Is This Tenure Candidate ‘Playing’ Me?

Note: In the “Ask the Chair” series, the author of How to Chair a Department answers your questions about departmental leadership. Send your queries via Twitter, Facebook, or email. Read previous columns here.

Question: I came to a new institution to chair my department (psychology) last fall. It’s been a great move for me, personally and professionally. Perhaps I’m just enjoying the fruits of the “honeymoon” period right now, but I’ll take it: We all seem to be getting along and moving in a positive direction.

I am a bit concerned about something on the horizon, however: A junior colleague comes up for tenure in the fall, and their research record is very thin. I’m trying to keep my own counsel at this point, and haven’t discussed the case with anyone inside or outside the department. But I do feel that my junior colleague is playing me, to a certain extent: conducting a charm offensive, perhaps on the mistaken notion that one can charm oneself over the tenure bar.

I guess my question is: How does a chair run a tenure or promotion review while maintaining an appropriate working relationship with the candidate? How can I inhabit the roles of supportive mentor and objective arbiter at the same time?

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Dear Jekyll & Hyde,

Well, first — especially given the context of last month’s column about mercenary chairs — congratulations on your new position, and what seems like a good fit. The honeymoon period that you allude to is a real thing. The fact that you’re being given some space and grace early in your chairship doesn’t guarantee that the mood will last, of course; but not every new chair gets even that much. Take it!

And leverage it, if you can, precisely because it may not last. In my experience, the first year of an appointment is when you’ve got the greatest reserves of goodwill among your colleagues to draw on. After all, you agreed to chair, so they don’t have to. They owe you — and on some level, they know it. Use that guilt, or gratitude, or whatever exactly it is, to tackle some challenge that’s important to you.

At various times in 15 years of chairing, I’ve found myself in thorny situations like the one you describe (in one case, I faced precisely the same dilemma). In those moments, my dual roles — of faculty member and chair, supportive colleague and upholder of institutional standards — felt at odds. It’s just one of the incredibly difficult balancing acts that we expect of department heads.

Before suggesting how you might thread this tricky needle, let’s go ahead and make explicit these two seemingly incompatible roles. For your junior colleague, you are something like a professional coach/cheerleader. The timeline here suggests you were not around to participate in the initial hiring; but your new departmental colleagues and your new institution placed a hefty bet on this junior colleague, costly in terms of financial and human resources. Yes, some departments and institutions — fewer than was the case 50 years ago, one hopes — do hire assistant professors without any real commitment to their long-term success. But that is not the norm, then or now.

So as leader of your department, part of your charge is to mentor and support a junior colleague, in conjunction with those professors whose field of expertise is closest to the candidate’s. The chair’s role here can take many forms:

  • Ensure that assistant professors have access to formative feedback on their teaching, and to resources that can help them improve.
  • Create, to the best of your ability, teaching assignments and schedules that will allow them to carve out time for scholarship and/or creative work.
  • Promote their accomplishments through the available campus publicity channels.
  • Provide or help to locate funding for junior faculty to go to conferences and travel for their research.
  • And finally, work within your institution’s systems to secure committee assignments for tenure-track professors that will involve them in meaningful and recognized work outside the department.

Then, having done all of that to the best of your ability, our system promptly asks you to turn around and play a leading role in the evaluation of your junior colleague’s tenure dossier. The lawyer for the petitioner throws on a robe, grabs the gavel, takes a seat at the bench, and runs the trial.

In a previous job, I remember being told by a professor that we should vote at the department level to grant tenure to every tenure-track faculty member who made it through six years, since a tenure denial was a “win” for the administration. I thought then, and believe even more firmly now, that such a cynical strategy is self-defeating. I’ve made that point before and every time I say it, some portion of my faculty colleagues decide that I’m a management tool. But in my defense: Tenure is an extraordinary and endangered thing. If we further tarnish it by not taking the assessment process seriously, we risk undermining rather than enhancing academic freedom.

When you review your junior colleague for tenure — and this is true for every member of the department, of course, not just the chair — you must evaluate the candidate’s work as dispassionately as possible, and hold it to appropriate disciplinary and institutional standards. When the work clears the mark, we all celebrate together. But when it doesn’t, we must be willing to say so.

This sometimes means that as chair (or as a senior professor) you will have extended yourself to aid a junior colleague for more than five years, and then have to adjudge that person not to have met the criteria for tenure. Unless you’re some kind of robot, it’s a terrible reckoning. I remember one department meeting in which we reached a unanimous negative tenure decision, and many around the table were in tears. It was wrenching, as it should have been. But once the tenure dossier is complete and submitted to the department and to outside reviewers — meaning no new effort on the candidate’s part can improve the file — your role shifts and you switch, as it were, sides of the table.

In an interesting twist, the dual roles of supporter and evaluator can reverse at least one more time. And if they do, I believe, it’s a sign that you’ve carried out both roles with integrity. I have invested significantly into the careers of junior colleagues only to later vote, full of regret, against their tenure. Then I’ve had those same colleagues come to me for counsel about next steps.

That’s awkward in a whole new way. I vividly remember having an hourlong conversation with an assistant professor who had been turned down for tenure and was asking me for advice on how to frame their appeal. Either they hadn’t figured out that I was a “no” vote or, even more interesting, they knew that but realized that I had provided meaningful support before the decision and could be counted on to continue doing so in its wake.

So far, I’ve focused on how to balance the demands of your dual roles. But the other part of your question was about how to manage the interpersonal dynamics. You worry that this junior colleague is “playing” you: What do you do about that?

You owe it to all tenure-track professors to be honest in your assessment. In whatever formal or informal settings your institution provides, tell this assistant professor that you’re concerned about their prospects for tenure. Although it’s a very painful piece of news to pass on, it’s not personal: It has nothing to do with whether you like or admire your colleague. And the fact that you’re recently arrived means that you’ve had little or no role in whatever institutional failures may have contributed to their individual failure.

The decision isn’t yours alone to make, of course; you’re simply giving this tenure candidate a sense of how the dossier strikes you as an experienced reviewer. By emphasizing the fact that you’re not the rainmaker when it comes to this person’s future, you can make clear that currying favor with you isn’t a useful investment of their time. It’s an understandably human reaction, when one’s future is at risk, to reach for the low-hanging fruit: Volunteer for everything! Make friends! Bring donuts! But no one ever won tenure with Krispy Kreme.

It’s simple to write in a sentence, and fiendishly difficult to live out in practice, but: As chair, your role requires unflinching commitment to the success of all of your colleagues, while the tenure process requires you to acknowledge when those efforts have fallen short.

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