The Missing Guidance

December 14, 2011

This semester I’ve been asking readers to fundamentally rethink the pervasive and dysfunctional myths about mentoring that so many academics hold onto for dear life: the single, lifelong guru-mentor, the sink or swim approach to faculty success, using anecdotes and personal experience in lieu of evidence-based professional development, denying the unique needs of underrepresented faculty and assuming that once faculty win tenure they no longer need mentoring. Instead, I’ve suggested that it’s normal for faculty members to have needs and that those needs evolve over their career and can best be met by real professional development and a broad and ever-expanding network of mentors, sponsors, and resource people. In other words, I’ve argued for a fundamental rethinking of mentoring that has at its core empowering faculty to identify their needs, removing the shame associated with asking for help, and replacing the guru-mentor with a social network. But I saved what I think is the heart of the matter for my last mentoring column. It’s the best mentoring of all and it’s also the one thing that most colleges and universities refuse to provide: clear guidelines for tenure and promotion.

Is it really impossible?

I was recently at a breakfast with a provost and deans from six different colleges at a research-intensive university. One of the six deans explained that she had clearly articulated, quantified, and written criteria for what faculty need to accomplish in her college to be promoted to associate professor with tenure. The reason why: she wanted the faculty in her college to be perfectly clear about the definition of success from the moment they walk in the door so that they can focus on meeting those criteria. It sounded perfectly rational, but was quickly and emphatically dismissed as "impossible" by every other dean at the table. The lengthy rationalizations can be boiled down to: 1) we want to have wiggle room in decision-making, 2) it’s too hard to get department faculty to agree on the criteria, and 3) this is the way we’ve always done it.

Really? As I sat and listened I couldn’t help but think that wiggle room in decision-making sounds (to my ears) like a way that people with power reserve the right to override objective criteria in favor of a host of subjective factors to manufacture desired outcomes. I wondered if that's the best way to make decisions and/or if it results in equitable outcomes. The idea that it's too hard to get any department to agree on a set of criteria for promotion is absurd because the same group of people are -- in reality -- voting based on some criteria, so why not make them explicit? I agree that it’s difficult for a department to define the criteria, but if there are disagreements, wouldn’t it be far healthier to have those faculty work it out openly and transparently as opposed to leaving the unresolved conflict to play out in promotion and tenure meetings? And it's clear -- from football to finances -- that "we’ve always done it this way" is really just a feeble excuse to not make changes that may upset the existing distribution of power.

After this illuminating breakfast, I spent the entire day working with faculty at this institution and I couldn't help but notice the stark differences between those who were located in the college with clearly defined goals and benchmarks and those in the other colleges, who were confused about what it would take to meet unspecified and ever-escalating tenure criteria. Those who had clear expectations were focused on learning the most effective ways to exceed the articulated goals. By contrast, those who had only the vaguest sense of their promotion criteria were preoccupied with expressing their anger and frustration over the lack of clarity, devising strategies to cultivate senior faculty sponsors who could defend their case behind closed doors, and asking about what they could do now to search for jobs elsewhere (because they had no idea how their vote would end up). In short, those who had confidence in the criteria were focused on doing excellent work to exceed it. Those who didn’t were spending their energy trying to figure it out, managing relationships to provide a safety net, and keeping their eyes on the exits. It seems pretty clear to me which of those states we want tenure-track faculty to inhabit on a daily basis and which produces the most productive researchers and excellent classroom teachers.

More problematic for me is that the lack of a clear, objective set of criteria for tenure and promotion creates the space for unconscious bias, pettiness, and recess-politics (do I like you or not) to enter critical decision-making processes. For example, I have witnessed a former colleague argue that an African-American male tenure candidate with a superior research record, significant external funding, and stellar external reviews should be turned down for tenure because of a comment he made over the buffet at a Christmas party. With a straight face, my senior colleague argued that the comment proved that our junior colleague was "not collegial," but instead was “hostile” and “unprofessional” and openly stated that he would vote against the case on that basis. While this is an extreme example, I’ve frequently observed senior faculty emphasize the deficits and minimize the accomplishments of tenure candidates they don’t like (even when the candidate’s accomplishments exceed that of the senior person). And on the flip side, I’ve often seen senior colleagues amplify the accomplishments and minimize the deficits in the objectively weak cases of tenure candidates whom they like.

And maybe the best reason for moving towards objective, measurable criteria for promotion and tenure is that new faculty members want clarity and transparency. While several studies of new faculty bear this out, I recently polled the participants in my Faculty Success Program, asking: if there were an objective set of metrics by which you would be evaluated at your particular college/university, would you want to know where you stand individually, relative to others in your department, and relative to other faculty at your institution? Over 90 percent responded yes. They not only wanted that information in the abstract, but they wondered why such information didn't already exist, and if it did, how could they get their hands on it?

With increasing economic constraints, shrinking tenure lines, and intensifying external pressure to provide demonstrable outcomes, it seems not only possible, but desirable for colleges to define a measurable version of success. And then to provide tenure-track faculty members with a clear and objective set of criteria for promotion, to make that criteria explicit upon arrival, and to conduct meaningful annual evaluations based on observable benchmarks. And if it’s helpful for assistant professors moving towards tenure and promotion, it would be all the more helpful for faculty who navigating the hazy terrain from associate to full professor. In fact, I believe it’s the best mentoring of all.

Peace and Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore

Executive Director

National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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