Beware of Faculty Promotion and Tenure Pitfalls

Controversies surrounding promotion and tenure can lead to legal trouble for departments and institutions. It’s up to academic leaders to guard against possible pitfalls by adopting, disseminating, and implementing equitable policies.

In an interview with Academic Leader, Debi Moon, assistant vice president of educational affair at Georgia Perimeter College, and Rob Jenkins, associate professor of English and director of The Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College, discussed some common mistakes administrators make regarding promotion and tenure and ways to avoid them.

“I think the most common mistake administrators make is not giving clear standards to faculty of what’s expected and not backing that up with evaluations that give faculty guidance on how they can achieve promotion and tenure,” Moon says.

Mixed messages
One issue among academic leaders is that often they come up through the faculty ranks and have developed close relationships with colleagues and often view themselves as advocates for these colleagues rather than administrators. “You have to draw the line. You represent the university when you’re an administrator. As much as you want to be a friend to your colleagues, there has to be a line,” Moon says.

As an academic leader, it’s important that you watch what you communicate to faculty members when it comes to promotion and tenure. When communicating with colleagues, one’s instinct may be to be reassuring, but this can backfire. Casual reassuring comments to faculty members such as, “You’re on the right track” or “Tenure is not going to be a problem for you” can lead to lawsuits when the faculty members’ expectations of earning promotion or tenure are not realized, Moon says.

Instead of these types of comments, academic leaders should “give a clear path for their faculty to go down in order to get promoted or get tenure,” Moon says.

‘Grade inflation’
Another issue is being overly generous in formal faculty evaluations. As with student grading, there seems to be a trend toward inflated evaluations, Jenkins says. This type of grade inflation can lead to faculty members who perform marginally appearing to have met requirements in formal evaluations. “It’s hard to deny tenure or promotion when you’ve been telling the faculty member that he or she has been meeting expectations all this time.”

Ambiguous policies
When dealing with individual faculty members, specific situations, if not clearly articulated in tenure and promotion policies, can open the door to legal problems. For example, what do you do when a faculty member submits his tenure portfolio, which notes that he is waiting to hear back from a publisher about whether his manuscript has been accepted? Can his tenure committee delay action until the publisher decides on his manuscript?

What about when a person who is not on the tenure committee comes forward with information that she believes should be considered in the committee’s decision?

Lacking clear guidelines on such situations, administrators sometimes decide these issues on a case-by-case basis, which also can be risky. These and other situations should be addressed in the tenure policies, and any policy changes must be communicated to the faculty.

Actually, the institution should do more than inform faculty about policy changes. It also should provide training to ensure that faculty are clear about tenure and promotion policies.

Reprinted from Avoiding Tenure and Promotion Controversies, Academic Leader, 25.12 (2009): 2,7.