Tag: tenure

Audit Culture in UK Higher Education

In 2016 I took a job at university in the UK. As an American, British academic culture was new to me, especially its ‘audit culture’. The key elements of audit culture are mechanisms for the evaluation and measurement of teaching and research. The vast majority of UK higher education is delivered by public institutions, regulated and funded in large part by the government. The UK government justifies its use of oversight mechanisms on democratic grounds. They argue that since higher education is funded primarily, though not exclusively, by the central government, academic staff should be held accountable to the public through the evaluation of the relative ‘excellence’ of a university’s research and teaching. However, as I will explain, government-mandated reviews are only the tip of the iceberg. The practice of oversight is woven into the day-to-day administration of teaching and research.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a national review of research quality and productivity that takes place approximately every five years (the upcoming REF is in 2021, the previous one was held in 2014). The process is taken very seriously by university administrators because it informs the allocation of around £2 billion per year of public funding for universities’ research. At my university we have already begun preparing for the next cycle with what is known as the “rolling REF”, an ongoing internal assessment exercise where we all read and assess one another’s published work. What this means, in effect, is that it feels like there is no end to the REF review process. As one colleague put it, “after the REF is before for the REF.” 

The rules of the REF are baroque and shift with each subsequent cycle. Under the current rules, as a scholar on a research and teaching contract your aim should be to produce four, four-star research outputs every five years. This is because, at least for the 2021 cycle, no one researcher can submit more than four items, but universities have to submit at least something from all eligible staff it employs (just determining eligibility requires a flow chart–see p. 36). There is also an “impact case study” element to the REF used to assess the role research plays outside academia. To give you an idea of the scale of the REF audit, here are the stats from 2014:


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Ranking Tenure Candidates? No Thanks

Sunday mornings are for tenure reviews.  Huh?  I am reading stuff to evaluate a scholar for whether he/she is worthy of tenure.  This is a standard part of the tenure process–to have outside scholars read a bunch of a candidate’s work and then indicate whether they have made a significant contribution and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, this is a fair amount of work, almost always unpaid.  So, I have gotten a bit cranky when I do it these days.

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We Are a Bad Guild: Tenure Letter Writing Edition

A key part of the tenure process is for outside experts to evaluate the candidate’s research (hard to evaluate their teaching and service from outside).  These letters can be quite handy for getting a less biased perspective that a department might have (in either direction).  It is especially useful for providing insights in cases where the candidate’s subfield is under or unrepresented among the senior faculty evaluating tenure (a real life example:  no tenured political theorists and the candidate is a theorist). 

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Preparing Files for Reappointment and Tenure: Some Sharp Guidance

This is a guest post by James Goldgeier,  Professor of International Relations and former Dean at the School of International Service at American University, building on a twitter thread that addressed tenure and reappointment and the narratives people write that go into their packages.

At many universities, the end of summer marks the beginning of the internal review process for faculty on the tenure track. (Most departments and schools sent condensed faculty files out for external review earlier.)  Some scholars have two reappointment reviews before coming up for tenure, usually in their second and fourth years; others have just one, coming at some point during the third year. Typically, faculty members in their sixth year are reviewed for tenure.

Having served as dean of an international affairs school for six years and as a tenured faculty member in a political science department at another university for many years before that, I have seen a lot of reappointment and tenure files.  And I can tell you, a strong and clear narrative from the candidate makes an enormous difference in the review, particularly as the file works its way up the university process to people less and less familiar with the candidate’s field.

While a file typically contains sections on scholarship, teaching and service, I focus this post on the first.  This section is where candidates define their research for their senior colleagues, the dean, the university committee and the provost (and in the case of tenure files, the external reviewers).  The narrative explains who the main audiences for the work are, the nature of the work (including theory, methods, and empirics) and the contribution of the work to the candidate’s field(s).  If your work is co-authored (and expectations of colleagues regarding single author or co-authored work will vary by field), explain clearly your contribution.

For those candidates up for reappointment on the tenure track, despite the high likelihood of a successful review, do not treat this process as a pro forma exercise.  This is the first time you will be introducing your work to many of your departmental or school colleagues and especially to the higher-ups.  Particularly at places that do a second-year review, much of your work may be in progress rather than already published, and this is especially true for books. What matters most at the time of reappointment is your trajectory: how are you revising the work you did for your dissertation (whether articles or a book and/or articles) and do you have a sense of what your next project(s) will be?  If you’ve had a major journal publication or a book in galleys or published already, great.

In your reappointment review(s), do not be cavalier about your future work.  You want to demonstrate your ambition, but be realistic. Good faculty, dean, and provost reappointment review memos will lay out clear expectations regarding what you should have accomplished by the time of your tenure review; read these carefully!  These memos will likely be put in the tenure file for those reviewers to reread at that later time.  They will look to see what they said they expected, and those expectations will stem in part from what you said you would do.  If you said in your reappointment narrative you expected a contract for your second book by the time of tenure review, and they repeat that expectation in their memos, they will expect to see that contract in your tenure file. (More on typical expectations for tenure below.)

A major piece of the tenure file, if not THE major piece, is the external reviews. Most places want senior scholars from peer or aspirational schools, and since most internal readers of the file, especially at the dean, university committee and provost levels, will not be experts in your field, they will take strong cues from those external reviewers.  (And it has to be said: many faculty colleagues will substitute reading the external reviews for reading the actual work.)

Start thinking early in the tenure track about the leading figures in your field who can serve this external review role.  Most universities will only exclude reviewers who have obvious conflicts of interest: family members, co-authors, members of your dissertation committee, departmental colleagues.  Your goal early in the tenure track is to get out to conferences and get your work known. Being on a panel with a senior scholar (and writing a good conference paper and presenting it well!) can pay off later.  I’ve had junior faculty from other universities seek me out for coffee at conferences; I see it as win-win: I learn what interesting young scholars are doing, and they’ve got me primed to do a letter later.

If reviewers know of your work, they will already have some idea of its impact.  Reviewers are also more likely to accept the task if they know of your work because they won’t be starting from scratch. Remember, they are getting multiple requests each summer, so they have lots of incentive to say no.  And an external reviewer who is in your field and has never heard of you but accepts the task out of a sense of duty is a wild card.  Whenever I read an external letter that begins with, “I had never heard of candidate X or read her work until now,” I am usually holding my breath for what follows.

The list of external reviewers is usually drawn both from the list you provide and a list that senior colleagues in your department/school put forward.  Many colleagues will offer informal advice to you as you put together your list.  And most universities will allow you to name senior scholars in the field whom you believe are unable to be objective; use this opportunity sparingly and be able to provide a serious reason.  Don’t provide a long list of people you are scared of; you really want to make sure your department takes seriously your belief that scholar X would for ideological or methodological reasons be a poor choice.

For both reappointment and tenure narratives, you will need to provide measures for scholarly impact. Typically, citations are the most helpful, but make sure you list any awards, grants (these are increasingly important at many places), reviews of your work, journal impact factors, and, for book writers, standing of the publisher.  In fields with low journal impact factors, add other metrics to show the quality of the venue. If your work appears on the syllabi of scholars at leading institutions, provide that too if you have space.

While faculty colleagues may talk in terms of “meeting the bar,” many internal reviewers, including your dean and provost, will likely view tenure not as a bar to hurdle, but a point at which to judge both past performance and future trajectory.  No dean or provost wants to tenure someone whose best work is behind them.  At most top research universities, expectations are based on the quality and impact of the completed first project (usually the dissertation manuscript or papers) and what the reviewers can see of the second. You want enough progress on the second for colleagues and higher-ups to have great confidence in future impact. Are there peer-reviewed articles out yet for the second project or at least book chapters and maybe an advance contract (not necessary but can be a helpful signal) if the second project is a book? (And if something lands or you win an award during the review process, add it in!)  The university is making a bet on your future contributions to the field and thus to the quality of the university faculty, so help them see how excited they should be about granting you tenure.

If your work has policy relevance or broader public impact, include it.  Public engagement cannot substitute for the lack of academic impact, but the dean and provost in particular will see this type of work as a positive addition. Through our Carnegie Corporation of New York-funded Bridging the Gap project and work done by fellow grantees in this area, I hope we will be able to develop better metrics for policy relevance and public engagement that candidates will be able to include down the road.  We’re working on it!

Always keep in mind throughout the process: you are your best advocate.  Through your narrative, you are defining who you are as a scholar and why your department or school is lucky to have you.  Your goal is not just to have a successful review but to make them start worrying about how they will retain you.


Tenure Letters: To Sling or to Shoot Arrows?

This piece has been making waves in the academic world (for a much better set of recommendations, see this piece).  It gets much attention because it both identifies a real problem and then suggests awful ways to handle it.  The latter is easier to deal with quickly.  However, first let me be clear–what I am talking about here are the letters that universities ask outside scholars to write as they evaluate candidates for tenure and/or promotion.  The basic idea is that these letters serve two purposes (at least):

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Quacking is Dangerous to Your Health?

I might have to re-think this whole life choice.  Tenure is supposed to mean more than just job security–that it is about academic freedom.  To teach and research in ways that may not always be popular and certainly in ways that are not politically desirable.  Yet in the past couple of weeks, we have seen that tenure may not be all that it is cracked up to be.

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The Virtues of Quitting


We have all quit from time to time.  Choosing when to quit and move on is tough proposition, especially for researchers. I never really thought much about the issue and how it relates to our work until Dave Chappelle brought it home for me recently. I saw his set on the Funny or Die tour during APSA weekend in Chicago. I just had to go; I can only take so many nerdy conversations.

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Schrödinger’s Cat and the Tenure Vote

As I post this today, senior faculty in my department are voting on my tenure case. I don’t really know how to describe what I’m feeling at the moment.  It’s a combination of zen-like calm that I’m finally at this juncture in my career and a feeling of total and utter panic at the small-but-ever-present chance that things could go wrong. The odd thing: it’s not that I’m oscillating between these two states -I feel both at the same time. In a very real way, I’m Schrödinger’s cat: although I can’t be both tenured and denied at this university – at this very moment – I’m both.

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Thinking About the Seven Year Post-Doc

This piece is really interesting.  It is written by Radhika Nagpal who was on the tenure track at Harvard but treated the experience like a seven year post-doc.  That is, she didn’t focus on what it took to get tenure there, because, well, most folks don’t get tenure.  Instead, Nagpal focused on pursuing the most fulfilling seven years so that she would be in a good position at the end of the “post-doc.”  This led her to some conclusions, which I consider below.

But before I do so, it is important to note that this advice of hers applies everywhere but to greater or lesser degrees.  There are some places where tenure is going to be highly unlikely, so her advice applies the best at those places (although it seems that she got tenure at Harvard).  There are many, many places where tenure is most likely, so Nagpal’s advice applies but only with some adjustments.  And there are places in the middle where tenure is up for grabs.  In those cases, I am not sure if this post-doc view is any good.  As I go through her list, this might begin to make sense.

Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

The first–to treat the seven years as a post-doc–makes a heap of sense at the schools that tend not to tenure.  The essence of this means getting work done, focusing less on sucking up/appeasing the powers that be, and not stressing too much.  So far, so good.   This can also work fine at those places where tenure is relatively straightforward if you hit some kind of clear and relatively not-impossible criteria.  You will not do much harm to your chances.  On the other hand, if you do not invest in the place and then you get tenured, well, you might be at a disadvantage post-tenure as others have figured how the place and have invested well.  Also, you may burn a bridge or too if you ruthlessly demonstrate that you think of it as a way-station.  At places where one has a good chance at tenure if one plays one’s cards right, this outlook might come off very poorly.  If you are near the razor’s edge, sending signals that you are not committed might be self-defeating.

Stopped taking advice?  Don’t follow all advice you receive?  Certainly.  But do listen and then figure out what works for you.  If you think you understand your department, your university and/or discipline sufficiently that you don’t need advice, you probably need more advice.  The author’s point should be clearer–do not follow advice without thinking seriously, and don’t take all advice seriously.  But do listen and then decide. This kind of like becoming a new parent–you get bombarded with heaps of advice, much unsolicited, and then you do what is right for yourself, your partner and the baby/career.

Feelgood email folder?  Absolutely.  Nagpal is right that there is so much rejection in this business that we must keep track of the positive feedback.  I keep the most entertainingly positive teaching evals on my bulletin board, for example.

Working fixed hours and in fixed amounts. I think this makes a great deal of sense especially for one with young kids. But it really depends on one’s style.  Some people can get more out of less hours and some need more hours.  I never burned the midnight oil.  I will work on weekends a bit–grading, reviewing stuff for journals or for tenure letters–but my writing and reading for my writing is a weekday thing.   But I do think I am more productive when I work finite hours.

  • Fixed travel schedule.  Nagpal travels 5 times a year maximum.  I probably average that, depending on the project in play and what I get invited to.  I do not mind going over five (a higher level of frequent flyer status, please).  Again, it depends on the personal situation.  I traveled less when my daughter was young.  Teenagers don’t want parents around that much ;)  It is also easier to limit travel if you work at a place that is pretty active–like a Harvard.  But if you are someplace off the beaten path, you may want to travel more to be connected.  Less important in the 21st century but not entirely irrelevant either.
  • Quotas for service stuff.  Absolutely.  One has to and should do service, such as media appearances, reviewing articles, etc.  No one gets tenure or many units of joy for doing such stuff.
  • Weekly hard/fun quota.  Making sure one does just one hard thing a week (grant report, letter of recommendations) and one fun thing.  Indeed, I try for more than one fun thing a week when ultimate is in season.  Plus if I don’t go to the movies and watch too much TV, I might run out of pop culture references.
  • Managing the parenting.  See her piece on this–quite well stated and developed.  I don’t think we managed 50-50, but we have done pretty well.  Every parenting partnership is different, and there are no perfect answers for how to handle it.  Fairness is very much like Obi-Wan’s truth–it is all about point of view.

Try to be the best whole person I can. No arguing with that.

Find real friends. Indeed. I have been lucky that I have found great friends everywhere I have worked.  Which is why conferences increase in importance–to see old friends when we all left the old place.

Have fun now.  Yes.  It was easier for me since my first tenure track job was at a place that had quite feasible criteria for tenure, that there were only short commutes and few distractions.  But absolutely, have fun now.

A faculty member once told me that when people are miserable and pushed to their limits, they do their best work. I told them that they were welcome to poke out their own eyes or shoot a bullet through their own leg. That would definitely cause huge misery and might even improve their research. Ok, yeah, I only thought about saying that.


The funny part is that Nagpal says not to take advice but then provides some pretty useful advice, but that which depends on where you are at.  Figuring out the tenure dynamics is really key, and some folks do not pay attention enough to figure out what game they are playing and what the rules might be.  As a friend suggested to me, spending your time backwards inducting from what is required at tenure may or may not be a good idea.  There is no perfect answer to that.  Awareness of what is necessary at the end is something that should not be ignored although it should also not dominate everything you do.



Tenure Denial, Public Relations, and Asymmetric Voice

I’ll admit that this is a rather anodyne title, but the alternatives involved language not suited for above-the-fold content.

The tenure process involves power asymmetries that make life very unpleasant for assistant professors. They have to worry about alienating their colleagues and their administration. They interact daily with people — who are too often petty, fickle, or, at least, mysterious — who hold tremendous power over their careers. Then there’s the whole publish-or-perish thing. Now, many of these indignities don’t even rise to the level of first-world problems. Compared to the lot of the vast majority of the human race, untenured professors deserve a violin too small to be detected absent an electron microscope.

But there is one very minor compensation. If you are denied tenure, and unhappy about it, you can mount a campaign and say pretty much whatever you want. But because the contents of your file and the specifics of the deliberations are confidential, your tenured colleagues and your administration are hamstrung in their ability to respond.

Good higher-education reporters know this. They also know that failed tenure cases sometimes leave behind bitterness, frustration, and recriminations. So they adjust their coverage accordingly. Judged by this standard, Colleen Flaherty doesn’t pass muster. Her June 14th story on Samer Shehata’s ongoing war against Georgetown for denying him tenure is, to put it mildly, problematic.

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