ten • ure
noun

Having or denoting a permanent post, especially as a teacher or professor

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Tenure is an honor — a mark of recognition and a reward for distinguished contributions to scholarship both in terms of research and teaching. Subsequently, it is a coveted title. For students, however, it is quite possible that tenure is a complete mystery. How important is it, and how do faculty earn it?

In the realm of academia, holding tenure is “being able to hold controversial, unpopular or provocative views without the fear of losing one’s job,” according to Sara Blair, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs.

“Tenure enables faculty to press research questions, teaching, scholarship into areas that may be new, that may be uncomfortable, with confidence that the institution will protect the freedom of their inquiry,” Blair said.

It is important to clarify that freedom of speech is afforded to all faculty: “The principle of freedom of expression and protection for the integrity of scholarship is of paramount importance to officers of the University,” Blair said.

“Everyone has freedom of speech,” said Lori Pierce, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs. “But it’s the freedom to pursue ideas that perhaps are more risky.”

Pierce said the timeline for promotion varies among the University’s assorted schools and colleges. The University’s maximum “tenure probationary period” is 10 years — a deadline set by the University’s Medical School.

“What’s different about the Medical School?” Pierce asked. “Many of the faculty are like myself. We teach medical students, we work with residents, we treat patients, which is a very big part of our time. We are also doing research, we are also getting grants, we are also publishing papers.”

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Typically, the journey to tenure commences at the beginning of a professor’s career, when he or she is an assistant professor.

Using LSA as an example, LSA Dean Andrew Martin said assistant professors are often evaluated for promotion at the end of their fifth academic year at the University.

At this time, action begins at the departmental level, where the faculty member in question starts by giving his or her respective department a teaching statement, research statement, statement of service, curriculum vitae and a portfolio of published works.

Martin said the teaching statement “describes their pedagogy (and) describes their teaching experience.”

Once these items have been submitted, the department then solicits letters of evaluation from leading scholars in the faculty member’s field of study — typically amassing 10 to 12 letters total.

All of this happens between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. By October, all items have been provided to the department, and by November, the department decides whether or not it will recommend the faculty member to be considered for tenure by administrative bodies in LSA.

At this level, Martin said, there are three main criteria for examining a professor’s overall quality: Whether or not the professor is an “outstanding scholar” who has completed original research; whether or not the professor is a distinguished and committed teacher, something that is quantitatively and qualitatively decided by student course evaluations and observations by already-tenured faculty; and whether or not the professor has done “service” to the institution through advising roles and committee work, and to his or her profession overall through work with professional associations, for example.

Martin added that the third criterion regarding service is less important in regards to the transition from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure, and more important at a higher-level promotion, like full professor.

If the transition from assistant to associate represents recognition of scholarship, Martin said, then the transition from associate to full or higher denotes an expanding breadth of study. However, the benefits of tenure remain the same, whether a member of the faculty is an associate or full professor.

“In addition to supporting academic freedom, tenure also provides security,” Martin said. “And we would expect our best faculty members, once they’re tenured, to begin to focus a little bit beyond the core things that they’re invested in.”

“The way I view it is, when we tenure someone, we’re making a huge investment in them, and our expectation is that they’re going to continue to make a big investment in the University not just through research and teaching, but in other ways as well,” he added.

The first administrative body to examine the departmental portfolio is the Divisional Executive Committee. LSA is split into three divisions: Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences. Two representatives from each of the three divisions and four other elected faculty representatives from within LSA comprise the DEC — which doesn’t vote on the faculty member’s pending tenure, but instead aims to “discuss and characterize the scholarship,” Martin noted.

This discussion is then submitted in the form of a report with the departmental portfolio to the College Executive Committee. This body votes to recommend a faculty member for tenure to the Office of the Provost.

The CEC is smaller than the DEC, and is comprised of two members from each of the three LSA divisions. Martin sits on the committee as an ex officio, and only votes if there is a tie.

This entire process is meant to evaluate a faculty member solely upon his or her academic excellence, and not upon other intangible qualities.

“One thing that this college has done with some really great leadership over the last few decades is to think very carefully about our promotion and tenure process to remove sources of bias,” Martin said.

This yields “a real rigid following of our process … to remove those intangibles.” For example, talking about race, gender, religion, age or any part of a person’s background is completely off the table, Martin said.

Once the CEC recommends a faculty member for tenure to the Office of the Provost, the vice provosts and University Provost Martha Pollack conduct a final review of the faculty member’s portfolio by mid-February.

Pollack reads each casebook and evaluates the CEC’s recommendation, re-reading the faculty member’s portfolio and looking for context. For example, Pollack said, in examining teaching excellence, she looks to see whether or not a faculty member innovated in his or her teaching methods, or if that person mentored students outside of the classroom.

“I think what has evolved for me is a broad appreciation of how these fundamental questions play out differently in different disciplines,” Pollack said. “I mean, I have this bird’s eye view … and what it means to have impact when you’re a medical researcher is very different from what it means to have impact when you’re an English professor. But in both cases, that’s what we’re looking at.”

Ultimately, if the Office of the Provost approves the faculty member for tenure, Pollack submits a report to the Board of Regents, which has the final say.

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Blair and Pierce said it’s not entirely uncommon for faculty members who are being recruited by other institutions to perhaps try and fast track their tenure process. However, as Martin noted, the process is rigid in its search for excellence.

“Never once have I seen a shoddy casebook,” Pollack said. “The process is always very careful, because it’s so important.”

“It’s not exactly a marketplace,” Blair said. “As an institution, we take tenure very seriously. The process for granting tenure is absolutely the same whether it’s a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who is coming to us from outside, or someone on our faculty is being recruited (elsewhere), or a young assistant professor who came up through the ranks here. We stand behind the process.”

And according to Pollack, that process is not just important, but essential to the growth of academia. Pollack is a tenured professor in the School of Information.

“Tenure is a right to express your opinion without fear of losing your job, but it’s also a responsibility in my view,” she said. “It’s a responsibility to seek the truth and to speak the truth, and speak up when you think that views that are being expressed are inaccurate. And I think that’s a very powerful mechanism for getting people to make sure that they grapple with difficult issues.”

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