Tuesday, November 16, 2010

File Time : The Data

The topic of yesterday and today is: How much time do promotion & tenure committees (at the level above the department) spend on each case?

Typically, the committee members spend time reading files before the committee meeting(s). This can take from 1 to a few hours, according to my experience and those of some of the commenters from yesterday.

Some of the range in time spent discussing each case in committee meetings is accounted for by different expectations for what the P&T committee produces: just a vote, or also a document. One thing that surprised me when I started looking into this question is the wide range of time/case spent by different committees even within the same institution. For example, an institution in which a P&T committee in one unit spent hours on each case, whereas another committee spent a small fraction of that.

Time/case can be substantial, even for apparently straightforward cases. These committees should not assume that the department has done everything right and go along with either a positive or negative vote for tenure. The reason that the awarding of tenure is a multi-stage process is to have checks-and-balances. Maybe the department was not objective (either for or against the candidate). Maybe they missed something in the file (either for or against the candidate). The committee needs to examine the record in light of all the evidence in the file. Time discussing the case in a committee meeting might well be << the time spent in the first reading the file, but time/case in the committee should only be short if everyone has done their homework first.

I was also surprised because one of the fastest time/case examples I encountered was attributed not to the excellence of the candidates but to the magnitude of experience of the committee members and chair. That made me nervous. I don't think any of us, no matter how many years spent on such committees, should ever get to the point of believing that we can tell at a glance whether someone should get or not get tenure. At some point, the beneficial aspects of having a lot of experience evaluating tenure cases may be replaced by egotism and carelessness. I recently met someone who had crossed that line.

It might make tenure candidates anxious to know that some committees spend many many hours poring over every detail of their file, but from what I've seen, this attention to detail is not for the purpose of rooting out flaws, but for making sure that the decision, whatever it may be, is fair and had a solid basis in the record.

And it might make some tenure candidates anxious to know that there are committees who don't spend much time on each case. It's an anxious time, either way.

I can say, though, that from what I've seen, many P& T committees are composed of people who try to come to fair decisions through detailed reading and thoughtful discussion. That overall optimistic view was somewhat shaken by my recent conversation with someone (let's call him "Ed") from a discipline that does not involve the sciences (let's call it "Ed"), but I hope that the Eds of the academic world are rare beasts.


Female Genetics Professor said...

Yesterday I was responding to the question about how much time the APT committee spent discussing candidates at meetings (usually not much). Like many others who responded, there is also much preparation for these meetings - with 3-person subcommittees reviewing the application packet thoroughly and coming up with a detailed letter spelling out all of the accomplishments (or lack thereof, rarely). Whenever I was chair of a subcommittee, I spent hour preparing these letters! My School (part of an R1 public university) expects that candidates will not be approved for tenure by their departments unless they are likely to be promoted, so cases that were not deserving were rarely seen in my committee. There are also multiple levels of committees that the application has to go through before the final decision is made. None of this is taken lightly!

Anonymous said...

As a TT faculty, I find it nerve-racking and frustrating to realize how little (or not at all) your entire dossier may be reviewed, especially at mid-way reviews. It's not even clear if reviewers look at the statements -- just the list of papers, list of money, and teaching evaluations.

It reminds me of the old joke of putting a $20 bill in your thesis to see if anyone finds it.

Anonymous said...

Just a comment that research in psychology suggests that rapid evaluations are often influenced by gender/race stereotypes and forcing committees to take more time is a good way to enhance fairness. So I hope that tenure committees are taking the time to make the right decisions.

Anonymous said...

If someone is very confident, they could include something in their research or teaching statement (or even better, a service statement) that is the equivalent of the $20-bill-in-the-thesis to see if anyone is reading. It would have to be professional and not-too-obnoxious. Can anyone think of an example?

Ms.PhD said...

Anon, I like your suggestion. Maybe some outside activity that no one in the department knows you did, but that might generate conversation? Then the tipoff would be if they asked something like, "We had no idea you did ______ outreach."


This range did not surprise me at all. I'm sure there are some schools where the decision is based mostly on politics, and then the meeting is just to shore up the paperwork so it looks like there was a basis for the vote.

And I'm sure there are some candidates for whom no one is really sure what they've done until they sit down and look at the files, in which case if the person is borderline but inoffensive, they will probably get tenure.

At least that's my cynical view based on the people I've seen get tenure. I've recently seen a couple of young male profs get tenure because they had funding, despite very few publications and no students graduating (despite the written requirement that they have to have graduated a student before they get tenure). They were both political darlings of the same powerful department chair.

I know of a woman in another department with more publications who did not get tenure, and the excuse given was that she had not yet graduated a student.

Anonymous said...

I've sat on a school-wide tenure committee, and indeed there have been wide variations in how much time we deliberate. But it is expected, and is in fact the case, that EVERYONE on the committee has read ALL the evaluations carefully -- it always takes at least an hour per case to do this, usually quite a bit more. But when we convene, we often agree that cases are so strong, or so weak, that there really isn't much deliberation required. A "slam-dunk" usually only takes a few minutes, and it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy -- we know we're lucky to attract such wonderful scholars and teachers.

The ones that take 4-ever are the ones in the middle. I've seen a single, tangled case take up two full meetings, after which no one felt particularly good, but we were all reasonably sure we'd done the right thing. Which is exactly what we're trying to do.