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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Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

It is hard to comment intelligently on something like this without knowing details relevant to the situation. So, I’ll ask this question instead:

Are any readers aware of universities that have postponed tenure and/or promotion decisions because of the COVID-19 situation?

To the best of my knowledge, we’re moving forward business as usual with everything at the University of New Orleans–all meetings that need to happen are taking place via Zoom, documents are being shared, etc.

It would be nice to know what other places are doing.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

I’ll answer my own question. It looks like there’s a list that is tracking what universities are due to p/t clocks in response to COVID-19. This might be helpful to folks.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1U5REApf-t-76UXh8TKAGoLlwy8WIMfSSyqCJbb5u9lA/edit?fbclid=IwAR1-_d_uhqlLAeqaD-IFhQhCauUtWkit4wnLVvSoSsEiMZznoUxiySSvjBU#gid=0Report

Macaw
Macaw
1 year ago

Our dean has a standing policy of not making counter offers. Their rationale is that 1) it is unfair to other faculty that do not spend their time applying for outside positions when those who do are rewarded for doing so, 2) they think that regular merit raises indicate the extent to which the university values faculty, and the fact that other universities have a different valuation is pretty irrelevant, and 3) if faculty are unhappy where they are, they will eventually leave, even if our dean manages to retain them in any particular instance.Report

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
Reply to  Macaw
1 year ago

Many Deans and other relevant administrators have, they say, “policies” of this sort. Such “policies” are in some cases expressions of hope or ideals, in other cases they are negotiation statements (falsehoods), and in other cases they are just regular lies. Maybe in some cases these really are policies — but in my personal experience and also in working with and advising quite a few others negotiating offers this has never been the case. Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Macaw
1 year ago

That’s an odd policy. I have faculty connected with my Institute. I’ve encouraged all of them to go on the market and constantly look at their options. I believe I’ve created a situation for them that will be very tough for them to beat. I would like to know that other people want my faculty and yet they recognize that they’re far better off staying put. If they do find something that they think would be better for them because of location or salary or whatever else, I’ll try to understand why they think the situation is better and then can figure out what to do at that point.

It disappoints me when other departments/colleges/etc. don’t also encourage their faculty to look around and see what options are available. Report

Matt
Reply to  Macaw
1 year ago

“they think that regular merit raises indicate the extent that the university values faculty”

Ha,ha,ha,ha,ha,ha! Ha,ha,ha,ha,ha,ha.

Okay, let me catch my breath. That’s either a great joke, or a super sad commentary on how the faculty at this school are valued.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
1 year ago

Ours haven’t been impacted insofar as this is just a “normal” faculty task that can be largely done from home (or with Zoom). We have several people under evaluation in my department, and there haven’t been any irregularities in their reviews, including timetable and substance. Our chairs and deans answer emails within five minutes–probably faster than usual.

And yes, agree with Fritz above: don’t take any of those “policies” seriously. Everything’s negotiable, always. Or at least nobody would begrudge you for starting a conversation on it. Report

Laurence McCullough
Laurence McCullough
1 year ago

Macaw describes a reasonable approach for a dean to take, especially if the dean needs to or want to claw back money for another position. COVID-19 has nothing to do with it.Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
1 year ago

It seems to me there are three separate issues about tenure here. One is if tenure clocks are being extended—that’s what’s being logged by the spreadsheet to which Chris linked. Second is if people who were going through the regular tenure process this year are finding it delayed, drawn out, or even postponed because of COVID. That is not happening at my university (UW-Madison), but I don’t know about other institutions. A third issue is whether, should tenure-related situations arise that would usually be resolved through extra attention and effort by administrators, those administrators are willing to put in that extra attention and effort in these unusual times. That one’s harder to get a systematic sense of.Report

Clement
Clement
1 year ago

Dear Assistant Prof. Z,
Congratulations on getting an offer elsewhere after withdrawing your tenure application. The tenure process can be extremely stressful, and that you landed a second job is a testament to your good work.
My experience is primarily with small, liberal-arts universities. A few thoughts: (1) if one withdraws a tenure application, there is generally no mechanism for reconsideration. If one were to withdraw and get an external offer, the only response I know of would be genuine congratulations and best wishes. (2) In evaluating research, book contracts and book reviews do not count for much. Contracts are promissory notes of work to be done, and tenure candidates are evaluated on publications out in the world, not on work in progress. (Many contracted books never come out.) Book reviews are generally not peer-reviewed in the way articles are, and many faculty handbooks require that scholarship be peer-reviewed. (3) I don’t see how a retention negotiation would be possible given your withdrawal of your tenure application. Any hint of irregularity in tenure processes should be avoided, and restarting yours would certainly be irregular after your withdrawal. (4) Some faculty handbooks prohibit the submission of supplementary material after a tenure file has been submitted, so perhaps the dean is constrained to reject your request for reconsideration. It might not be necessary to invoke COVID-19 to account for the cold administrative response you have received. Again, congrats on the new job offer!
Report