Tenure-Earning Faculty Should Receive Frequent Targeted Feedback

How much feedback is necessary and important for tenure-earning faculty?  Procedures vary quite a bit across the country on how often, and in what form, faculty in a tenure-track position receive feedback on progress towards tenure.   According to the Pittsburg State KNEA contract, at a minimum tenure-earning faculty receive a second year letter providing an overall evaluation of their performance during the first couple years and guidance for the next three or four years on expectations for earning tenure.  In a number of cases there is no additional “progress towards tenure” report until it is time for the actual decision.

I believe maximum transparency is best, especially in the high-stakes tenure process, and favor a system with annual specific “progress towards tenure” letters from the Department Committee, Chair, and Dean outlining the candidate’s accomplishments to date and providing guidance in areas deemed falling short of adequate progress toward meeting tenure expectations.  Annual targeted letters from committees, chairs, and the Dean, each directly involved in the ultimate tenure decision, make it very clear to everyone how a tenure-earning faculty member is progressing.  There are no surprises in the end because a paper trail formed with feedback specifically tailored to assessing the candidate’s progress.  This approach protects tenure-earning faculty because it is extremely difficult for a department committee or administrator to provide yearly positive feedback and then reach a negative tenure decision.  On the other hand, annual feedback protects departments in cases where an underperforming probationary faculty member consistently is informed of areas needing improvement but does not take necessary actions.

The tenure-track process by its very nature is anxiety-producing for both junior faculty and departments/universities.  For junior faculty, there are profound implications for career and livelihood.  For departments and universities, there is a long-term, often permanent, commitment to continued employment and inclusion.  Further, contentious tenure decisions are some of the most unpleasant events in academic life should be avoided if at all possible.

It makes sense that providing annual feedback from all decision-makers is a clear method for both developing life-long productive autonomous colleagues, a primary goal of the tenure-track period, and creating a transparent process, which I believe we continually should strive to achieve in a university context.

 

Karl Kunkel

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Comments

  • John Franklin  On February 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    It’s good to see a new name joining the blog: welcome Karl.

    It’s been a while since I have participated in the tenure-earning process so my comments may be rusty or archaic, but I’ll chime in with a response.

    1. Transparency is, for the most part, good. In an arena that expects academic freedom to be practiced and for the sun to shine on public meetings, access to information is to be applauded.

    2. A paper trail is, for the most part, good. In the same way that a lease is the best protection for both landlord and tenant, so, too, is a paper trail dependable and defendable for both parties.

    3. However, I’m not sure that all qualities under consideration for tenure are as transparent as others and so I am unsure how a transparent process could affect them, no matter how transparent the process.

    4. I note that circumstances can change. Tenure-seeking candidates may believe they were hired to one thing, then find themselves doing another.

    5. I observe that cultures collide. PSU has an identity unique unto itself, fashioned by its traditions, its leaders, its community. Our tenure-seeking candidates often hail from campuses with different cultures, different traditions, different leaders, different communities. How a candidate seeking tenure navigates these differences may not be best represented in a letter; it may take another form of communication with, say, informal counseling or mentoring that can be trusted to be facilitative rather than assessive.

    6. And, I believe that some assessment is best left between two people. For example, I find that sometimes a timely word with a student does more good than all my exams and essays and other assessment instruments combined. So, too do I believe that Program Directors, Chairs and Deans may find it mutually beneficial to whisper quietly in someone’s ear.

    Thus, while overall I favor more transparency and a clearer paper trail, I don’t want it to be at the expense of sensitivity, tolerance, understanding and welcome for those faculty who are newly-hired and trodding the tenure track in an unfamiliar setting. And, I am in favor of expressing that sensitivity, tolerance, understanding and welcome to a colleague in more than one way.

    John

    ^^
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  • Amy Hite  On February 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    As a Junior faculty memeber in a Tenure Earning position, I really like the idea of having yearly evaluation and guidance at the department and college level. I see it as an opportunity for more mentoring and suggestions to help prepare for the future process of tenure. I hope this procedure can be put in place on a voluntary basis. Thanks, Amy

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