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Tenure process rewards teaching, research

After years of graduate school spent researching, reading, writing and publishing, the freshly-minted Ph.D.’s that Stanford hires as assistant professors each year might be tempted to slow down. After all, for many graduate students a faculty position is the ultimate goal.

For new assistant professors, however, another clock begins to tick immediately after they are hired: the tenure clock. Though policies vary slightly from university to university, Stanford assistant professors generally have seven years to show their colleagues that they deserve the security of tenure.

Nearly 50 percent of assistant professors who are hired at Stanford will go on to obtain tenure, according to Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences Richard Saller, who noted that around 80 percent of those faculty members who reached the point of being considered for tenure are granted it. Those seven years in between being hired and being reviewed for tenure, however, prompts scholars to frenetically juggle the demands of teaching, research, networking and life.

Tenure’s significance

Saller framed obtaining tenure as a means of ensuring job security and acquiring greater latitude for academic investigation.

“[It’s about] having the sense of freedom to pursue research directions that are high-risk,” he said. “It surprises trustees from the corporate world that our faculty continue to work and to be as productive as they are given that they have jobs for life after receiving tenure…The incentives at a place of this caliber are much more peer recognition and just [the] sheer joy of research and teaching.”

“You are freed up to do research in whatever you want,” said Claire Jarvis, assistant professor of English. “You have a place in the department even if the people in charge change.”

For Chris Lowe, assistant professor of biology, tenure allows a researcher doing basic scientific work the chance to ride out periods of low funding.

“You have the security to build a risky research project that’s high-yield but risky,” Lowe said. “Not only don’t you have to worry about job security, you might take more risk with research than you would otherwise. Tenure gives people a little more space to take risks and create more ambitious research goals.”

For Aliya Saperstein, assistant professor of sociology, tenure “is there to protect innovative scholarship. Once you have tenure, you don’t have to worry about losing your job [if] you’re doing something cutting edge or a little risky…In theory, you can do better work because you’re not constantly seeking approval in advance.”

Working towards tenure

Assistant professors teach two to four classes each year, along with working on their own research in labs and trying to get their work published in order to show their impact and worth as professors. Expectations for good academic work differ from department to department.

“The main goal of tenure is to make certain that the people given tenure are the best in the world at what they do,” said Jim Plummer M.S. ’67 Ph.D. ’71, dean of the School of Engineering.

To that end, according to Lowe, the biology department focuses on the quality and broad impact of its assistant professors’ work.

“One way to evaluate if you have an impact is the kind of publications you produce,” Lowe said. “Some universities are really interested in how many publications you’ve produced, whereas other universities are more interested in if you’re published in high-profile journals, which have brought interest to not just your immediate field but a much broader range of scientists.”

In the English department, the assistant professors are told from the beginning what they are expected to do in order to gain tenure.

“You must have one book in print and be working towards publishing a second [after seven years],” Jarvis said. “It has to have an impact…Plus, you have to have good course evaluations in the classes you teach and show service to the University.”

“In your day to day, you focus on classes, on grading, on students,” Jarvis added “But you’re still trying to get a book published. It’s still in the back of your mind, always.”

“[At Stanford], what matters is the quality and the impact of your work and if you are seen as someone who is an expert in your subfield or specialty…within your age cohort,” Saperstein said. “Have you made yourself stand out in your age cohort?”

Typically, assistant professors are aware of their progress and whether they are on track for being granted tenure, having been given feedback when they are reappointed after four years.

“You get an initial contract and then are reviewed after three or four years,” Saperstein said of the department of sociology’s process. “At that point, your department lets you know if you’re on track or not, if you need to do more work. Then you’re given another temporary contract and after that you come up for tenure.”

“After the mid-career review, you typically take a sabbatical the next year to give you more time to get ready for tenure,” she added.

“The way the process works in biology is that there is a three-year period where you are evaluated in a formal way by the department,” Lowe said. “They evaluate whether or not you’re getting grant funding and whether you’re getting published…You’re given a heads-up about any obvious problems you need to focus on in terms of proceeding.”

Tenure review

According to Saller, the process for earning tenure at Stanford is similar to that of peer institutions.

“The only thing that varies much [between universities] is the use of external committees at various points in the process,” he said. “Harvard has this elaborate process with an ad-hoc review by the president of the university with a committee that’s made up of half internal faculty, but from outside the department, and half external faculty.”

At Stanford, department chairs appoint committees of departmental faculty, who solicit external letters and other assessments. If the department as a whole votes to support a positive committee recommendation, the candidacy is forwarded to an appointment and promotion committee in the school’s dean’s office.

That committee was recently changed to be made up of department chairs from the appropriate academic cluster—social sciences, natural sciences or humanities—for each candidate, according to Saller.

“What that means is that the committee is made up of people closer to the area of expertise of the person under consideration,” he said. “That provides a more sensible committee.”

The dean of the school then decides whether to forward the application on to the Provost’s office, where it is reviewed by an advisory board and the Provost.

Each committee considers every case for tenure in that academic cluster, evaluating the assistant professors primarily on two major areas: research and teaching.

“It’s a combination of things,” Plummer said. “Some are semi-quantifiable, such as the number of publications or awards, talks that may have been given at conferences in his or her field…On the teaching side, we look at student evaluations, the amount of teaching done…along with letters from external senior people in the field of the candidate.”

These letters are solicited from 12-15 external people in a leadership position within the assistant professor’s field, according to Plummer. The professors are also evaluated as compared to a peer group of four to six of their peers.

“Ideally, [the peer group is composed of] recently tenured people in peer institutions in similar fields,” Plummer said. “We can make a specific comparison of the impact and contributions the Stanford candidate has had with respect to their peers. Where does the Stanford candidate fit?”

“More people are working in interdisciplinary fields or multiple fields and it becomes more difficult to choose the right set of letter writers if someone works in multiple areas or in between areas,” Plummer added. “It can be hard to find peers in peer institutions or finding referees who can write about the whole spectrum…You have to just recognize that someone is working in multiple fields and find people who can write for those fields.”

Course evaluations are included in the tenure process, an input that Saller described as flawed.

“It’s something less than a nuanced response,” he said. “Students will pick out one number in the column and mark it off down the page.”

“We would like to assign as much weight to teaching as to research—and we do take it seriously—but if we don’t feel as if we’ve got good information about [the professor’s teaching], it’s hard to know what to make of it,” Saller said.

That lack of information has a broader impact on the way in which the committees weight research and teaching.

“You can’t be a bad teacher and get tenure,” Saller said. “You can’t be an average researcher and get tenure…With teaching, we can probably identify the 10 percent who are brilliant and the 10 percent who are duds, and the 80 percent in between [are] very hard to rank in order.”

If a professor is denied tenure, they are given a year to find another job, either elsewhere in academia or in the corporate world.

“[The year] gives them the time to do a careful job search, time to figure out how to deal with Ph.D. students who haven’t finished up their research, helping them find another advisor or getting them closer to finishing,” Plummer said.

The future of tenure

As public funding for research and for education diminishes, many institutions across the country have cut back on the number of tenured positions they maintain. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2010 that the proportion of college instructors who either had tenure or were on the tenure track dropped from 57 percent in 1975 to just 31 percent in 2007.

Despite such national trends, Saller and Plummer said the University, which currently has 1,995 tenured or tenure-line faculty, remained committed to maintaining the system of tenure.

“There’s a periodic question about whether we keep the tenure system, but I think it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future,” Saller said. “It’s hard to imagine, [because] the competition for top faculty is intense, which of our peer universities would do away with the tenure system and continue to try to recruit faculty.”

In competing with its peer institutions for talented faculty, Saller said Stanford focuses its energies on attracting young academics with high potential, with around 75 percent of professorial appointments going to assistant professors rather than tenured faculty from other institutions.

“When we make decisions about authorizing searches [for new faculty], we presume it’s going to be an assistant professor search unless there’s some kind of programmatic need for someone more senior,” Saller said. “We see it as our responsibility and goal to recruit young people who are of the quality to make tenure and then to nurture them in a way that they will succeed.”

Marshall Watkins contributed to this report.

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