Monday, September 20, 2010

(Un)appealing Option

A few weeks ago, I discussed writing letters as part of the tenure evaluation of assistant professors at other universities. Another tenure-related topic is what happens when tenure is denied.

My understanding of how tenure-denial appeals work is limited, but growing by the day, unfortunately. Perhaps the process varies (a lot?) from institution to institution, but here are some things I have learned so far:

The basis for a realistic appeal can be (1) discrimination, or (2) violation of procedure. An appeal based on an "I was misjudged" is less likely to be successful, although I know of some cases in which an appeal of this sort was successful, typically based on the issue of the relative weights given to teaching and research excellence.

Even if there has been blatant discrimination or a violation of procedure, the various stops along the tenure trail designed to catch such things may not catch them, or may even be the source of the problem. Hence the appeal process.

Things can get complicated at large institutions in which there are many intermediate steps along the road to tenure during the evaluation and voting process. At each stage, there is the possibility of a decision that is different from preceding ones, although this gets less likely as the process moves up the administrative food chain.

Nevertheless, voting and decision-making bodies/people at a university can include
  • a departmental promotion & tenure committee,
  • tenured faculty in the department (perhaps in more than one department for interdisciplinary faculty with multiple tenure homes),
  • the department head,
  • a committee at the college level (e.g., College of Arts & Sciences, School of Engineering),
  • the Dean (± an Associate/Assistant Dean),
  • various Provostial Beings ± Vice-Presidents for Whatever,
  • the President/Chancellor, and, in some cases,
  • a Board of Trustees.
Many of these steps are necessary to provide checks-and-balances. For example, departments might be "too close" to a candidate, using criteria that are not objective or fair. This can work for or against a candidate; e.g., a well-liked mediocre candidate might get a yes vote. It's not supposed to work that way, of course, but since the evaluation metrics are typically not spelled out (more on that tomorrow), variability is inevitable.

If all of these people/committees vote overwhelmingly no, that's not good (and makes an appeal very unlikely to succeed), but what if some say yes and some say no, or what if there are mixed votes in certain committees?

According to legend, once you get past the department and college/school committee with a positive vote, you're fine, but there are rumors of candidates who had positive votes up to the Dean or Provost or President and then.. zap. There are also sad stories of people with majority positive votes at various stages but not a supermajority of positive votes, leading to cascades of negative votes at later stages of the process.

The appeal process appears to be highly structured (= bureaucratic), with lots of steps and lawyers and invocation of an institution's "tenure code" or criteria by both sides.

If the process leading up to the tenure evaluation works as it should, the results of the tenure evaluation itself should not be a big surprise. There can be a discrepancy between what a department/institution thinks of a candidate vs. what is expressed in the external letters, but even this should be evident in advance if the pre-tenure evaluation process works as it should.

Whether evaluation of probationary faculty is at one intermediate time (e.g., 3rd year) or every year, there should (ideally) be a paper trail that documents how an assistant professor is doing in terms of the various job components, with specific suggestions for improvement if there is a problem, and additional assistance/mentoring given where needed.

Having a well-functioning, fair, and informative system is essential to the tenure-track faculty member and to the rest of the institution. When that system breaks down, owing to incompetence, indifference, or malevolence, and the tenure decision is negative, the grounds for an appeal are laid.


Ed said...

Norman Finkelstein, a critic of Zionism, was recently denied tenure under very suspicious circumstances. The details are described here:

Anonymous said...

See, this is what worries me. I know of people who have had positive yearly evaluations, indicating that nothing is wrong, and then are taken completely by surprise when they don't get tenure. Unfortunately there was no paper trail of these evaluations - which made appealing the case harder...

Female Science Professor said...

Why aren't the positive yearly evaluations written down? These should be summarized. the candidate should see them (perhaps even signing them to document that the summary has been viewed), and everything should be filed away to make a paper trail.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on that question, FSP. As a manager in university administration, I had to give written reviews, and my reports had to sign that they had received a written and verbal review. This approach is rarely taken with faculty, and it is unfortunate. There seems to be more reticence in telling new faculty members any negative information. Some of the hesitance seems to be natural, in that many people don't like to give bad news. Some of it seems deliberate, in that they consider the candidate weak to begin with if they need corrective feedback.

Anonymous said...

A prof in my department at EU (elite university) had a horrible situation where he was well-liked, an internationally well-regarded researcher, and a good teacher.. who was then denied tenure at the topmost level. The department voted unanimously to give him tenure, and the department faculty had even organized the celebration of his promotion... when the VEU president denied the tenure application for vague reasons. So you never know!

tenure tracker said...

My department does written annual evaluations/portfolio reviews, and the third year review goes up to the Provost's office. But we're one of the few departments at my NEU (Non Elite U) actually doing this. It's very helpful to go through this process before the tenure review.

The person most recently denied tenure here (for not publishing enough, really) had been told in each annual review he needed to publish more, specifically peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals. He did not. Some in the department wanted to give him tenure anyway, because he was an excellent faculty member in other ways, with top-notch evals, teaching, and service. But the written reviews leading up to that left the committee little choice. This person fought it, unsuccessfully.

He scrambled at the end, and ended up with two articles accepted after submitting his portfolio. But it was too late.

Anonymous said...

While there are certainly cases where discrimination or other issues play an unacceptable role, other people are denied tenure simply because they did not meet the standards of the Department in terms of scholarship.

In the 18 years I have been on our faculty, there have been about 15 promotions and three tenure denials. In each of the latter cases, I know my colleagues agonized over the process, and really took it very seriously. I also think a clear line can be drawn in terms of quantifiable output (papers and funding) and in terms of the evaluations by the outside reviewers. It was sad that these three individuals, all of whom were excellent faculty in many ways, did not get tenure. However, at least the first two went on to find faculty positions at good places, and to have successful subsequent careers.

I also know for a fact, because it came up in our discussions, that in at least the last two cases (I was not in on the first one, as I was too junior), the faculty member in question had been given clear feedback from the Chair, and in one case by a faculty mentoring committee.

There are limits to what a Department can do. if they support junior faculty, set out clear guidelines for tenure, and provide feedback along the way, I feel they have done their part.

zandperl said...

At my college, the tenure process is dictated by the contract, the tenure committee is composed of dues paying union members, and the contract clearly dictates what criteria are to be evaluated by the tenure committee. The tenure committee makes a recommendation at the end of the process, and then the president considers their and the Dean's recommendation and makes a recommendation to the Board of Trustees, who makes the final decision.