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Jeanine Skorinko

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

About one-third of associate professors at research institutions are unclear about their departments’ performance standards for promotion to full professor. The same share are unclear about promotion criteria and timelines -- when should they apply?

One-third of these associate professors are unclear as to whether or not they’ll be promoted. And one-quarter haven’t received feedback as to their progress toward full professor one way or another.

That’s all according to the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, which works with hundreds of institutions to improve faculty recruitment, development and retention. Faculty surveys are a big part of COACHE’s process. And when it helped Worcester Polytechnic Institute survey its faculty a few years back, associate professors there reported the same kind of confusion regarding promotion. (Tenure standards, by contrast, and consistent with national trends, were much more clear.)

Multiple Scholarships

So faculty members at the institute got to work to defog the promotion process and, in so doing, improve it. In the end, they decided it was all about scholarship -- defined five different ways. This is not just a synonym for traditional research. Each definition is a criterion for promotion to full professor, and professors who excel in some areas but not in others already have succeeded.

  • Scholarship of discovery -- creation of new knowledge, demonstrated in publications and presentations
  • Scholarship of integration -- interpretation and analysis of existing knowledge
  • Scholarship of application and practice -- application of knowledge to address important individual, institutional and societal problems
  • Scholarship of teaching and learning -- development and improvement of pedagogical practices that are shared with others
  • Scholarship of engagement -- collaborative partnerships with communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources

Richard Vaz, professor of electrical and computer engineering and of interdisciplinary and global studies, and director of the institute’s Center for Project-Based Learning, relied on the new criteria for his recent promotion to full professor. He said that despite a long career on campus -- including 18 years spent as an associate dean and dean -- he’d never before been inclined to apply for full professor.

That’s partly because the previous criteria “made clear the need to demonstrate external impact through traditional forms of scholarship,” he said -- in his field, namely journal publications and grants.

Under the institute’s new matrix, this kind of traditional and traditionally rewarded scholarship is that of discovery.

Vaz’s contributions in administration, in the classroom and elsewhere, meanwhile, have taken different forms. So the new criteria -- which Vaz noted are by influenced by Ernest L. Boyer’s 1990 book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate -- carved out a more obvious path to promotion for him.

Vaz, a 2016 recipient of the National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, described much of his own work as scholarship of integration, scholarship of application and scholarship of teaching and learning. (Vaz’s colleague Kristin Wobbe, associate dean for undergraduate studies and director of the institute’s Great Problems Seminars, also received the Gordon Prize in 2016 and was promoted to full professor this year.)

“The same could be said for many faculty, both at WPI and elsewhere, whose significant contributions might not take the form of the scholarship of discovery,” Vaz said.

Rethinking the ‘Triad’

Previously, promotion to full professor at the institute was based on the triad of teaching, research and service, with some kind of leadership or distinction in research or teaching. That's an approach commonly used for tenure. And as it does on so many other campuses, WPI’s process appeared to favor what Peter Hansen, professor of history and director of international and global studies, called “traditional publications and funded research.”

Hansen helped lead the criteria rewrite, which started with a deep dive into the COACHE data, starting in 2014. Even “a passing glance made clear that tenure reviews were much more trusted than promotion,” however, he said.

Those data led to a task force, which led to a framework that would have elevated service in that triad, he said. But the idea didn’t really take. So the promotion committee delved further into the existing research on promotion -- and into Boyer’s definitions of scholarship.

Hansen said Boyer’s original criteria number four: discovery, integration, teaching and application or engagement. While those last two are often “conflated,” he continued, the institution’s orientation toward the natural sciences, technology, engineering and math and project-based learning necessitates separating application and engagement.

“Engineering often involves the application of knowledge to important issues in ways that are different from our collaborative partnerships with communities and global projects programs,” he said, “which are themselves superb examples of the scholarship of engagement.”

The new criteria were approved in 2017. Hansen said the expanded definition of scholarship has since “elevated teaching” on campus “by better defining the pathways in which scholarly teaching becomes the scholarship of teaching and learning.”

Under the old promotion criteria, he said, that was unclear.

“If you were eligible, in theory, to be promoted based on leadership in teaching, what did that mean? What did it look like?”

When Teaching ‘Becomes Scholarship’

Now, Hansen said, teaching -- or any other criterion -- can become the basis for promotion when it “becomes scholarship.” That is, it must be “public, amenable to critical appraisal and in a form that permits exchange and use by other members of the scholarly community.” (He noted that this idea was adapted from the work of John M. Braxton, William Luckey and Patricia A. Helland, who in turn adapted other scholars in 2002’s Institutionalizing a Broader View of Scholarship Through Boyer's Four Domains.)

Has the new promotion criteria made a difference? Hansen said yes, “though it remains a work in progress.”

Part of that progress is mentoring -- which was another area identified as lacking in the original COACHE data. Lack of mentorship and support for midcareer faculty members has elsewhere been recognized as a problem that contributes to what some -- often erroneously -- refer to as “posttenure malaise.”

Mentoring Matters

In addition to the new criteria, the institute is working on improving midcareer mentoring as part of a $1 million National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant. The grant is focused on women, who throughout academe are promoted to full professor at lower rates than men. But the idea is that mentoring -- including about how to prepare for promotion under the new criteria and how to assess colleagues by it -- will eventually benefit everyone. Professors at the institute will developed individualized mentoring “plans” for themselves based on what they want to work on and toward. The plan should include a mentoring team of colleagues with varied backgrounds, not just a single mentor.

Prior to this initiative, said Jeanine Skorinko, a newly promoted full professor of psychology and principal investigator on the ADVANCE grant, “once you hit tenure and that associate level, it was kind of assumed you knew what you were doing.”

That’s of course true in many ways, Skorinko said. But it doesn’t mean that mentoring and professional development plans should disappear, or that professors want them to, as every stage of faculty life comes with its own challenges.

Beyond the new criteria, faculty members also approved changes to the promotion procedure. Previously, a first meeting on a particular promotion application consisted of a six-member faculty personnel committee, plus a nominating faculty member and an advocate who could answer questions about the applicant’s scholarship. Then the committee -- minus the nominator and advocate -- met again to vote.

Under the new system, the nominator and advocate attend the second meeting as nonvoters to ensure transparency and offer the committee any additional information it needs to make its decision.

The new criteria apply only to tenured faculty members. Talks about how to better value and assess the varied scholarship of non-tenure-track faculty members for promotion processes are ongoing.

Hansen said relatively more tenured women already have been promoted to full professor under the new system than before, as have faculty members who’ve made “fundamental” contributions to each criterion.

The “real payoff,” though, he said, is hearing individual faculty members’ responses when they’re invited to say how their work “might cut across or combine the traditional categories of teaching, scholarship and service.”

Mission Alignment

Laurie Leshin, university president, said in a statement that the new promotion and tenure criteria “bring our reward system much more in line with our values as an institution.”

The institute balances project-based education and research, she explained, and “these improvements to our tenure and promotion process honor our strengths and our culture by recognizing the importance of such forms of scholarship as interdisciplinary research, translational work, applied scholarship in real communities and the scholarship of teaching and learning.”

The criteria have the benefit of rewarding work “we care about deeply, and doing so in a way that is much more inclusive of our faculty members’ contributions to society,” Leshin added. “I’m very proud of our faculty for bringing these forward, and with the early results of putting them into practice.”

Vaz, who was promoted this year, said this type of reform is “essential,” especially for institutions seeking to “recognize and encourage the work that faculty do to positively impact students, programs, institutions, communities and their profession.”

He even wagered that the mission of most institutions “is better served by those types of impacts than by traditional forms of disciplinary scholarship.”

Hansen said what he learned “loud and clear” from the scholarship about promotion is that “faculty are in charge of their own careers.” And the broad definition of scholarship provides the “space for faculty to highlight how their work aligns with the values of the institution.”

That’s “more likely to happen if scholarship is located on a continuum than in separate, parallel boxes alongside teaching and service.”

Kiernan Mathews, executive director and principal investigator at COACHE, said there has been "a lot of talk about embracing Boyer’s model" of scholarship reconsidered, but academe "is still far away from widespread adoption." COACHE’s data suggest that associate professors are "still being evaluated on narrow or ambiguous criteria, if anyone bothers to evaluate them at all," he added. 

The institute took a look at their data and then "took action," Mathews said. "Their leadership on [promotion] reform is showing everyone that excellence and inclusion are not dichotomous," in that their recently-promoted class of full professors "has had an impact on the world far beyond what the old models would have noticed."


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