Tenure in the Time of Corona (guest post)

The following is a guest post* by a philosopher who went up for tenure this year.

(The author requested their name be withheld.)

Tenure in the Time of Corona
by Assistant Professor Z

We certainly do live in interesting times.

The novel coronavirus, and its follow-on disease COVID-19, have fundamentally altered the way that we teach, interact with our colleagues and students, and inhabit our social world. We are all on our heels, scrambling to create a new normal. But here’s the problem: the machinery of the academic world still continues to operate largely in accordance with pre-COVID-19 norms. Curricular changes still need approving, fall schedules still need to be set for registration, budgets still need to be submitted… and promotion and tenure files still need to be evaluated. It’s that last category that I worry about here—and not merely for self-interested reasons. I worry that, due to the limited bandwidth of our department chairs, deans, and provosts, the promotion and tenure process is not getting the attention it requires and deserves.

My own case provides an instructive example of how the promotion and tenure process is getting shortchanged in the time of corona. My department unanimously voted to support my tenure file, and according to colleagues, my external reviews were uniformly positive. I had a publication for every year on the tenure track, multiple book reviews, and a forthcoming book contract. Despite this evidence, the college-level committee voted that my research was insufficient for tenure, without any explanation; I was told to see my chair for details, who did not himself get any information that he could pass along to me. So I did the best I could based on conjecture: I formally secured the book contract, solicited four more letters about my research (maintaining confidentiality), and applied for senior positions elsewhere. Once I received an outside senior offer, I requested a meeting with my chair and dean. The dean simply refused to meet with us, citing my withdrawal of my tenure file earlier in the year (on his recommendation!) as grounds for refusing to look at my new material.

As this overly abbreviated description indicates, my case is complicated for a number of reasons. Not only is it outside the normal timeline for promotion and tenure, but it also includes new information that is material to the original verdict. It requires the careful consideration of the dean, the university-level promotion and tenure committee, and the provost. Since I have an outside offer, it would also be appropriate for the dean to engage in retention negotiations, and perhaps to make an exception to the regular tenure timeline in my case. These are all steps that, while perhaps not guaranteed, are fairly common in tenure decisions. But each of these steps takes administrative time and energy.

And these are certainly uncommon times. COVID-19 has upended the possibility of administrators giving exceptional cases the time and energy that they deserve. It has devoured their ability to fulfill this, and all of their other, normal and appropriate administrative functions. Chairs, deans, and provosts are understandably busy creating contingency plans, demanding preparedness information from faculty, and projecting COVID-19 impacts. Given the external pressures, it’s reasonable for them to want to clear their plates of other items. But the functions of the university—especially the time-sensitive ones—still need to be performed. Grant applications, internal and external fellowship applications, sabbatical applications, summer research funding applications, and endowed chair offers whose tenure files need expedited evaluation still require quick but labor-intensive administrative approval. In short, the normal administrative tasks of deans and provosts cannot stop, and reasonable requests from faculty—especially career-altering ones—that are denied simply because of decreased bandwidth is short-term gain, but long-term loss. Exceptional cases cannot be swept under the rug or pushed to the side on procedural grounds simply because of COVID-19, even if it’s understandable why exhausted and overworked people would want them to be.

I do not know what will happen in my case. I don’t know if I’ll get the retention review that I’ve asked for, or if all promotion and tenure decisions will be postponed for a year, as is happening at other institutions. But I do know that if administrators get so caught up in COVID-19 tasks that they neglect their basic responsibilities, including the obligation to examine exceptional cases carefully and completely, they cause talented and dedicated faculty members to look—or go—elsewhere.

In the time of corona, important and time-sensitive administrative tasks—including thorough and proper vetting in the promotion and tenure process—cannot be sacrificed on the altar of the urgent.

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