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Many midcareer faculty members find their experience after earning tenure and promotion to associate professor to be uninspiring and something of a letdown. Research has indicated that such faculty may, in fact, feel as if they are caught in a trap. To entice them to remain engaged at this career stage, colleges usually hold out the possibility of advancing to full professor or serving in administrative roles. However, we would like to suggest additional, perhaps overlooked, options for faculty members who find themselves in this situation: applying for and receiving distinguished professorships or endowed chair positions.

What are distinguished professorships and endowed chairs? Definitions can vary, based on institutional decisions regarding the meaning attributed to the terms and their roles. The professor’s institution commonly funds a distinguished professorship. Such a position is prestigious, because very few faculty members at a college or university receive them.

How one receives such an honor is distinct to the institution. Sometimes faculty can apply for it. Other times, people nominate someone to be a distinguished faculty member, and then a system or board confers the title. Often the dean, provost or president must approve these scarce positions. The process can be extremely political at times, because there are many talented faculty members in higher education and few such positions to be given. Distinguished professorships are different from endowed faculty positions in that it is often a lifetime title, and the associated resources are perpetually provided until the faculty member moves to another institution or retires.

Endowed chair faculty positions are titular and honorific for outstanding faculty. These positions are often reserved for full professors who are perceived as being the best of the best. The positions come with prestige as well as resources. The term “endowed chair” or “professor” comes from a benefactor who endowed the position, or donated money that the professor draws from. The endowed chair position should not be confused with a department chair, whose job is to manage the day-to-day functions of an academic unit, although some professors hold both. Endowed chairs frequently have additional funds to draw upon, which helps the faculty member continue to be impactful as a teacher, researcher and servant.

Depending on the academic field of their holder, such positions are usually quite rare in higher education, which means not much is known about how to pursue and acquire them. People have conducted discipline-based research on who receives these positions and how they can be used as tools to recruit and retain promising faculty, but generally, the academic literature has given the topic only limited attention. Thus, for midcareer faculty members who have an interest or desire to become distinguished or endowed, we’d like to recommend 10 strategies that could help you attain such prominent positions.

  1. Publish regularly. Research has found that prolific scholars publish with other academics outside their own departments. They seek out and collaborate with many different people. Moreover, publishing book chapters may not count for your tenure or promotion case, but you should still do it. Why? Simply because the more your name is in print, the more your scholarship will be recognized. You can also learn a tremendous amount by writing book chapters through your extra reading during the research process and the actual writing itself. You will be working with the book or monograph’s editor(s), and you will make informal contacts with professionals in the book industry. When it comes time for you to be the book editor and solicit or commission chapter contributors for your university press book, you will be more experienced and poised. And if you write a chapter in a prestigious book, the odds are that same press will publish more of your work.
  2. Monitor search firms. Such agencies handle some of the major hiring nationally, and you can nominate yourself and gain feedback from them about how you are presenting yourself, what sorts of experiences you have and if those experiences align with their searches. It is like writing and publishing, which requires staying on top of the latest research. Similarly, you should be following faculty leaders to see who is moving on and what positions are available to apply for. Publications like Inside Higher Ed and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education publish news of promotions and leadership changes at colleges and universities. Monitor such news sources regularly and plan accordingly. If a faculty member who held an endowed position leaves for a different institution, inquire to see if (and when) the position will be available.
  3. Alert your colleagues of your desires. Let your chair, dean and provost know that you’d like to earn a distinguished professorship. The top administrators at your institution don’t go to sleep thinking about you and what you need as a midcareer faculty member. By engaging them, and alerting them of your professional goals, you will be helping yourself. Based on their reactions, you will know if you will have opportunities at your current institution or if you will most likely need to leave it for better opportunities.
  4. Make a request when hired for a new position. If you are offered a faculty position you’ve applied for, request an endowed or distinguished faculty position as part of your hire. While this suggestion is not always possible or advisable, it is something that midcareer faculty members should consider when negotiating their final offer. You should raise the issue only after you’re offered the position as part of a counteroffer unless the opportunity was noted in the position description. You should also bear in mind that the named chair or professorship may be only symbolic and not come with additional funding, yet it can still benefit you as a scholar.
  5. Build strong relationships. Spend time with the professionals in your institution's media relations office and office of research. It is important for your work to be appreciated on your campus, in your field and discipline, and in the broader public. What often distinguishes individuals who achieve these distinctions is how others perceive the impact of their work. Media relations and research staff can help to amplify knowledge of your scholarship on and off the campus, which can help to get you noticed by those who can assist in your candidacy.
  6. Understand academe. Although we’ve been telling you to focus on doing good work, you should also recognize that all ranks and distinctions within the academy are political and often subjective. We would be derelict in sharing the truth if we did not prepare you for the political nature of applying for such distinctions. Frequently, the opportunities to earn endowed and distinguished positions are limited, and as in the promotion to the rank of full professor, the guidelines are often broad and nebulous. The reasons why someone receives or doesn’t obtain one can be quite subjective.
  7. Understand how sponsored mobility works. It has been our experience that much of the advancement to the highest ranks of the academy, and the ability to earn various exclusive distinctions and awards, are not based solely on the quality of a person’s work but also relate to the concept of sponsored mobility. In the context of this article, we define sponsored mobility as when those who already have distinguished professorship and endowed chair positions help advocate for individuals within their academic network to gain such positions, too. This is like the social network theory that has been found in scholarship around the hiring of faculty in top-ranked academic programs. In a private conversation, a distinguished professor told one of us, Sydney, that faculty in elite positions don’t often sponsor other individuals whom they cannot benefit from or who they don’t feel reinforce their status as an elite.
  8. Be intentional. If you are interested in earning an endowed position, cultivate relationships with potential donors. Depending on how accessible your scholarship is, be aware that large donors may be interested in supporting your work. So don’t just talk to other academicians about it, but also find ways to get it in front of institutional donors. You should also engage with corporate leaders who may be willing to hear how your work might support their goals or align with their civic values. While you could do this on your own, we recommend building strong relationships with your institutions’ office of research and economic development, office of advancement and development, and office of communications and marketing. The first two offices often have a sense of what donors would be interested in supporting and can help you with introductions to potential donors. And offices of marketing and communications are experts in getting your scholarship on the radar of local, regional and national media.
  9. Know the rules of the road. Some institutions have strict rules about how many years of service you must have to be eligible for these roles. Study those rules and apply as soon as you are eligible. Even if you do not get it on your first try, your name is now in the conversation for subsequent years.
  10. Seek out knowledge. If you want an endowed chair or distinguished professor position, talk with those who hold or have held such positions. You can learn from their experience by asking them questions and seeking their counsel and advice.

In conclusion, our goal in this article is to provide tips on a process that is often secretive and only known by few in the academy. We hope that it educates and encourages faculty members, especially those who are historically marginalized, to pursue such prized and important opportunities.

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