Tenure at Small Colleges
Advice on how to earn tenure usually focuses on what one would expect: Teaching, scholarship, and service. Much of this advice is geared toward faculty who work at research-focused institutions. Generic advice columns about earning tenure and promotion offer some useful tips but they often fail to capture the nature of faculty work and expectation so often found at small liberal arts colleges (SLACs). Many of these institutions share a focus on teaching and mentoring, though there exists even among SLACs a diverse set of expectations for scholarship. Nevertheless, even SLACs with loftier scholarly expectations place much weight on teaching and mentoring. The nature of faculty work at SLACs is just different from that at research-focused institutions. It is not less work or easier work. It is genuinely a different type of work, and faculty intending on pursuing careers at a SLACs should know how they will be evaluated from day one.
I think a striking difference between SLACs and larger institutions is that for research-focused universities and some land grants, as long as one’s teaching is sufficient and faculty members publish, one’s presence and perceived "fit" or willingness to be a member of the community is less important. Most SLACs place a strong emphasis on "their" community, inclusive of faculty, staff, and students who all work together to coalesce academic, work, extracurricular, and athletic experiences. Buzzwords like “engagement” permeate a lot of campuses: Administrators do expect that faculty are "around" and seem to be invested in the broader campus culture as well as in its students. Though no one is monitoring faculty attendance at sporting events, a faculty member who is seen very infrequently across the campus, attends few faculty meetings, workshops or the like, is perceived by his or her colleagues as disconnected, uninterested, or just unwilling to be an active participant in important campus conversations.
How a faculty member integrates into a campus community and gradually increases his or her presence and influence is easy. For one, community really begins at the department level. Many academic departments – especially in some humanities disciplines — only have three or four faculty members. Other departments — say in the natural sciences — could be much larger depending on the college and its resources, although even those will be small enough that everyone is expected to know one another. You do not have to become best friends with your colleagues — that is unrealistic. But you will work closely with these people on a number of issues during your probationary period. Get to know them. Yes, at times close your door and get work done. But once in a while make time to go to lunch with them, chime in on hallway discussions, pop in their offices to ask for help or to share your concerns, etc. Attend department meetings; if your department is part of a larger unit, attend those meetings; attend faculty meetings of the entire campus faculty, called meetings, fireside chats, faculty socials, or whatever is the norm on your campus.
When a faculty member presents his dossier for tenure, what matters most is his teaching. However teaching is weighed relative to scholarly work and service varies considerably, but at SLACs, teaching is most important. You must demonstrate your competence as a teacher through your course evaluations, letters of support, example syllabuses, exams, and assignments, and most importantly, the executive summary of your teaching. SLACs expect faculty to commit large sums of their efforts toward teaching, advising, mentoring, helping students, etc. Faculty members should be caring, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and clear communicators. Students should feel that their professors are working hard to help them learn.
Faculty can improve their teaching by participating in campus initiatives about teaching (e.g., events sponsored by a center for teaching excellence), asking more senior colleagues to observe their teaching, reading peer-reviewed pedagogy research in their discipline, and attending teaching workshops and conferences. There are many opportunities available to help faculty improve their teaching. It is your role to explain who you are as a teacher. What do you value? What is your philosophy and how does it get translated into action on a daily basis? How have you improved during the probationary period? Faculty who struggle with teaching, even if other areas of their work are stellar, usually do not earn tenure at SLACs.
What is most important for teaching is that a professor demonstrates growth; that it is clear that their teaching has improved during the pre-tenure period. Showing evidence of continued growth, refinement, and improvement in teaching is viewed very favorably by promotion and tenure committees.
What faculty are expected to accomplish as scholars varies a great deal among the SLACs. Most SLACs require some research for tenure. Knowing exactly what is the norm at your institution is key. Some colleges — especially those that are the most prestigious — have very high scholarly expectations, some of which would rival a lot of research universities. Others have very few expectations, or have very broad definitions of scholarship. The best advice I can offer is that you ask upfront, and ask a lot of people. Even during the interview, asking the department chair, the dean, the provost, and even the president (if you get to meet that person), would be informative. Some colleges expect two or three peer-reviewed papers; some may expect six. Some only care that the work is peer-reviewedm while others only permit you to publish in a narrow set of journals (those with high impact factors) or with specific publishers.
Some SLACs count published abstracts from conference presentations as suitable scholarship; other colleges place no value on them. SLACs are likely to really value work with undergraduates (or demand it), so articles published with students or conference presentations with student co-authors are highly valued. Faculty often contribute to the scholarship of teaching, writing evidence-based articles about course assignments, program evaluations, or other papers. Many SLACs view this as valued scholarship; other institutions do not.
At all colleges and universities, faculty serve the college in some measurable way. It is probably the case that SLACs — like other institutions — place less emphasis on service for promotion and tenure. Nevertheless it remains an integral component of faculty work at SLACs and faculty should take it seriously. Unfortunately, some faculty neglect this part of their work, devoting their time mostly to teaching or research. Faculty service generally involves service to the department, school, greater campus community, one’s discipline, or possibly, in some instances, community service. It is a good idea to discuss the nature of service with your department chair or dean. And ask what is the normal service load for faculty, particularly during the first couple of years. Knowing what counts as acceptable service is very important. Simply put, being an excellent teacher and a productive scholar will not compensate for minimal service.
However faculty choose to invest their time to service varies greatly within an institution, but it is important to balance these investments. Only serving the department or division at the expense of wider service to the college community, or choosing only to serve the discipline or community, can have negative consequences. Finding balance in service responsibilities is key to demonstrating at promotion time that you have fulfilled your obligations as a collegiate citizen. And for many, particularly those who serve on promotion and tenure committees, service is not simply a list of councils or committees on which you served, not simply something you check off upon its completion.
Service is an area where faculty should take on more and more responsibility as they near the end of their probationary period, including taking leadership roles such as chairs of committees or task forces. As with other parts of the dossier, it is up to faculty members to contextualize their service, explaining how they have worked for the betterment of the institution, contributed to needs of a discipline, or used their talents to benefit the community.
All in all, SLACs have varied expectations for promotion and tenure, though they generally emphasize teaching above all else. Nonetheless, unlike research-focused institutions, tenure evaluations are perhaps more holistic, and decisions follow a case-by-case evaluation of a faculty member’s record of accomplishments in teaching, scholarship, and service. In short, earning tenure at SLACs means balancing your growth as a teacher with consistent progress made in publishing or professional performances, while at the same time working to involve yourself in the campus culture and becoming a good citizen at the department, school, and college-wide levels.
Alan Hughes is professor of psychology at Berry College.
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