Friday, August 24, 2007

T & P at RBU (that's tenure and promotion at Rust Belt U)

I'm so sick of writing the narratives for my tenure dossier that I thought I'd write *about* my tenure dossier instead. Sure, I could do research work or get a head start on next week's classes, or work on service-related things, but that would mean not obsessing about tenure, and I can't have that, now can I? :)

Here at RBU, a public university with a unionized faculty (through the AAUP), we have processes for renewal, tenure and promotion, professional assessment, and merit evaluation that involve a lot of paper work, some of it every year, but which also provide a solid and undeniable paper trail when it comes to tenure and promotion. As Martha Stewart would say, "It's a good thing."

Here's how it works: every year prior to going up for tenure and promotion, assistant professors must turn in a big fat renewal dossier that includes narratives in which the candidate for renewal discusses his or her "teaching practice and philosophy," "service to the institution and profession," and, of course, "professional activity" (i.e., publications and presentations, grants, or creative work etc.) -- or, as I like to call these narratives, "Why I Am So Wise," "Why I Am So Clever," and "Why I Write Such Good Books" (apologies to Friedrich Nietzsche). The dossier also includes supporting documents proving the validity of these narratives, as well as a CV summarizing them all. And every year before tenure, this dossier goes up through the following Great Chain of Approval: the department personnel committee, the chair of the department, the college personnel committee, the dean of the college, the university personnel committee, and the provost (plus our new president likes to sign off on it, too). That's essentially the same chain as the Great Chain of Tenure, except that the trustees also get a piece of that action. And as the renewal dossier goes up, the candidate gets a letter saying whether they've voted for or against renewal. Votes against can be appealed at every stage before it goes to the next level, and there's a set calendar of the deadlines for every step of the way (the process takes all year). And if any of these bodies approve but have worries about a candidate's performance in any area, they'll say so in the letter they send the candidate. When it's all said and done, the renewed candidate will have renewal letters from every step of the process, all of which will eventually be added to the tenure dossier (more on its differences in a moment).

There's also a short document used for merit evaluations (and the sad little salary increases that come with that), which goes only to the department personnel committee, the chair, and the dean. But copies of past merit evaluations also go in the dossiers for both renewal and tenure/promotion.

And prior to all of that, when an assistant prof is hired, s/he is given not only a letter of offer that sketches the expectations of the job, but also a separate letter of expectations, which is crafted by the chair in consultation with the new hire. The evulations of the renewal dossier each year are based on comparison with the candidate's letter of expectations (also included in the dossier).

So what this means, ultimately, is that the various bodies who have the power to grant or deny tenure and promotion also have chances each year prior to that to warn someone that they're not doing enough to merit tenure and promotion, or even to fire them outright. So a person who has had nothing but good evaluation letters can go into the tenure process with a certain amount of confidence (aside from the usual paranoia characteristic of the culture of tenure).

It's an incredibly sane system, unlike the way renewal and tenure can operate in many other institutions. All such processes should be so sane.

For tenure, there are some additional requirements. The narratives one writes aren't merely about one year's worth of work, but about one's whole career at an institution, and they need to give a sense of the future, too -- a research agenda, the willingness and ability to take on greater service commitments after tenure and promotion, and a continued engagement with teaching.

And then there are the "outside letters." Here, too, RBU's practices are sane and healthy -- although one of my letter writers was taken aback by one element of our practice. At many places, the letters of recommendation solicited from scholars outside the candidate's institution are the Big Unknown and therefore a locus of a candidate's anxiety since it's the one thing s/he has no control over. This is because at some institutions, the candidate has no say over them at all, or at best, little say. But at my university, the list of people contacted for letters came out of names suggested by me and by a member of the personnel committee most familiar with my field. My chair then selection names from each of those lists and consulted with me to make sure they were agreeable -- e.g., no one whose work I had vociferously disagreed with in my work. And in the end, I was told who the letters would be coming from; I can even, if I choose, ask to see the letters because of the open records laws of our state. (That's what gave one writer pause; actually, the very fact that I was cc'd on the e-mail asking if she'd be willing gave her pause.) Seeing them might give me opportunity to counteract, in my narratives, any criticism in the letters, though I wouldn't be able to suppress them, since once solicited, they must be used. My chair told me they're all positive, so I'm not going to worry.

See, totally sane. What's also fair about this process is that the chair must include in her letterto the recommenders that the letter-writers must NOT decide whether the candidate would get tenure at their institution. That language is required by our contract because it's a frequent tendency of letter-writers to make just such observations, and I'm glad to see them discouraged from doing this. Since tenure is decided on the three categories of teaching, research, and service, and the letter writers are only getting my research materials and my CV, they're not in a position to judge my whole case. And besides, different institutions have different requirements for tenure, and some of my writers are at flagship research universities, so even if I didn't meet their requirements, I might still meet RBU's. The point of these letters is to put my research in context and to judge its contribution to my specific field. Since I'm the only medievalist in English at RBU, their contribution to my file is really important in this respect.

The outside letter issue is an area where the tenure process can get really scary and stressful. Even in a sane process like ours, it is a little nerve-wracking to entrust the judgment of your work to people you know only through their work or meeting them at conferences! But I have one friend whose process is even saner -- no outside letters at all! Their university feels that the peer reviewers for published work have already done that job. Wow. Imagine that! Still, our process is better than at some places. We need only 3-5 letters, whereas some places are asking for crazy numbers -- 10, 15, even 20! Some places also require all letter-writers to be full professors at top tier research institutions. That last bit is especially snobby and anachronistic, since today important and influential scholars are spread out across all sorts of different kinds of institutions. Anyway, ours need only be tenured and promoted to the level the candidate is seeking promotion to (in other words, Associate Professor) and need only be employed by a four-year college or university. Mine are from a range of colleges and universities -- SLACs, public branch campuses of state universities, R1s, and metropolitan universities.

There's a lot I like about working at RBU (even though I call the town and the university "Rust Belt," I always mean that affectionately, and it is accurate in terms of its economic history), and one of them is the no-surprises system of renewal, tenure, and promotion. (Not to mention the fact that even tenured profs must do a similar professional assessment every five years, in addition to annual merit evaluations, which I think is healthy for the institution and its faculty.) The relative fairness of it all is something I'm grateful for.

However, because I have a slight superstitious streak, I've typed this entire entry with my fingers crossed! (For luck, that is -- not because it's all a lie.)


Virgo Sis said...

Wow, I bet that is the first time Martha has ever been quoted in a discourse on tenure! Would that all systems, including outside of academia, were so reasoned and transparent. Despite yearly reviews and self assessments, the business world relies on the buddy system.

I am crossing my fingers, too. In bocca a'lupo.

Dr. Virago said...

I bet it's also the first time Martha and Nietzsche were quoted in the same document!

And on a totally unrelated note, what's with idiomatic expressions of well-wishing that literally say terrible things? In the mouth of the wolf?!

Dr. Virago said...

And also -

Despite yearly reviews and self assessments, the business world relies on the buddy system.

That's how tenure can and often does work. I give all credit for our transparency to our union.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Yeah, that is a remarkably sane and humane kind of review process. RU was like that. Former College was, well, not.

Virgo Sis said...

"And on a totally unrelated note, what's with idiomatic expressions of well-wishing that literally say terrible things? In the mouth of the wolf?!"

It's a little like saying "break a leg" to an actor. Not supposed to tempt fate by wishing luck. And showing off my Italian although it might be al'lupo. I've only ever heard it and my grammar in Italian is sucky.

Horace said...

BRU (my school) and RBU have remarkably similar practices, and given that I'm still two or three years out from this process (depending on whether I go up early), seeing that you feel fairly sane about it (short term anxiety aside) is all the more comforting.

And FYI, "break a leg" isn't necessarily an "opposite world" wish. At some point in theatrical history, clapping came from slapping the thighs, so "breaking a leg" meant inducing someone to applaud so vigorously that they in fact broke a leg. But Break a leg anyway--I like the idea of a tenure committee vigorously applauding your file.