And I’m not just talking about people sending confidential personnel-file information back and forth in personal emails, but having committee members (of course never officially) copy reams of documents from a tenure case or take the files home.

To lead the charge toward digital review, I never even needed to learn much IT. But I did learn some other things that I’d be happy to share about the transition process for all you folks who are still sending me three-ring binders. For instance:

Faculty are good leaders of this process. I know, I know. But think about it—not the inevitably messy reality, just the alternatives. Everybody wants this, but nobody wants to have to really do it. The people who have to review all the files—the faculty committee members—are highly motivated. Standardization makes their lives easier, they can get access to their work from multiple locations (one of my committee members succeeded in VPNing into the platform from Tajikistan). The system can be fairly secure.

And now, the alternatives: If the administration takes charge of this task, then the faculty will hate it on principle. If the staff does it, a current crisis will perpetually bump the job. And the IT office can’t help until it knows what you want.

You need a team. I was the point person for this project, aided by an (awesome) administrative assistant. She already worked daily with staff members from various offices. Between them they were a deep well of knowledge about quirks, kinks, and issues in the tenure-and-promotion process, and they knew that its standardization would improve their lives. We found the person in IT who builds dedicated project-management sites (we used SharePoint, but it’s just one option), and bonded with him. We connected with the faculty senate and the administration.

Use the promotion cycle as a deadline. We were able to prioritize our project at IT, and get staff, faculty, and administrators to pay attention in a timely way. We did that by moving to an optional digital process in the first year with a trial design, and then making it mandatory the next year. When someone started lagging, we held out the threat of a paralyzed promotion process and administrative ire.

Iterate, iterate, iterate. We didn’t expect to get everything right the first time, and guess what? We didn’t. But over three academic promotion cycles we got a sturdy, secure, reliable system. And we got great feedback the whole way. We built check-ins with staff, faculty, and administrators into the annual cycle, and because people knew we’d use the information, they volunteered it. Because the check-ins and revisions are now part of the committee’s annual workload, the feedback we get on how to improve the process won’t stop any more than the digital-format changes will.

User-level simplicity is a beautiful thing. One of our early mistakes was to opt for a more complicated PDF format than we really needed people to use. Once we made it simpler for faculty members to use, everyone got a lot happier. Especially us.

Build in communication functions as well as data storage and access. Being able to share thoughts and flag problems about tenure files on our platform—shielded of course from access by anyone above or below us in the process—meant that we weren’t blabbing about confidential matters on email and also that we were prepping for and streamlining our in-person discussions. Our meetings were more efficient. And communication was easier to do: It was all right there, where we were already reading the files.

Enjoy your new friends and your new superpowers. In leading this transition from paper to digital files, I met people who are usually invisible to me, with talents that were new to me. While I didn’t love some of the snarls that inevitably come with the process, I learned a lot as I watched colleagues exercise patience, empathy, and creativity to resolve conflicts. I also got a kind of X-ray vision into university processes. That’s a gift I still sometimes use.

Patricia Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Media & Social Impact in the School of Communication at American University, and co-author with Peter Jaszi of Reclaiming Fair Use (University of Chicago Press, 2011).