How often should tenure-track faculty be reviewed?


How often should pre-tenure faculty files have to submit files for review? Too often can be annoying and stressful, too much work for all. If reviews are too infrequent, then pre-tenure faculty might have more anxiety and uncertainty, and final decisions may be inadequately informed.

How often does your university review pre-tenure faculty? How often do you think it should be?

I’ve worked under three different systems, which I think span the gamut. Let me explain them to you.

System A: (My first tenure-track job) Tenure-track faculty have two major reviews before tenure review. At the start of the 2nd year, and at the start of the 4th year, a major file gets evaluated all the way up to the provost. Then the tenure file goes in at the start of the 6th year. In all files, letters from members of the department are required, and all are expected to conduct teaching observations.* (Reappointments happened on a yearly basis, but I don’t remember turning in a file in those off years, so if I did, it wasn’t any big deal at all.**) In this system, the tenure decision is based on the tenure file, and the paper trail from two previous reviews.

System B: (My current job, policy when I was hired) Tenure-track faculty submit a major file at the start of every academic year, starting their 2nd year. This file got evaluated all the way up the chain, though if there were exclusively positive recommendations, the file would jump from the College-level committee to the provost without review of the University-level committee. In this system, the tenure decision is based on the tenure file, and a well-documented paper trail of a review from every previous year.

System C: (A system at my current job, enacted after I was tenured) This system is a hybrid of A and B. A full file is submitted at the start of the 2nd year. In this review, the reappointment can be for one year or for two years. If the person received a 2-year reappointment, then only a short file gets submitted in the intermittent year, which gets reviewed by the department committee, the Chair, and the Dean, but not any higher. So a person in system C with positive reviews will get as many full reviews as a person in system A, while it’s possible to have as many reviews in System B if enough problems are detected to trigger annual reviews. I’m familiar with this system by serving on committees for two departments (the time cost of promotion to full is that some service obligations require full professors).

How do these systems compare? On one end, System A only has two reviews prior to the tenure review. If the point of tenure review is to ensure that a teacher and scholar has a trajectory for a successful career, than two data points are probably not enough to establish that trajectory. On the other hand, if the point of tenure review is to make sure that someone has passed a particular benchmark, then the frequency of reviews might not be needed to establish whether the benchmarks have been met.

On the other end, System B requires faculty to turn in a fully documented file every year. And it requires a series of committee meetings and letters each of those years, even if everything is by all accounts hunky-dory. That’s a pretty high service load and additional work for junior faculty who should be focusing on doing things to earn tenure rather than taking time every year to show that they deserve it. System C is an attempt at fixing this shortcoming of System B, without resulting in the inadequate documentation that comes along with System A.

What’s the best system? I would guess that answer depends on what the goal of tenure review is. Is tenure rewarded after following a successful trajectory, or for crossing benchmarks?

At teaching institutions, the rhetoric of faculty evaluation follows along the line of “trajectory.” Having a few good semesters isn’t enough. You need to be consistently good, getting better, and be able to demonstrate both an interest and effort in improving one’s craft. A dip here and there is fine, if they make context in the record.

I haven’t yet submitted a tenure file at a research institution — though I’m not ruling it out as a possibility — but I imagine that the “benchmark” aspect is bigger at R1s. Did you have enough papers with enough prestige? Did you get enough grant money? What’s your h-score? Did you attract enough successful students? I’m glad to be shown wrong about this one though. Because the classic teaching benchmarks are notoriously subjective and may not communicate much about teaching quality, a long-term record at least can show if teaching is consistent.

(While I’ve heard people from research institutions say that teaching well is truly important in their tenure review process, I’ve never heard of a case in which an excellent researcher was denied tenure for trying to teach well but coming up short.)

As an untenured faculty member, I preferred System B. Putting together my file every September took time, but I appreciated the fact that I had a paper trail all the way to tenure with clear written assessments of my performance and the expectations for future performance. I knew where my Dean expected to be one year in the future, which was a tangible set of goals I could get my head around while working towards the future. Of course, this preference of mine is indubitably colored by a nasty experience with System A, in which my Dean argued that my record was “inconsistent,” which was bizarre considering there were only two evaluations prior to tenure, neither of which had any substantial prescriptions for a change in performance.

As a faculty member serving on reappointment and tenure committees, I still prefer System B. Right now, I’m serving under System C. If faculty member is doing everything just right, then we would expect that they will get a 2-year reappointment. That means people who have a positive trajectory will have only two major reviews before coming up for tenure, which is just like system A. That means we’re setting up junior faculty with a positive trajectory what is (or at least was for me) an inadequately documented trajectory towards tenure. This is ameliorated by mini-reviews in off-years, but it remains to be seen how seriously these off-year reviews are being taken. It’s not a good thing to have more frequent reviews, either, because more frequent reviews are seen as a ding.

The argument against System B — big reviews every year — is that reviews may not taken as seriously because they are so frequent and require effort. A series of not-adequately-thoughful reviews up to the tenure review would be problematic. I’d say that my reviews under system B weren’t very detailed, but I didn’t have any substantial prescriptions for change — but then again if I somehow had bumps at the tenure review, I could point to the annual review history and show that I’ve always done what has been recommended. Having only two time points in which changes in performance can be prescribed isn’t exactly supporting your faculty as well as you can.

Serving on a tenure committee is a lot of work, but it’s what needs to be done if we’re supporting junior faculty well.

How much should faculty worry about this? While one popular viewpoint is that it’s not worthwhile to worry much about tenure decisions, I disagree. At least 1 in 20 people are denied tenure — not including some prestigious schools with much higher rates — and some fraction of these decisions were based on inadequate evidence. I would hope that even if I were not one of that unfortunate 5% I would still be as concerned about fair tenure review procedures for junior faculty.

While we’re talking about fair tenure reviews, a separate issue that I’ve already raised is that many institutions lack external review of tenure files, which I think is extraordinarily problematic. I imagine this is a non-starter at my university, but it won’t stop me from bringing it up.

If you’re on the tenure track, how often do you want to submit a major file? If you’re tenured, what do you think is best for tenure-track faculty in your department?



*Pretty much nobody had stepped a foot into my lecture or lab before I had turned in my file. That’s not a failure of the policy of course, but does show that it takes more than good policy to establish a working system.

**I tried to look this up on the university website, but in a bizarre lack of transparency, the faculty handbook was password protected! I looked up a bunch of their “comparison” schools, they often use, and all of their faculty handbooks are available to the public.

6 thoughts on “How often should tenure-track faculty be reviewed?

  1. This is timely for me, since I’m putting together my materials for my big mid-tenure reappointment review, due two weeks from Friday. Our university is more like System A, and I also feel that it’s not enough. We have a 7-year tenure clock, with reviews in year 2, year 3, and year 5 — but the year 2 and year 5 reviews are department-level only, and my chair was so lackadaisical about my year 2 review (despite the maximal amount of pestering I was comfortable giving him) that it didn’t happen until year 2.5. Not that it mattered — I got no concrete suggestions for improvement, and coming up on my big year 3 review that’s giving me a fair amount of anxiety. Given my experiences so far, I would vastly prefer a system with annual, documented reviews, even if it is more work. Our primarily undergraduate university, and even more so my tiny department within it, also tends to take the attitude that oh, we’re so small and close-knit that mentoring and feedback will happen “organically,” and we don’t need to worry as much about formal systems. May I call BS, please???

  2. Maybe the more important question is not how often reviews are done, but how well done they are? Giving realistic, constructive feedback seems central. I am aware of stories where platitudes of decent performance were given right up until non-tenure. I am also aware of stories where people who were obviously going to get tenure were told they had a lot of work to do. Neither is particularly fair or useful. And however they happen, stories of tenure decisions that are blatantly inconsistent with previous “big reviews” are obviously unfair and worse than a waste of everybody’s time. However frequent the big reviews are, departments (or universities) that “mail them in” are doing a deep disservice to everybody.

    The best frequency may also depend on relative teaching vs research focus. If I had 4-6 classes taught in a year that were central to my tenure case I could easily see wanting that evaluated every year. When publications and grants are central to my tenure case, every year might be too frequent for much to have changed in 1 year (and I agree that I have yet to see somebody who can demonstrate effort to improve at teaching not get tenure at an R1 for bad teaching).

  3. I’m at a public SLAC where we turn in a major file at the end of year 1 and year 3 and then the tenure file at the beginning of year 6. We also turn in an annual activity report where we list and summarize our accomplishments in the areas of teaching, research, and service. I like having two major reviews before the tenure file is due– it is a good balance of service obligations for those who review the files vs. amount of feedback for those submitting them– but it was kind of stressful to turn in a file after a single insane year in which I developed four new preps and didn’t publish much.

  4. I’m with Brian on this. The key is to get the candidate detailed, constructive, honest feedback with reasonable frequency (where “reasonable frequency” means “every 1-2 years”, I think, depending as Brian says on the details of one’s job). More formal procedures, requiring more work (and more paperwork) on everyone’s part, might go some way towards helping to ensure this happens. It’s presumably somewhat harder for people to half-ass formal paperwork as opposed to some more informal means of giving feedback. And presumably, it’s harder to justify a negative tenure decision if it’s preceded by a long paper trail of positive performance reviews. But more paperwork of course has its own costs–I personally wouldn’t have wanted to turn in the equivalent of a tenure application packet every year. And as Brian notes, even formal paperwork can be “mailed in”.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure how easy it is to fix a place that does a crappy job with feedback by implementing more frequent and/or more formal feedback.

  5. Great feedback. I agree, the quality of review is important — and more important than the frequency of review. How can you keep people from phoning it in and not providing quality reviews? That’s a hard one.

    One thing that I had in mind, but didn’t explicitly say (and should have) is that frequent reviews can protect a tenure-track faculty member from the consequences of crappy reviews. Infrequent crappy-quality reviews could result in an uninformed tenure decision. Frequent crappy-quality reviews can protect a faculty member from capricious decisions at tenure time.

    So if review are high quality, less frequent is fine. But if a university doesn’t review its faculty well (and this varies, and some clearly don’t have good reviews) then higher frequency reviews can protect the candidate from the consequences of bad leadership.

  6. At my public masters-level uni, we do reappointment binders every year pre-tenure but these are just a compilation of materials (syllabi, papers, etc). Our only full-blown pre-tenure review with substantial written feedback is third-year review (actually at 2.5 years). Tenure application goes in after year 5.

    The third-year review only takes place at the department and college levels and cannot be consulted or considered when the tenure decision is being made.

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