Full Professors Only

In split vote, Brown’s faculty votes to limit promotion and tenure committee membership to just full professors. Some critics argue against such a move, citing potential for more bias and less accountability in tenure decisions.

October 11, 2022
Illustration of a Black woman climbing a staircase.
Only full tenured professors may serve on Brown University’s P&T committee starting next year.
(Maria Ponomariova/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Brown University’s faculty voted this month to limit Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee (TPAC) membership to full, tenured professors only, starting next fall. Tenured associate professors have long been allowed to serve on the committee, which is made up of three elected representatives from each of the university’s academic divisions.

The faculty vote was 43 in favor of the change and 34 against with 28 abstentions. Proponents of the measure have said that the committee faces logistical problems when judging promotions to full professor, as associate professor members who have not yet experienced that process personally have to recuse themselves, per Brown’s policies. Faculty members who voted against the new rule have cited a variety of concerns, including those about equity and inclusion and whether a committee composed exclusively of senior professors will sufficiently value emerging areas and modes of scholarship.

Elsewhere, numerous tenure disputes have involved nonwhite, nonmale, interdisciplinary or community-engaged scholars who were recommended for tenure by their program colleagues but rejected by division- or university-level tenure and promotion committees based on their research profiles.

Several faculty critics of Brown’s plan directed requests for comment to Ken Wong, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair for Education Policy and chair of Brown’s Faculty Executive Committee. Wong, who introduced the measure to the faculty prior to the vote, told Inside Higher Ed that “full professors with tenure will bring the full range of academic experience to the review process. I’m a full professor myself, so I could testify that we have met the full criteria and standards during the promotion process, so we know exactly what’s going on in the academic journey of the individual cases.”

Wong said that members of TPAC and the executive committee, along with senior administrators, had been discussing this possible change to TPAC’s membership criteria for a year. Currently, he said, “If you have one out of the three [division representatives] not having attained tenured full professor status, that person would have to recuse herself or himself, so we’re only left with two people in that conversation.” This affects the “quality” of the full committee’s eventual decision on promotion cases, he said, adding, “We really need to have all three of them in every single case.”

Asked about some of his colleagues’ concerns, Wong said, “Inclusion and diversity is critical in the TPAC process, so what we are doing is that we have a good [faculty governance] nominations committee, and the nominations committee has this really important priority to seek out and to ensure that there is diversity” on TPAC. A minimum of two candidates are nominated per each open TPAC seat, he said, and they are forwarded to the full voting faculty for election. As for how an all-senior-faculty TPAC will value new areas and modes of scholarship, Wong said that Brown is friendly to interdisciplinary work and innovation and that TPAC relies heavily on intensive department-level assessments of candidates.

“That’s where most of the hard work is being done,” Wong said of that first level of review, “because at the department level there are really a lot of transparent and criterion-based procedures that any professors who are out for promotion and tenure would be fully aware of,” including a rigorous annual review process. Promotion dossiers at Brown are usually assessed first at the department level, then move to the relevant dean, then TPAC, then the provost and president. Brown did not share demographic information about the committee or tenure success rates when asked. The university referred questions about the new policy to Wong.

Raquel Rall, an associate professor in education at the University of California, Riverside, who studies leadership and governance and equity, diversity and inclusion in postsecondary decision-making, said that policies on who can assess whose tenure and promotions decisions vary from institution, as do tenure and promotion procedures generally. Yet Rall called the general idea of restricting tenure and promotion committee membership to full professors “problematic on many levels.” Data show that full professors are still primarily white and male, she said, heightening concerns about explicit and implicit bias. Many current full professors were tenured and promoted under systems that did not prioritize DEI and other elements of faculty work that professors have worked hard over time to highlight as valuable, she added.

“Leaving P&T to only full professors also easily sets up an us-versus-them environment in which full professors maintain all of the power and there isn’t a way for other faculty to hold them accountable,” Rall said. Having a range of faculty ranks involved in the process, meanwhile, “supports a more transparent T&P process that allows faculty at lower ranks to learn how the system works.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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