Advice to Young Faculty Appealing Tenure Decisions (or even just putting the papers in)

(no, this is not Maria, despite all her problems).

I was asked by The Dean to help review a denial of tenure in another (life-sciences) college. I am spending time during my (alleged) break to do this. I have read all the documents multiple times. I have also gone back and read the rules about tenure peculiar to this university. I am doing extra-high-special-sooper-dooper due dilegence.

But… if I could take this person and shake them, I would. For so many reasons. One, the whole damn set of documents is printed in 10pt calibri, but with extra wide spacing both horizontally and vertically, not to mentioned right justified. Because I have paper documents, I cannot reformat. I need to my super-duper-extra-magnification reading glasses. (Before you laugh, some day, you too, my fair feathered Millenial will experience presbyopia. I hope not. I wish they would figure out a way to solve this, but none of the laser eye surgeries deal with this problem – at this point, you still need reading glasses).

Then we get into The Things This Person Did Wrong. He spent too much time doing service, and then whines about it in his narrative.He claims he does too much teaching. I know senior people in my college (with active research programs) who do more. He didn’t get the memo about making lemonade.

The big problems in my view are lack of productivity, and that his narrative (the prose to go with the CV) do not tell me what I need to know. What was the path of intellectual development? How did he grow into independence, what the heck is his thesis advisor doing as a co-author on nearly everything he published? In this case, the productivity is marginal (and this does vary from institution to institution, so there is no point in my giving you numbers, as his college is even different from mine). Why doesn’t he tell me his story? The narrative (for research) reads “I did X. Then I did Y”. Notably the service & teaching parts are much better at explaining things.

Tell me what the impact of these papers was in your field? Did you get invited to talk about it anywhere? You’ve submitted NIH grants, you know what significance and innovation are. Tell me about them in your work. Why do you have so few first authored papers, and so many mid-authored ones? In your field does this order mean anything? There are three papers included, one from a postdoc of more than a decade ago, and one on which you are a middle author. Why? if this is important, tell me about it.

But most of all, I am furious with his department and college. There are the fingerprints of lousy mentoring, too many changes in department chair, abuse of younger faculty. If they really wanted this fellow to get tenure, he should NOT have been chair of the student promotion/passing committee as a 2nd yr asst. prof. Why was he the chair of a search committee (yes, its a small college, but that is a huge responsibility)? Why aren’t there better outside letters (not what they say, but the quality of the explanations)? I don’t know this field. A short letter that says “give him tenure” is a crime against the junior faculty. Didn’t the chair (who wants him to have tenure) see this and do something about it? There was (irregularly – this is not standard) an outside committee called in to help evaluate the portfolio. Why is there report so lacking in detail? I could write a better report from just reading what he had.

I can hear some people saying… well they really didn’t want him to have tenure and this is just a passive-aggressive way of saying so. I say crap. Mostly it looks like lazy to me.

Bottom line: if you are appealing a decision or putting your papers in for the first time: GET HELP! Get a senior person or three (different school, different department)  to look at your documents and get help. If you have a court-appointed mentor or committee, ask them for help. Just like a grant, get people to read it, and ask them to be brutal. There is lots of stuff you can’t change, like that you didn’t publish in the first two years of your asst. prof job. But… if you have a good explanation, it is worth including (a good explanation is having DONE something). My college has a very set and rigorous form that excludes many things (including published abstracts). But the narrative has lots of room to not only present that stuff, but to organize it in a way that makes sense (not just turning your CV into sentences).


One thought on “Advice to Young Faculty Appealing Tenure Decisions (or even just putting the papers in)

  1. related in the ‘poor mentoring’ department: The poor quality of some recommendations some seemingly qualified people receive is disheartening: typos, obviously no effort extended, vague, etc. These are people who have other, very positive, recommendations from others. Ugh. Why is my dept. asking for letters at application time again?

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