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While doing some summer cleaning, I found the dossier I compiled to gain tenure for the first time. I reviewed it in comparison with a second packet I put together for another institution 10 years later that also produced tenure. What immediately struck me wasn’t their similarity in terms of the types of materials and artifacts that I’d included; rather, it was the vast differences between the work I had accomplished at each institution to achieve tenure.
Yet the more I assessed what I had done, the more I identified some underlying commonalities that revealed overarching “laws” that govern the tenure process. What, I wondered, if I had known those laws in advance?
Based solely upon forms and formalities, the tenure process appears straightforward. New faculty members will hear early in their academic careers—or at least before reaching a tenure-track position—about all the politics involved, the importance of being aware of the administration’s plans, the role of the faculty union on the campus and so forth.
But while those are legitimate concerns, they do not constitute the essence of the tenure-review process. The academics charged with evaluation of your portfolio are highly trained in their disciplines, have been through rigorous and ongoing campus discourse (and discord), have served on every committee imaginable, and know how to review and analyze evidence. In this case, your dossier—your academic life so far—is the evidence. For them, the review can be a high-stakes assignment and an opportunity to uphold academic principles. For you, it is deeply personal. Your livelihood and income are at stake.
So how can you make the tenure process work best for you? Looking back on my own two successful tenure experiences, what advice would I give other academics who are hoping to gain tenure?
Follow the LAWS
The intangible yet crucial role of fit in the tenure process—whether or not you are viewed as someone who belongs in a department at an institution—is predicated upon a few governing principles to consider as you begin. Those principles should be clearly evident every year in your reappointment paperwork. It’s not about best practices, such as successfully following the forms and formats. It’s about implementing the strategic plan of your academic career.
Consider the following, which I call the LAWS involved in gaining tenure:
- Landscape: Are you creating the stage upon which to base your academic career?
- Achievement: Will colleagues value your work? See it as valid, with potential for growth, or simply mundane?
- Wealth: Do you produce it by enhancing and adding to the stature and production of your department and university, or do you only fulfill obligations? Do you seek resources for the benefit only of your own work or that can provide benefits to many?
- Students: Do you encourage their growth and creativity? Do you interact and participate frequently, readily and with all of them?
The landscape you construct as a platform for achievement is crucial to you as a scholar and teacher. Your landscape should be inviting to collaborative partnerships with students and faculty members across the campus. For example, if you regularly take students to a national conference with you to present their scientific work, do you involve faculty colleagues in communications, design and other disciplines as a part of the students’ development? Does the cooperative effort pay dividends to majors in other programs as an experiential learning opportunity? Such relational activities create and foster valuable collegial networks that can clearly identify what you bring forth as a faculty and community member.
The wealth you produce and share from that platform or stage, for your students and institution, will drive your success in gaining tenure. As strategic initiatives arise—such as cross-disciplinary funding, honors program development, student-centered support systems—the stage you’ve created offers space for interdepartmental, intramural and extramural efforts to blossom. For instance, instead of asking a chair for support to pay student stipends or obtain similar resources by yourself, you and other faculty members can work together to involve two or more deans and potentially higher-level administrators. Such institutional growth, and camaraderie, are priceless.
While your tenure application credentials (publications, creative works, teaching, service, the ever-nebulous collegiality and so forth) are important, a multiyear strategy is what’s really essential. The tenure LAWS have a compounding function over time as to how your work is received—whether people see it as adding value or not—and whether you are interfacing effectively with students, staff, other faculty and administrators. If you have not thought these aspects through, and revised them each semester, your efforts will fall short and be discordant at best.
A case in point: working in a support program for tenure-track faculty, I found some were trying to recreate their graduate institutional landscape rather than explore the possibilities in their present situation. Others sought an isolated niche or targeted large external funding programs not aligned with their current assignment or available resources. A multiyear plan was an ideal means to break down their goals and objectives into bite-size pieces with measurable milestones. It offered a means of assessing progress, making course corrections in their tenure plan and seeing year-to-year progress. For many, it was quite revealing, as the steps from one year to the next demonstrated to their clear evolution as a faculty member with real evidence that they were headed for tenure and making change happen.
You must also be keenly aware of how you maximize your professional development opportunities to enhance the productivity of your department and work across institutional structures. To do that requires having a comprehensive, coordinated, cohesive and coherent plan. Tenure is not about chance. It demands an organized strategic approach to be effective, efficient, timely and responsive to your campus culture. Indeed, the tenure process itself is part of your professional development as a scholar.
That said, implementing a concise and flexible professional development plan with a timeline of deliverables can be difficult given the sporadic and chaotic nature of academe. Your plan may frequently be diverted by a sudden emergency meeting, a task force or ad hoc committee that needs you, and/or extra office hours and hours of advising and grading for students. Being organized is a skill and a virtue—as are patience and perseverance—and all are essential to your tenure strategy.
Multitasking is a must, but juggling of your assigned course load and entrepreneurship as a faculty member can be overwhelming. If you do not establish a mixture in which teaching and service reinforce one another, then balancing such obligations with your research plan will fail. Interconnected efforts will give you leverage over time constraints and create interdependencies that support all of your work and obligations.
To maintain composure and not be overwhelmed by workloads or stressed by time constraints requires a day-one strategy. You need to be what I’ve come to call TACTFUL to sustain sanity in your quest for tenure. A TACTFUL approach recognizes your place on the tenure ladder, how to advance up it and your vision of the future campus and how you will operate most effectively within it. For starters, it relies on talking among various constituencies, activating people and projects, and cultivating many complex relationships.
- Talk: Engage with others around the campus, outside your department and college. Create new networks.
- Activate: Be that person who moves old and new initiatives forward. Be the facilitator.
- Cultivate: Inspire and create new allies, alliances, and programs.
The tenure-track journey is about speaking out and being a force within your academic community. It’s not strictly about the people in charge you’ve met—it’s about engaging and aligning with your counterparts, tenured or not. Thus, being TACTFUL also requires recognizing four other components. It is by tackling issues (not just talking a good game), frequently being a player on the field and serving as a unifying force that your leadership will emerge—and your voice and insights will be become essential and demonstrative of the type of person others want as a tenured member of the faculty.
- Tackle: Take on an ongoing issue in your department and for your majors.
- Frequent: Attend faculty, staff and student social or other events.
- Unifying: Be that force to locate common ground even when there is no easy consensus for decisions.
- Leadership: Recognize that it has many forms and manifestations, but be distinctly attuned and prepared to lead a specific group or issue forward.
Ultimately, being TACTFUL is about marketing yourself as “just what this institution needs” over the long haul. You want to be viewed as a valued commodity, not just someone whom other people in your department happen to like.
Understand the Weighting Game
Successfully following the strategies that I’ve described is what led me to gaining tenure twice in my academic career. When combined thematically, TACTFUL implementation of your strategic plan to meet the LAWS in the marketplace of tenure can be summarized in how effective you are in five areas. While they will vary by individual reviewer and institutional weighting, those components are interdependent and mutually supportive in a tenure quest.
- Students. Be involved beyond teaching and advising, engage in collegewide events and activities, mentor student-led clubs and other groups, participate in student advisory panels. Be cross-divisional.
- Research. Completing your scholarly works is essential, but those works should relate to the institution’s priorities and be attuned to resources in the college and department. Be part of transdisciplinary teams.
- Service. Task forces on campus culture and other cross-cutting projects ingratiate you across different institutional groups. They create pathways and networks for multiple mutual projects.
- Engagement. Become a facilitator, advocate, confidant or resource to campus communities with whom you resonate—whether it be a writing group, campus theater or museum, or otherwise.
- Recognition. Work to achieve it not only from your professional societies (which you value most) but across the campus for all of the types of work you do as a scholar, teacher, provider and administrator by participating in national panels, taking on prominent social media roles and the like.
You should sort the order of these components according to your institution and its culture and the platform you plan to construct. They can define your portfolio contents and create a robust and durable frame for your successful tenure application.
The recommendations I’ve outlined here reflect my own tenure experiences, as well as my work in and support of various reappointment and tenure/promotion reviews and committees. They also reflect what I’ve learned from conversations with colleagues and professionals from multiple institutions. The basic message is that, if you wish to permanently join an institution composed of a very large and diverse set of communities, you shouldn’t approach it as narrowly as your own disciplinary tract or degree designation. And while obtaining tenure can never be guaranteed, by setting the stage, being TACTFUL and understanding the weighting game, you’ll significantly increase your odds of success.