Tenure: Assessing the Quality of a Candidate
By Gerson Moreno-Riano, March 31, 2010 in Outside the Classroom, Publishing and Research, Professional Development

One of the greatest concerns for junior faculty is the acquisition of tenure.  Most American universities characterize tenure in terms of three vital components: teaching, scholarship, and service.  While these components are clearly distinguishable, it is important for tenure candidates to consider them as a whole, not as fragmented and mutually exclusive aspects of faculty life.  As one of my colleagues puts it, “Traditional scholarship is a form of learning, and its publication is a way of teaching peers in a field . . . [and] teaching is a form of scholarship.  [But] it also makes sense to say that scholarship and service are simply forms of learning. Therefore, a faculty member’s teaching, scholarship, and service activities may be closely related, and this should be recognized in the position description and faculty evaluation procedures.”

The trickiest part of the tenure process is the actual evaluation and/or assessment of the quality of teaching, research, and service of a particular tenure candidate.  Often, tenure and promotion committees as well as faculty and administrators reduce quality to quantity.  Thus, the primary standard becomes how much teaching is conducted, how many articles are published, and how much service a faculty member performs.  In these cases, quality is hardly ever truly assessed.  Thus, “teaching” universities value higher teaching loads and service requirements and “research” universities value higher scholarly expectations and reduce teaching and service load to bare minimums.

Regardless of the “teaching” or “research” university caricature and their respective tenure and promotion committees and policies, the question of quality teaching, scholarship, and service still lingers in the background.  Yet, there are no easy answers.  Consider, for example, the issue of quality scholarship.  I will never forget that during my doctoral studies, one of my classics professors was not promoted to full professor on account that he had not published enough peer-reviewed articles or monographs.  It was widely known that this professor was a brilliant classicist.  When asked why he had not published enough, he pithily responded, “I don’t like to publish crap!”  In short, he would rather publish a few, high quality pieces than a high volume of mediocre publications.

Is it possible for a candidate to ensure both a sufficient quantity of scholarship that is also of a high quality caliber?  Can faculty teach lots of courses with lots of preps and do so with a high degree of pedagogical quality?  There seems to be a trade-off at some point but I am not sure at what point such trade-off occurs.  And, then there is the thorny question of determining quality.  Quantity standards are easy to develop.  But how does one determine quality?  Is journal or press ranking the gold standard?  Is the preferable standard the number of citations one’s work receives?  Is it positive book reviews?  This question is no easier in regards to teaching or service.  Is quality teaching assessed solely through student evaluations (God forbid!)?  Should peer or chair evaluations of teaching be the gold standard?  What about self-assessment techniques?

Perhaps the best one could hope for would be a triangulation of various assessment methods.  In such a scenario, the quality of a publication would be assessed through an index composed of journal and press rankings, number of citations, and the quality of reviews garnered.  Teaching excellence would be assessed through an index composed of teaching evaluations, peer and supervisory evaluations, and self-assessment techniques.  Then, tenure and promotion committees could develop quality index rankings to determine the merit of a faculty member’s teaching, scholarship, and service.

I am not convinced that such quality index rankings are a good or desirable option.  The entire metric approach to assessing quality is, frankly speaking, both scary and dehumanizing.  But are ambiguous standards and subjective decision-making processes and rationales any better?  I have witnessed how the latter also induce fear and dehumanization.

Thus, where do we go from here?  In my own experience, committees must balance both the objective-metric approach and the ambiguous-subjective approach.  Likewise, it behooves tenure candidates to guide their teaching, scholarship, and service along the lines of objective metrics with a great deal of sensitivity to the ambiguities in their own institutional procedures.  And, lastly, it never hurts to teach, publish, and serve as much as possible.  Quantity, whether we like it or not, is often a tenure candidate’s most helpful option.    

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Lee Trepanier on Apr 1, 2010 at 3:57 am

I would second Gerson’s point on the importance of quantity and publication. Teaching and service are fundamentally subjective categories but nobody can debate whether you have published a book or an article. Of course, people may debate about the merits of your publication, but nobody can deny that you have published.

Quantity also plays a role simply for the fact that most tenure committees, especially at the college and university level, do not have the time to go through every file and therefore looks for an easy and digestible summary of a faculty’s achievements.

Phil Hamilton on Apr 1, 2010 at 6:40 am

I actually find that all tenure candidacies are much more objective rather than subjective, but it is always a mix.

With regard to teaching, student evaluations do play a role – and an appropriate one. As chair of my department (of 14 professors), I see a lot of teaching evaluations and I find that students are on the mark more often than not. While some sorehead always complains about this professor assigning “too much reading” or he or she “grades too hard,” most students are pretty perceptive about identifying teachers who challenge them and who care about their performance in class. Of course, student evaluations cannot and must not be the sore criteria of adequate teaching. Review of course syllabi/assignments and classroom observations by tenure committees are some other criteria.

Regarding publishing, I agree that quantity is a way to tenure as long as the journals and books are peer reviewed. But every discipline is different on this score. Because of the requirements of research and traveling to archives, historians tend to publish less than scholars in some other fields. Therefore, departmental tenure committees have the responsibility to convey to administration officials what is an appropriate publishing record for a scholar in a particular discipline. Simply counting the number of published pieces is not appropriate.

Service is always the poor-stepchild of teaching and publishing. In terms of assessing a tenure candidate in this regard, I always ask if this person has done enough service and has demonstrated a willingness to be engaged in the (often tedious) work that is university service. A candidate who has not and who demonstrates selfishness on this score had better be very strong in the other two categories. In short, service rarely sinks a candidacy alone, but a weak service record can really hurt if one or two of the other categories are somewhat marginal.

Lee Trepanier on Apr 3, 2010 at 7:27 am

I agree with Phil: service by itself will not sink a candidate's tenure chances as long as the other two areas are satisfactory fulfilled.

about the author

Gerson Moreno-Riano
Gerson Moreno-Riano

Gerson Moreno-Riano has been appointed as Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University.  He is also an associate professor of government at Regent.  He has been at Regent since 2006.

Moreno-Riano's latest publications include the co-authored The Prospect of Internet Democracy (Ashgate, 2009) and the edited volume The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2007).  He is currently at work on two commissioned projects: 1) a companion to Marsilius of Padua and 2) organizational evil in the modern era.