“We’re willing to risk not giving tenure to the right people in order to not give tenure to the wrong people.”
That is how College Dean Dennis DeTurck described the rigorous tenure review process that assistant professors at Penn must undergo to gain tenure, a lifelong appointment and the ultimate mark of success in academia.
And in the wake of the tenure denial of history professor Ronald Granieri, students are raising questions about what factors go into that evaluation process. Specifically, they say they wonder what a highly rated professor must do to gain tenure.
Ask administrators, professors and independent analysts about how research and teaching — the two major criteria in tenure decisions — are weighted in the evaluation process and there will be a different answer every time. All say there is no specific formula, but that anything less than top-notch research won’t make the cut.
To an outside observer, the tenure review process can seem opaque and hard to understand. Candidates are evaluated generally on their research, teaching and service to the University, though how each category is measured and weighted is intentionally left open to interpretation.
“There is no exact formula for the distribution between one and the other,” said School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rebecca Bushnell. “We are holding the highest standards for both … it always in the end is going to be a question of balance.”
Tenure decisions are made in an extremely confidential setting — the names of the Personnel Committee that evaluates applications are not readily available — and a candidate’s research credentials can be hard for the average student to assess.
Vice Provost for Faculty Lynn Hollen Lees said tenure candidate’s dossiers include, among other things, teaching evaluations collected by the Student Committee for Undergraduate Education, student comments, letters from individual students and, sometimes, comments from faculty about colleague’s teaching.
Some of this data, like teaching scores, are readily available to the public, and students can speak openly about assessments of their teachers based on class experiences.
Research, on the other hand, is trickier to evaluate. A tenure candidate’s department is required to solicit at least eight letters from external reviewers in the candidate’s field evaluating the candidate’s research, in addition to up to three reviewers the candidate may nominate him or herself.
These external reviews — which are not available to the public — are particularly important for the Personnel Committee, which brings together faculty from different disciplines to evaluate a candidate, said emeritus English professor and former Personnel Committee member John Richetti.
He added that the opinion of external reviewers can differ from that of the department, which is why the department might recommend a candidate who is turned down by the Personnel Committee.
Although Bushnell and Lees say that excellence is required in both research and teaching, others familiar with the tenure process say evaluations of research are often weighted more heavily.
DeTurck said that in “unusual” circumstances, “outstanding” research by a professor might override concerns about their teaching, though such decisions would be made with great care.
On the other hand, he said, doubts about the quality of a person’s research will almost never be overridden by outstanding teaching.
“Obviously at a research university [like Penn] typically research weighs most heavily,” said Cathy Trower, who studies the tenure process as the research director at Harvard University’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. “You can be an okay teacher if you’re a really good researcher and get tenure for the most part.”
Though Trower said good teaching is more important now than it has been in the past, she pointed to an old saying that a teaching award was like the “kiss of death” at a University — a stereotype that evolved because it was assumed that a great researcher would devote the bulk of their time to research, not teaching.
Faculty Senate chairman Harvey Rubin said the adage was absolutely not true — that teaching, while it may have been undervalued in the past, is considered an important part of the tenure review process nowadays.
But how much?
“You can’t let your teaching take over your life,” said DeTurck, who said he believes that great teaching and great research go hand-in-hand.
But, he cautioned, “to devote time to [teaching] at the expense of not making enough progress on your own research work … can stop somebody’s career.”
Penn is typically known for being fairly generous with tenure for its junior faculty, unlike institutions such as Harvard, which used to be known for rarely giving tenure to assistant professors. A little less than half of assistant professors are ultimately awarded tenure, according to DeTurck.
Rubin said a faculty mentoring system is set up to help professors understand the balance between research and teaching that they need to achieve before they go through the tenure review process.
Faculty are also evaluated on research, teaching and service during their third years when they are reappointed as professors, said Lees. This review process resembles the tenure review process in some respects, but does not include the external review of a candidate’s research.
When faculty members are turned down for tenure during their sixth year and choose to reapply during their seventh and final year, they are encouraged to focus on their research during that last year.
As Richetti described it, “the person has to virtually go into monastic seclusion and produce a ton of work.”
Some professors feel this heavy focus on research detracts from their ability to have a well-rounded career as a professor.
“When junior faculty are made to feel that meeting with students is a luxury, they cannot afford in their quest for tenure, the community loses,” said Granieri, the professor who was recently denied tenure. “Academic life is about opening doors, and it cannot serve that purpose to have students find their professors’ doors closed to them.”
His students agree that their interactions with well-liked teachers like Granieri have furthered their academic development by helping them hone their own research and interests.
Trower said she does not believe good teaching is rewarded enough in the process.
With similar sentiments in mind, the Undergraduate Assembly passed a resolution last night that called, in part, for a more transparent tenure process.
About twice per decade, students will actively protest the tenure denial of a popular professor — usually because these denials are more visible than outstanding researchers who are denied tenure because of subpar teaching skills, DeTurck said.
Bushnell said she will try to hear the concerns of all involved when such a situation occurs and try to ensure a proper decision was made, but that it is extremely rare for the SAS Dean to exercise his or her power to overturn a negative decision from the Personnel Committee. Since Bushnell began working in an administrative capacity in 1998, she said it has never happened.
And the faculty — even Richetti, who as English department chair in the early 1990s saw a number of his faculty denied tenure — thinks the system works.
“In my long experience there were several disappointments,” he said. “But overall, I think we had more success than failure.”
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