Rubrics for Promotion and Tenure?

Nine years ago, after spending the first 25 years of my academic career avoiding department administrative roles, I found it necessary to become a department chair.  Two years ago, I moved to a role as the Associate Dean for Faculty in my college.   Through this journey I have looked at pre-tenure performance expectations and evaluations from multiple perspectives.   Much to my surprise, this journey has lead to my exploring, developing, and evaluating the impacts rubrics for pre-tenure faculty.

The lack of clear and consistent tenure and promotion guidelines is a common concern expressed by pre-tenure faculty.   The expectations for tenure are often spelled out in only the broadest terms, along the lines of ‘excellence in scholarship, teaching and service’.  Few academic departments articulate expectations in any written form to better delineate what this ‘excellence’ entails, even in the research context where one might anticipate more quantifiable objectives.

The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) 2008 report on what pre-tenure faculty seek provides perspectives from research conducted at six research universities.

Among other findings, this report highlights pre-tenure faculty concerns regarding the lack of clear and transparent tenure expectations and processes.   The report includes perspectives from tenured faculty and administrators that address the challenges for articulating any broad standards.

It is clear that any solution to this challenge would need to be developed within the academic department.  Department faculty are often resistant to spell out specific criteria for promotion and tenure.   Rather, the assessment relies upon the hopeful development of some consensus among tenured faculty at the time of tenure review.   The issue for a pre-tenure faculty member is if, and in what ways, the bases of the faculty evaluation is communicated.  Are the broad expectations made clear as one moves through the pre-tenure years? Are there benchmarks that help the pre-tenure faculty assess if they are establishing a trajectory that is consistent with success?

The common answer to these questions seems to rely upon senior faculty mentors and department chairs giving clear and consistent feedback to pre-tenure faculty.   However, even if there is some consistency in these evaluations, there may remain the ambiguity regarding the degree to which there is consensus on these standards among the tenured faculty.   Too often, one is left with the impression that senior faculty have a sense of knowing tenure when they see it, with each person’s vision being unique in ways that are not easily discovered.

One approach to this concern are proposals for developing rubrics for promotion and tenure.   This has been a strategy identified in some of the work associated with NSF ADVANCE programs.   For example, take a look at the summary overview on faculty evaluation rubrics from the ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change at the University of Washington.

This brief overview provides a description of a rubric approach applied to tenure evaluation and links to a couple of examples.  As noted, quality tenrue rubrics would need to address three elements;  criteria, levels of performance, and descriptors.   The first two are relatively easy to delineate in most academic programs.  For example, criteria broadly fall into some mix of research, teaching, and service, often spelled out in contracts with proportion of time/effort assigned to each.   In research university settings, it is common to see the research apportionment to be in the neighborhood of 50%.

The question of levels of performance are also typically well-defined within an academic institution framework.  At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we employ a standard 5-point evaluation with the following adjectives:  inadequate, adequate, good, superior, and outstanding.   The university criteria for promotion specifies a faculty member reaching an overall assessment of superior or better, and for tenure a reasonable expectation of continued performance at this level in the future.

The difficulty is encountered when we move to the third element, descriptors.  What does a ‘superior’ look like at the end of the fifth year of pre-tenure employment as a faculty member.  For most disciplines, this is when the research record will be sent out to a set of experts in the field, external reviewers from similar types of institutions for an independent evaluation of productivity.   Has the feedback and evaluation through these first five years been clear and consistent enough that a pre-tenure faculty members have some clear sense where they sit?

In addition, if we wait until the fifth year, it is really too late?   It seems logical to have some system of markers along the way, that help pre-tenure faculty assess their trajectories.  One logical approach to this may be to develop rubrics that are associated with any major pre-tenure evaluations.   In my college, we have three pre-tenure reappointment evaluations which include votes from the tenured faculty in the department.  These assessments, conducted during the second, third, and fourth years provide a logical place to consider whether we could articulate descriptors for evaluation rubrics.

The challenge with developing descriptors attached to evaluation adjectives is to make them specific enough to provide guidance and feedback, but general enough to capture diversity in paths to research creativity and impact.   This challenge can be exacerbated in disciplines where there is variation in research methodology, publishing mode, and external grant support across sub-fields.

All of which leads me to these questions.

Can department based pre-tenure evaluation rubrics be developed that are broad enough to capture reasonable variations in paths to productivity and impact, yet still retain enough substance to be a useful resource for pre-tenure faculty?

If created, are rubrics helpful to pre-tenure faculty?  Are they helpful to tenured faculty making the evaluations?

Are there some circumstances in which development of pre-tenure rubrics work to the disadvantage of departments?

On the balance, do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Over the next few posts, I will try to address some of these questions.










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