Know the Vital Players in Your Career: Senior Administrators

David D. Perlmutter. “Know the Vital Players in Your Career: Senior Administrators.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 13, 2013, pp. A26-27.

When are deans, provosts, and presidents most likely to reverse a tenure decision?

Know the Vital Players in Your Career: Senior Administrators 2

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image

During my first semester as a dean, I established a monthly lunch with assistant professors to discuss their concerns about promotion and tenure. At our initial meeting, I stated that new faculty members should be careful about taking on too much service. But I also noted that, as dean, I would most likely be the chief culprit asking for their time on search, curriculum, and other committees.

So far in this series about the people who affect your tenure case, I’ve focused on thedepartment chair, the head of the department’s P&T committee, and the faculty factions influencing these decisions. In this month’s column, I turn the spotlight on the powers-that-be outside your home department—the dean of the college, the vice provosts, the provost, and the president.

Just how intimate senior administrators are with your case before it actually drops on their desks varies greatly by institution and local culture. At small liberal-arts colleges, presidents may be on a first-name basis with all of the faculty and familiar with the track records of the handful of assistant professors coming up for tenure in a given year. At large state universities, provosts may grasp the cultures and standards of particular disciplines but may not know the record of each candidate for promotion and tenure before they have to judge it.

Whatever the process and folkways of your institution, senior leaders beyond your departmentwill have to endorse your tenure before it is granted. Indeed, a higher-up “nay” in most systems will trump an “aye” from your department.

Typically in tenure-and-promotion cases, the default position of senior administratorsis to defer to faculty decision making. In doing the research for my book on promotion and tenure, I talked with hundreds of presidents, provosts, and deans. From each I heard a version of: “I don’t like to overturn a solid faculty, chair, and external-reviewer consensus.” Thus, if the department chair strongly supports your candidacy, the faculty voted unanimously in favor, and the letters from your external reviewers glow with praise, then the average provost will be reluctant to reverse the tide.

But deans, provosts, and presidents will counter the consensus verdict in certain instances.

  • Tough tenure cases are often kicked upstairs. Some faculty members and even whole departments do not care to be responsible for bad news or are reluctant to face a colleague’s ire. They give encouraging (or at least not discouraging) yearly reviews and then vote in favor of the candidate at P&T time—counting on the senior administrators to veto the obviously unjustifiable vote.
  • On many campuses, promotion standards have changed, and administrators have begun to expect greater research productivity, more-rigorous measurements of teaching effectiveness, more grant applications, and so on. A higher-up, like a new dean, is given the charge to raise the bar. There may be departments in which the administration simply does not trust faculty members to make decisions based on the new criteria.
  • Senior administrators can play politics with P&T. In one case I know of, a departing provost had been feuding with a dean and so gave him a parting shot: The provost, out of spite, reversed all of the dean’s tenure denials that year.
  • Times are tough. As I wrote in a previous essay on the need for fair and professional P&T processes, I believe that budget woes are increasingly behind some tenure denials—especially at cash-strapped liberal-arts colleges and struggling regional universities. Yes, you may technically have what it takes to be tenured, but the administration just doesn’t want to finance lifetime employment in your subfield or even your discipline. Rather than announce their intention to let a department or concentration die by attrition, administrators permit the hiring only of adjuncts and never tenure anyone.
  • Until you actually go up for tenure, senior administrators at major institutions tend to notice one aspect of your achievements, if they notice you at all: a prize, a breakthrough, a great service to the university or community. Your departmental colleagues, on the other hand, get to weigh the whole you, including behavioral problems that may not show up on a CV. I recall hearing of a department chair at a regional state university who found himself in a quandary after an assistant professor whom his department’s faculty had just unanimously voted down for tenure received a presidential citation for teaching excellence. That situation was unusual but not unheard of.In addition, a top administrator may become convinced—perhaps by you!—that fair and legal processes were not adhered to in your case. Maybe a group of enemies in the department did not follow the institutional guidelines, or an incompetent chair overlooked them. Then a higher-up may act as a guardian of equity and reverse the departmental verdict.
  • Finally, favoritism or bias is by no means restricted to faculty members. It’s not uncommon for someone to be on the upper administration’s favorites (or enemies) list, and incur favor (or tenure denial) based on personal considerations. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.

The powers above you may make decisions which you have no control over or ability to influence. Nevertheless, there are concrete steps you can take and outlooks you can adopt that will make your promotion more favorable to top administrators.

Don’t turn down a collegewide service assignment without a very good reason. At research universities, one of the traps that tenure-track faculty members may fall into is taking on—or being forced to perform—too much service. Minority assistant professors especially are liable to being asked to pitch in on every committee that needs “diversity” and every public event or community outreach. At the same time, junior faculty members often volunteer for, or create, their own service commitments because of their eagerness and inventiveness. Finding the right balance between being a good colleague and being a tenure-denied giving tree is difficult and requires a watchful, ethical, and astute department chair’s oversight.

Not all service is equal. An assistant professor I know described becoming adviser to a student club as a “time-suck nightmare.” The students were disorganized,ungrateful, and needed extensive hand-holding. The task became one of those service deeds that are most punished.

On the other hand, some service has a greater return on the investment of your effort and time. Being a member of a provost’s council or presidential advisory committeehelps the higher-ups remember your name and come to be impressed with your competence—a useful engagement for when your tenure packet shows up on their desks. Sometimes the trick is to persuade your chair to let you go, even part time.

Appraise the university’s P&T standards, not just your department’s.Change never comes to every part of an organization at the same time or the same pace. A university’s website may proclaim its new focus on bold, path-breaking research while its department of trainspotting studies still tenures as it always has—on collegiality and likability. The junior faculty member may, thus, get local advice to fulfill one set of tenure standards while the university may be enforcing another set. Worse, the administration may in such cases decide that overruling the department is not only the correct action but will also “send a message” to the recalcitrant faculty—with you as the victim.

In such cases, reading the room is not enough; you must read the institution. I’m always amazed at how many people on the tenure track have memorized the departmental guidelines but not those of their college or university. It also helps to pay attention to who is getting tenure and why, not only in your own department but also in similar ones. Here is where serving on a campus committee and getting to know someone in the senior administration are smart career moves. People outside your department might be able to look at your tenure case early on and assess your progress by its standards. The idea here is to get a sense of what is wanted all along the tenure-approval chain.

I mentioned that the default mode of the senior administration in tenure decisions is to defer to the voting departmental faculty members—but not always. For various reasons, a dean, provost, or president may disagree with the department’s verdict and reverse it. All the more incentive for you to understand that not all politics (or intellectual inclinations) are local at colleges. You can’t in most cases “lobby” higher-administration members, although you can appeal to them if you feel wronged. But you can try to get some sense of the tenure standards and trends being enforced outside the circle of your departmental colleagues.

Moreover, administrators are not the only outside-the-department constituencies that will affect your promotion-and-tenure bid. There are two other groups who play a role: the external letter writers, made up of senior peers in your discipline, and the university P&T committee, composed of professors from across the campus. In essays to come, I will analyze their roles and describe how to make your case stronger in their eyes.

David D. Perlmutter. “Know the Vital Players in Your Career: Senior Administrators.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 13, 2013, pp. A26-27.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor at and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the “Career Confidential” advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.


Leave a Reply