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Managing the Academic Tenure Process

Tenure is one of the most significant landmarks in an academic career

by Gaylen Bradley
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Tenure, or the principle of guaranteeing employment to highly qualified scholars until they decide to retire, is a cornerstone of academic institutions in the United States. The intent of tenure is to protect the freedom of faculty to teach and conduct research within their discipline without fear of reprisal because their ideas are unpopular or because of prejudice againist selected groups. In the eighteenth century, private universities such as Harvard granted lifetime appointments to faculty who held endowed chairs. The practice of awarding tenure after successful completion of a probationary period of six years evolved during the subsequent century. In the twentieth century, the American Association of University Professors declared that tenure provides “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.”1 During the rapid expansion of America’s higher educational system after World War II, tenure expanded to encompass practically all 4-year colleges and universities that granted graduate and professional degrees. Tenure was offered to associate professors as well as professors as an inducement in the recruitment and retention of faculty. At the end of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first century, tenure has eroded with respect to the proportion of institutions offering tenure, the proportion of faculty in tenure-granting institutions who hold tenured or tenure-eligible appointments, and the level of economic security provided by tenure.2 As the competition for tenured appointments has increased, the number of faculty denied tenure has increased and a number of these candidates has successfully challenged the negative decision. The inability of the administration of an institution to defend, during the appeals process, its decision to deny tenure often has been because of procedural shortcomings rather than because of a flawed assessment of the academic achievements and reputation of the candidate. This essay on managing the tenure process in academia will offer some guidance on the process from its beginning to its closure.

In the beginning

The tenure process begins with the formulation of the job description for a position.3 The primary responsibility may be in formal teaching with the expectation of advising students and with little emphasis on innovative research.

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Alternatively, the primary responsibility may be to establish an independent, innovative research program that will attract extramural funding, with only limited formal teaching and service to the department. In either case, the expectations must be realistic. A faculty member assigned to teach three courses each semester and to advise students is unlikely to be able to do this well and sustain a dynamic creative research program. There should be congruence between the criteria in the job description and the criteria used to make the selection of the successful candidate. The brilliant, productive, young investigator from a research-intensive university with no teaching experience is unlikely to thrive in a teaching-intensive 4-year college.

The counseling phase

Each academic unit has a distinctive personality, and the new faculty member will need a year or two to adjust and become oriented to the needs, opportunities, and expectations of the department or program. Ideally, the department has a process to facilitate the introduction to the unit. A departmental committee, a designated faculty mentor, or periodic meetings with the departmental chair may do this. The faculty member needs to be encouraged to ask questions and seek guidance about departmental policies and practices. In some settings, faculty committees participate actively in curriculum development whereas other settings allow faculty to develop courses independently, with considerable flexibility in content and instructional approach. In the research-intense setting, the new faculty member will need to assess the appropriate balance between independent and collaborative projects. The new faculty member can best learn the culture of the department by attending faculty meetings, departmental seminars, open committee meetings, and with permission of the instructor, formal classes taught by a colleague. The young faculty member should be introduced to institutional support services as well, such as the offices of research affairs and faculty development.4

The judgmental phase

As time passes, the department chair or designated personnel committee will provide annual assessments of progress in the areas of assigned responsibility of the developing faculty member. No later than the end of the third year of service, there needs to be a formal performance review that includes discussion on each area of assigned responsibility and about other discretionary professional activities. The departmental and institutional guidelines on tenure should be discussed item-byitem, with further explanation of expectations.5 Does excellence in teaching only refer to outstanding classroom presentation, does it require innovation in instructional content and methods, or does it require recognition outside the institution as well? Is excellence in research based upon number of publications, impact of publications as measured by citations and journal quality, extramural funding, national and international recognition, or upon some combination of these criteria? The department chair and the developing faculty member need to confirm that there is congruence between actual effort and expected effort, and if not, to clarify the department's needs and where there is an opportunity for reallocation of effort. It is a good idea to examine what faculty development activities would strengthen his/her effectiveness. By this time, the developing faculty member and the department have invested substantially in each other. Faculty recruitment is an expensive process in terms of time and money; therefore, it is cost-effective to invest in faculty throughout their career.

Infrequently, it will be apparent early in the evaluation that there is not a good fit between the department and the new faculty member. This discrepancy between expectation and performance should be addressed openly, with a discussion of strengths that could be applied better in another setting within or outside the institution. The discussion should address the mutual needs of the two parties, and not be demeaning or expressed in adversarial terms. In the fifth year of a seven-year probationary period, the prudent department chair will advise rather explicitly that the upcoming marginal candidate for tenure needs to consider employment elsewhere, including seeking a non-tenure-eligible position.2 If there are extenuating circumstances, most academic institutions have the option of extending the probationary period for one year if there is mutual accord as to the cause, a reasonable probability that identified deficiencies can be remedied within the allotted period, and a realistic schedule for progress to be made during the additional year.

Building consensus

There needs to be a coherent articulation of the process and expectations for awarding tenure.5 As noted, the job description for the new faculty hire ought to guide the selection process and the performance evaluation. It is possible that during the intervening five years or so that the needs of the program may change, and all affected parties should be kept informed of any shifts in emphasis. Indeed, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nontenured and part-time faculty and a steep decrease in the proportion of tenured and tenure-eligible faculty since 1975 (Figures 1 and 2).6 Faculty participation is key to building consensus and to adapting to any changes in the process or criteria for judging success in teaching, service, and research. The department chair has a central role in understanding institutional needs and in reconciling and negotiating differences in perspective between faculty and administration. To the greatest extent possible, the procedures and guidelines for tenure should be in writing, readily available, and discussed annually at a faculty meeting because the members of the review committee and the candidate for tenure need to have a common orientation to the deliberative process. Guidelines ought to afford some flexibility, accommodating unique aspects of a subdiscipline and special circumstances. Faculty engaged in large team-taught courses may have less opportunity to develop innovative approaches to teaching than a faculty member directing a well-defined course. A faculty member may have published only a few original articles but they may be truly pivotal works that merit a rating of outstanding in research. Another faculty member may be a co-author on numerous publications in which he/she played a minor role, or may have authored numerous articles published in non-peer-reviewed magazines, and thereby be judged to be marginally adequate in research. A faculty member may have a special role in the department that the chair and the faculty consider so valuable that the special attributes of the candidate compensate for some modest deficit in another criterion. The special circumstances need to be discussed with the candidate and with a departmental personnel committee and documented in the candidate’s personnel file. The tenure process, from start to finish, requires a careful balancing of confidentiality and openness.

In the event of appeal

The academic culture relies on peer review with avenues to redress questionable decisions. Disputes over a tenure decision have diverse root causes. Perhaps the most common dispute that leads to an appeal arises when the institutional tenure committee disregards the recommendations of the departmental committee and chair. These often reflect institutional program decisions to limit the commitment to a particular department or curriculum.7 The department chair is in a particularly difficult situation during appeals of a tenure decision. The faculty member contesting a negative tenure decision will attempt to rally support from faculty friends, which may lead to polarization within the unit. The department chair is also placed in the conflicting position of wanting to help the faculty member relocate to a suitable position, but constrained in documenting the positive attributes of the appealing party in the strongest phraseology justified. In this scenario, the department chair is also faced with the difficult task of explaining the department's position to the upper administration, and the upper administration's position to the faculty. The department chair may find it useful to have the dean or the chair of the institutional tenure review committee meet with the departmental faculty to discuss the criteria, policies, and procedures of the tenure review process.

Life after tenure

Tenure is not an absolute guarantee for employment for the career life of the faculty member. Institutions sometimes encounter a severe financial crisis that requires a reduction in force, including tenured faculty. Indeed, in the extreme situation, an institution may completely cease to operate. As time passes, both the institution and the faculty member change. Most often, the departmental chair is able to orchestrate the needs of the institution and the talents of the tenured faculty to meet the needs of students, administration, and the faculty fairly and effectively. This often involves reassignment of duties, with greater emphasis on departmental service or teaching or research. The departmental chair, recognizing the trends in personnel needs and performance, may find it desirable to encourage tenured members to gain new skills or to update existing skills. Most academic institutions have inhouse workshops and faculty development programs, and also offer sabbatical leaves for intellectual renewal. One of the primary responsibilities of the department chair is to foster a climate for continued intellectual growth and openness to change. A stagnant faculty member is likely to become frustrated and disruptive in the department and institution, leading to “organizational pain.”8 On rare occasions, a tenured faculty member becomes incapacitated, refuses to meet assigned responsibilities, or flagrantly violates acceptable standards of conduct including serious criminal actions. Tenure policies, consistent with standards of the American Association of University Professors, describe the due process for removal of a tenured faculty member for cause.1 This process requires careful oversight and guidance of legal counsel.

Closing comments

Tenure has been the bulwark to guarantee the academic freedom of faculty in institutions of higher education. Tenure provides a non-judicial redress for many of the same rights afforded by the constitutional protection of free speech and statutory protection from discrimination based upon gender, race, or national origin. Tenure also provides a modicum of economic advocacy for faculty although the role of tenure in economic security is eroding in the research-intensive university and the academic health science center.9 Clinical faculty in particular may be awarded “tenure in title but not salary.” During this period of re-definition of tenure, which includes the contentious issue of post-tenure review, it is important that the process for tenure evaluation is well understood and fairly executed. The tenure process is not a one-time event but a process that begins at the time that the job description is formulated and ends with retirement from the profession. The tenure process is a professional development program that facilitates placement of faculty where they can make the greatest contribution and achieve job satisfaction.


  1. American Association of University Professors. Policy Documents and Reports – "The Redbook.” Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  2. Bradley, SG, Avakian, AN, Martin, M. Role of Non-tenure Eligible Faculty in the Academy. Richmond, VA: State Council for Higher Education for Virginia, 1990.
  3. McNamee, M. The Faculty Factor. Washington DC: National Association of Colleges and University Business Officers, 2004.
  4. Morahan, PS, Gold, JS, Bickel, J. “Status of Faculty Affairs and Faculty Development Offices in U.S. Medical Schools.” Academic Medicine, 77 (2002): 398-401.
  5. Bradley, SG. “Ethical Considerations in Hiring and the Promotion and Tenure Process.” In Ethics in Academia, edited by SK Majumdar, HS Pitkow, L Bird, and EW Miller, 254- 269. Easton, PA: The Pennsylvania Academy of Science, 2000.
  6. U.S. Department of Education. Staff in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2003, and Salaries of Full-Time Instructional Faculty, 2003-04. Washington DC: NCES, 2005.
  7. Curtis, JW. Trends in Faculty Status, 1975-2003. Washington DC: American Association of University Professors, 2005.
  8. Grigsby, RK. “Managing Organizational Pain in Academic Health Centers.” Academic Physician & Scientist, January 2006, 2-3.
  9. Liu, M, Mallon, WT. “Tenure in Transition: Trends in Basic Science Faculty Appointment Policies at U.S. Medical Schools.” Academic Medicine 79 (2004): 205-213.