The Tenure System Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.

News and views from academia.
Jan. 16 2014 11:34 AM

The Tenure System Is Broken

Here’s how to fix it.

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Third, the assumption that a scholar is excellent if others vouch for him or her in prestigious positions adds bias to the process and works against recognition of newer entrants and forms of scholarship.

One of the ironies of the current promotion and tenure system in many universities is that we make many attempts to authenticate the process as impartial, objective, and fair. For example, we make sure external evaluators have not published with the candidates. Yet the norms supporting choice of external reviewers make the assumption that only scholars at institutions of equal or greater prestige should evaluate the candidate’s work. In other words, we then add bias to the process by assuming the prestige of the external reviewer’s institution makes her a better reviewer than someone at a lower level in the academic hierarchy who might know the work better.

Much research has shown women faculty and faculty of color often do not to have the same “sponsorship” and career trajectory that lands them in full view of those in the top-ranked programs. Given this, they can be at a distinct disadvantage when external reviewers are chosen for their location and rank, as opposed to ability to judge the merits of the work before them.


So, how should administrators look to reform their institution’s promotion and tenure guidelines? First, don’t pretend bias doesn’t exist.

This starts with identifying the most likely places bias might appear (e.g., sponsorship/mentoring, citation counts, teaching evaluations, choice of writing venues). Promotion and tenure committee chairs might receive training to reduce the bias that infiltrates the process.

Don’t try to legitimize institutions and programs through the selection of external reviewers.

Instead, choose reviewers on and off-campus based on knowledge of faculty contributions. Promotion and tenure guidelines should say that if a faculty member is involved in work that is arguably distinct from the norms of the department, an on-campus faculty member who does similar work (e.g. interdisciplinary, qualitative and constructivist, community engaged, using feminist or critical race theory, digital media) should be added to the committee. Promotion and tenure guidelines should say that the choice of external reviewers for peer review should be based on the content of scholarship, including those using similar methodologies and frameworks.

There are good reasons a committee may want to choose external reviewers more advanced in career than the candidate. Yet they should not allow the fact that the potential reviewer is at a lower-ranked institution to prevent their selection.  Some of the best scholars in a field select less prestigious institutions at which to work for quality of life reasons. I also think promotion and tenure committees should invite nonacademic reviewers if relevant to the case the faculty member is trying to make for the impact of their work.

Don’t judge candidates for promotion and tenure by one static, monolithic view of scholarship.

Redefine scholarship to include newer forms of knowledge making, whether they be with partners in communities, via digital media, or in efforts to eradicate injustice in laws, school systems, health care access, or the environment.

Furthermore, it should be considered an act of academic freedom to pursue academic work linked centrally to community engagement, just as it is to work in ways that are interdisciplinary, engaging cutting-edge technologies, and contributing the most basic next-step science to a cure for cancer. Neither promotion and tenure criteria or merit or post-tenure review criteria should constrain such actions. They should only require that this work be high quality, innovative and impactful, as in the cases of other forms of scholarship.

Don’t make faculty demonstrate the quality and impact of their work with a very narrow set of legitimacy markers.

Add language to promotion and tenure guidelines to identify a set of criteria that might be used to assess the products of all scholarship, and that there are multiple ways the faculty member can document they have achieved those criteria. Faculty could be encouraged to present impact statements, allowing them to present a case for the impact of scholarship in ways that capture the intent of their knowledge-making. Products showing impact could include funding from multiple sources, policy reports, downloadable curriculum, diagnostic instruments, broadcasts, discussion of research in legal cases and policy reports.

Scholars might still use citations, journal impact factors, peer-reviewed journal articles in top journals or books with top academic presses, and federal grants to establish the quality and reception of their work. However, it should be stated directly in the guidelines that faculty are invited and encouraged to make arguments for their work in other ways if those other ways are more appropriate to the form and purposes of their scholarship, and these alternative pathways are not second class strategies, and will be judged on their own merit.

It is important to note that these biases, along with the tendency to use prestige as a crutch for quality, also affect faculty outside the promotion and tenure process. Universities are losing talent because of bias in academic reward systems and work environments. Having engaged in exit interviews and retention studies of faculty leaving the academy, it is clear universities pay a major price by not acknowledging bias and expanding their definitions of scholarship in terms of the diversity of people and contributions they attract, retain, and advance.

It’s essential for those involved in promotion and tenure reform recognize that excellence is a socially constructed notion. As human beings in social systems within universities, we are flawed. Efforts to become a more diverse, inclusive community are intimately tied to the kinds of work our academic reward systems value, how we evaluate it, and how conscious we can be about the biases we bring to the table. If we start making these kinds of reforms, we will get closer to fulfilling the promise of advancing knowledge in old and new ways, through a more diverse, inclusive community.