Know the Vital Players in Your Career: The Campuswide Committee

David D. Perlmutter. “Know the Vital Players in Your Career: The Campuswide Committee.” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2014, p. A32-33.


These professors are the faculty guardians of the gates to tenure


Tim Foley for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image

Rudyard Kipling’s poetic declaration that “there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!” refers to the Neolithic Age. It could apply equally to promotion­-and-tenure procedures in academe today. We move people along the tenure track in a wide variety of ways, and each approach has its champions and detractors. But the one element common to every tenure system is the human factor.

In this series I have tried to identify key people who affect your tenure case. I’ve covered the department chair, the head of the department’s P&T committee, the faculty factions, the senior administrators, and the external evaluators.

Now let’s turn to a group that many assistant professors usually know little about and certainly don’t hobnob with: the campus promotion-and-tenure committee. Its members are drawn from across the college or university, and may be appointed, elected, or volunteers. There may be detailed standards for their selection (a certain degree of seniority and accomplishment) or simple ones (already tenured). Whatever their qualifications, these committee members deserve your respect: They take on an exhausting, complicated, and vital task and get little reward for it.

And they matter. Their recommendation on your tenure bid will carry weight with the provost and the president. These committee members are, after all, the faculty guardians of the gates to tenure, the independent peers who provide a check and balance against internal departmental politics, incompetence, vendettas, and cronyism. So it’s important for you to understand them, and think about how best to make your case to them, even if you are unlikely to meet with them.

The challenge here is that the campuswide tenure committee is heterogeneous in composition and outlook. Its members represent many departments, disciplines, and methodologies. A professor of fisheries may sit with a literature scholar, a physicist, a mechanical engineer, an anthropologist, and a professor of art history. It may be that no one from your home department is on the committee, or that a senior colleague from down the hall may chair it. The committee may see its role as simply vetting departmental procedures, or it may actively scrutinize quality and standards.

In short, the committee members may have a unified task but not a unified perspective. Their default is to defer to the judgment and expertise of your home department, but their role is to ask questions—most notably in the“checkback” phase, to clarify an item in your case file.

You can help your tenure dossier move through the campuswide committee in the following ways.

Do what you can to make sure your file explains your department’s tenure criteria. You can expect the P&T committee members to be diligent and conscientious, but not omniscient. As a tenure candidate, you hope that anyone who reviews your materials “gets it”—that is, grasps the standards by which you should be judged. Even within a small department, people can disagree about what constitutes good teaching, for example. But the biggest variances are across disciplines. It is too much to expect a biochemistry professor to automatically know what a pianist needs to accomplish to be tenured. At a large institution, you may be unknown to the campus committee, and your credentials perplexing.

If your department allows you to oversee your tenure file, you can explain the criteria clearly yourself. But if the department assembles the file, all you can do is ask that your dossier include an extensive description of the department’s promotion standards. By extensive, I mean not only the standards themselves but additional text explaining them to people outside your discipline.

For example, stating that your department requires “at least two publications a year in Tier 1 journals” means nothing to outsiders who don’t know what the Tier 1 journals are in your subfield. In some science fields, presentations at prestigious conferences count more than actual publications; the opposite is the case in my own field, communication. Or maybe your department places greater emphasis on doctoral advising than most and counts that as part of “good teaching.” Ideally, every tenure dossier would begin with such detailed explanations, but many don’t.

Two modern phenomena make it even more necessary to provide clarity. First, the rise of digital publications, venues, and projects complicates the “what it takes to earn tenure” question in many fields, especially the humanities. On any campus, one department may have embraced digital projects while another has not, even though they both fall in the humanities. So it’s good to explain what counts.

Second, as has been documented in The Chronicle, the publication world is changing in many ways, but the most alarming change is the rise of “spam” or “predatory” journals. Those are journals created to trap young scholars into paying exorbitant fees for publication. Moreover, they are often given titles that approximate those of reputable journals. Confusion is growing within fields. I have heard of graduate directors who posted a “publication opportunity” notice to students, only to have to retract it after a student got published in the journal and then got an unexpected $1,200 bill.

If there is confusion within a discipline, how is the campuswide committee supposed to discern which journals in a particular subfield are the real thing and which are scams? Try to ensure that your file explains the significance of journals in which you have published work.

Define excellence in your field. I once sat on a university committee that reviewed tenure files. In one case, the candidate was a historian who had published a book with a prestigious Ivy League press. The book had earned laudatory reviews in prominent journals. His department chair and the external reviewers confirmed the journals’ prominence. None of us on the committee were historians, but we didn’t have to be to realize that the scholar’s accomplishment was significant and positive.

In contrast, I once met an agricultural scientist who was at about the same stage of his career as I was. We started talking about what “prestigious accomplishment” meant in our two fields. In his field, winning a certain prize was a dream marker of the esteem of one’s colleagues. He seemed nonplused that I had never heard of the prize, but he assured me, “It’s pretty much our Nobel.” Probably every field has such markers, familiar and coveted internally, unknown externally. A particular prize in music, for example, may set off applause from the music professors but mean nothing to the political scientists or the nanotechnologists.

Often your external letter writers will attest to the standards of excellence in your field, but it helps if there is direct notation about them in your CV. Pointing them out is also the job of your chair and the department’s P&T committee. An example of how to convey those standards: “Dr. Gonzalez took on our undergraduate research-methods course and has made it a great success. He gets high marks from students and fellow faculty alike for his lively, inventive curriculum and rigorous standards. Student evaluations of his sections are the highest in the history of the course. His colleagues teaching later classes in the sequence are very happy with student learning from it.”

So make sure the campus committee members know what’s so special about what you have done.

Emphasize the good news. A key injunction in journalism states: “Don’t bury the lede.” Simply put, if you have a big piece of news, put it in the first few paragraphs, not in the 17th.

Unfortunately, CVs can be ineffective at showing off your best because information is divided by section and is often recorded in reverse chronological order. Sometimes big achievements get lost. I was an outside reviewer for a tenure candidate and found myself only moderately impressed with his file until I recalled a book he had written. I looked it up and found that it had been published with a great press and to great reviews. Somehow, on the CV, the line where the book should have appeared was cut off at the bottom of the page. The book was not included in the tenure packet, and none of the notes even called my attention to its existence.

Here’s one solution to such problems that I have long advocated: Include an executive summary of the CV—kind of a greatest-hits list—as the front page of the document. You need something that calls attention to the good stuff.

Neat and tidy still rule the day. Visualize a long table filled with tenure dossiers. Yours is No. 37. Yes, you should be judged on the basis of your accomplishments, but it never hurts to be presented well. The example I just mentioned, of the key book missing from the candidate’s CV, is not the only horror story I have witnessed. What are you conveying when pages of your vita are out of order or crumpled? Or the case file is a mishmash with no section tabs? Or sections are not in any logical order? Or the photocopying was done as the copier was running out of ink, so the resulting print is hard to read?

Of course, not all tenure candidates have complete control over the packet at all times. But be meticulous about the parts of it that you can prepare yourself and oversee. Beg or volunteer to organize as much of your tenure file as possible.

Campus P&T committees face many burdens in reviewing tenure files. At large institutions, they may review many dozens, even hundreds, of promotion-and-­tenure cases each year. They probably are not out either to sink you or to prop up your candidacy, but their dispassion should not be confused with lack of interest in making sure you truly qualify for tenure. Help them complete their professional responsibility by creating a tidy, unambiguous, comprehensive, and comprehensible tenure dossier that tries to answer most questions they may raise before they ask them.

David D. Perlmutter. “Know the Vital Players in Your Career: The Campuswide Committee.” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2014, p. A32-33.

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 & Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.


Leave a Reply