Mid-winter through early spring is the season of news and transition in the academic world. Aspiring graduate students are beginning to hear about admissions, like my student K of a few years ago: she just got a sweet deal at a prestigious university. Job seekers are waiting for one of The Calls: either the first one, for the campus interview itself; or the second one, conveying an outcome either joyous or sorrowful. And advanced assistant professors across the nation likewise are waiting for a call or an envelope bearing the most momentous news of all: news of tenure granted or tenure denied.
Here at OPU, I think we deal with tenure in a reasonably transparent and predictable manner. Junior faculty know that they are expected, above all, to produce a scholarly monograph, which ought to be under final contract at the time of the departmental vote. This book can be based upon the dissertation, but ought to be a substantial revision and amplification of that work: our tenure files must explicitly address the issue of how the monograph diverges from the dissertation. In addition, we expect “several” articles in the file, of which at least “some” should be in peer-reviewed, well-regarded journals. (The precise meanings of “several” and “some” is flexible, but if I had to define them I’d say 4 article publications is usual; we like to see at least 2 of them be peer-reviewed research articles. Most of our faculty hit this target: a few have had more, a few less. Assessment of this part of the file often is flexible depending upon individual circumstances. In terms of what counts as an additional publication: book reviews don’t count for anything; encyclopedia entries are discounted unless they are in internationally known “classic” reference works; translations are given some consideration, but not very much. Hence, the non-peer-reviewed publications that count usually are pieces in conference-proceedings volumes. These, of course, often are loosely peer reviewed, but not with the same level of formality as at a top journal.) There must be evidence of thought towards a second book: either some publishing on the new topic (some of the articles, say), or at the very least a detailed prospectus for the new research. The candidate must be a competent teacher: we use student survey data, reports from classroom visits conducted by two different colleagues, and letters solicited from former students (we ask them using enrollment lists from previous terms). Though we do not place a high service burden upon our junior colleagues, there should be basic evidence of good citizenship and willingness to engage in service (since after tenure, we will crush you with service obligations!) Awards, prizes, grants, fellowships, and solicitations to give papers add to the file. I think when I went up I had a freshly-signed book contract, 3 peer-reviewed articles (two of which won awards), and 2 other articles. I also had fine teaching evals, and a better-than-average list of grants and fellowships.
These are fairly high expectations, though I’ve no doubt that there are universities that ask for more. However, the virtue of our system is that these expectations are, I think, clearly communicated to junior faculty. We assign them mentors, and there are several reviews before tenure that reinforce our particular culture of expectations. In addition, we are supportive of all faculty in terms of leave policies (automatically granted after a certain number of terms teaching, and also automatic with any outside funding opportunity). Lastly, while we are a cordial department, we do not require everyone to be BFF in order to garner support during the tenure process. For good or ill, OPU does not embody a particularly strong sense of community, with the result that promotional decisions never, in my experience, turn on issues of personal drama, perceived slights, or “likeability”.
I have seen two people denied tenure here: in one case, it was no surprise to anyone, including the candidate, for the book ms. was not done. This person found another position with a different publishing expectation (more focus on articles), and is very happy there. In the other case, the candidate went forward with strong (though not unanimous) support from the department, but was denied at the administrative level. FWIW, this individual had a polished book ms, but no contract; plus one article in print in a prestigious venue; and another article accepted. Thus the record was problematic, but we felt that a little bit more time would have made a great deal of difference (since there soon would be a book and two peer-reviewed articles). At the same time, we did understand that tenure with the file at hand — only one article out — was highly unlikely, and no one was surprised when the decision came down. This colleague moved and is tenured elsewhere; the book appeared and I believe has been widely lauded. In the long run, we lost someone who now has quite a good reputation.
However, I gather that in many corners of academia, the tenure process is significantly more obscure and marked by surprise decisions, the airing of grudges under cover of anonymity, and general pettiness (check here and here for recent references to irrational decisions). In this light, it is perhaps significant that the one area where I do glimpse certain weirdnesses, upon occasion, is in the 6-8 outside letters we solicit, on average, on behalf of each tenure candidate. In the majority of cases, the letters are supportive (I still treasure a particular comment in one of mine). In some cases, the letters are mixed, offering praise mixed with skepticism, but in a spirit of debate. These sorts of letters are to be expected, and we usually appreciate the honesty of the writers.
Once in a while, however, someone is savaged by a senior scholar in ways that take my breath away. Such letters do not damn with faint praise: they damn with a loud, rancorous catalogue of outrages. They can sound personally aggrieved and affronted that a junior scholar has dared to undertake the project in question: they question the framing of the argument, knowledge of historiography, the topic’s importance or relevance to the field, the candidate’s language competence, the clarity of his or her writing, the form of the footnotes.They take aim at everything they can, and appear to be knowingly formulated with the intent of devastating the person’s career. And it is not always easy to put such letters aside: even if the other writers glow with enthusiasm for the work, a negative letter from a senior scholar cannot be dismissed out of hand. And the situation will be geometrically worse if there is another moderately negative, or even lukewarm, letter in the file that can serve to lend further credence to the screed.
I would strongly urge all tenure candidates who have some input into the selection of their outside reviewers to err on the side of caution. If you have criticised someone in the past, then ask that this person not be contacted, if you have that right at your institution (we do at OPU). Do not assume he or she will regard your critique as a civilized, genteel disagreement: you never know what this person will write about you with the promise of anonymity. Even without prior disagreements, however, one always runs the risk of garnering a nasty letter from someone with an axe to grind or a gate to keep: there’s really no perfect defense against it. Fortunately, these types of letters are rare; but they are very, very dangerous.
P.S. Notorious if you’re reading this: don’t let me freak you out! I almost didn’t post it because I know you’re anxious, but letters of that kind really are not the norm!