At the time that I stood for tenure, I was the only untenured person in the economics department. Early on in the review of my candidacy, the discussion changed from a comprehensive look at my qualifications to a more impersonal discussion regarding long term needs and whether there should ever be 100% tenure in any department. As an economist, I clearly understood long term needs and that ultimately, regardless of how well a tenure candidate meets the standards for teaching, scholarship and service, these cannot be the only determining factors. The deliberations on this issue took many months but ultimately the need was clear and I was awarded tenure.
In higher education today, the question of long term needs is still a critical part of the tenure equation and our data analysis has evolved over the decades to facilitate a much more sophisticated analysis. To begin with, we need to look at the total number of full-time faculty and the number tenured. Have any of the full-time faculty announced that they are leaving or retiring? As the percentage tenured increases, the flexibility to react to changing trends becomes more limited. As more faculty retire, there is often increased flexibility and great opportunity. We also always look at the percentage of teaching done by adjunct faculty. In this area, we look for a balance, though the precise balance varies by field.
As we all know, the need for faculty is clearly dependent on the demand for courses by students and therefore we always track student semester hours, both in the area being analyzed as well as the overall school or college that houses the area and well as in the University itself. In some cases, where a department is primarily a service department (serving other majors), the overall enrollment trends are the key factor. In other cases, the number of majors becomes the more important determinant. Are the trends in the field similar to the trends in the school and in the university? Are the increases greater, or the declines more modest? Are there increasing or decreasing employment opportunities for when the student completes his or her major/education? More opportunities is a good leading indicator of more students.
There are moments in time when a faculty member chooses to stand for early tenure. The benefits to the tenure candidate are clear—less uncertainty and the ability to make more long term decisions. But it has also happened that faculty come up early for tenure at a time where the stars are not positively aligned. In these cases, waiting to stand allows more time to have a positive answer to the long term needs question.
In my experience most tenure candidacies are determined based on the qualifications of the tenure candidates. In the best of all worlds, that would always be the case. But reality requires that we look at demand as well as the supply and there are times – hopefully not that many – when the demand isn’t there. A few years down the road, the situation may turn around but absent a crystal ball, we really can’t make a lifetime staffing decision based on what could happen sometime in the future.