What We Look for in Those to Whom We Commit Tenure

Nov 12 2015

Of the many roles of the Provost, deans, chairs and faculty at a university, few are more important than making ultimate decisions as to who gets hired and kept on as tenured faculty. So what do we look for? First and foremost, we seek scholarly excellence and leadership. Both of these come in many forms and are not easily quantified by metrics. We have all known examples of faculty who have turned out a regular stream of papers, but whose cumulative contribution is, well, contributing rather than leading thought in the field. We also have seen work that may be leading, but in a sub-field that is so vanishingly narrow as to effect little beyond its author. This is not what we should be awarding tenure for. So what do we value and how do we recognize it? It is the goal of this white paper to shed some light on this complex question for the University of Virginia. It is intended to stimulate thought and discussion and is not a statement of policy.

Common pitfalls: Hiring in our own image, metrics and external validations.
Let me begin with a couple of infamous tales. First, is the story of two Stanford professors with Nobel prizes in Economic Sciences. Early in their careers they both applied for junior faculty positions at another top school, and they were rejected by the search committee. Recently, someone looked back and found a member of the original search committee who explained that the committee was duly impressed with them, but thought they were not doing what their department was about. This illustrates the tendency we have to overvalue people and scholarly profiles that look like our own. The second story is about George Church, who is a leader in the convergence of nano-, info- and bio- and created a device on chip for rapid gene sequencing. Recently he was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Prize, for which I happened to be in the audience. In his acceptance speech, he shared the text of a letter from his PhD institution dismissing him from the university because he had not attended required classes or exams. So excited was he about the research at the time that he focused on that and had not gone to class. However, his talents were recognized and he was offered an immediate assistant professorship at Harvard, where he has been ever since, even though he had no PhD at the time.

These examples illustrate the importance of not becoming overly focused on a single absent credential or metric when judging a candidate for tenure consideration. It also argues for the need to develop our judgment of talent holistically and the confidence to be able to make those calls absent the validation of a numbered list. Metrics such as citation counts and A-list journals can be a good place for a committee to start as long as such metrics don’t become a substitute for judgment. The point is that tenure is given more for the promise of what the candidate will achieve in the future than it is for a checklist of what they have performed prior. The importance of the prior work is to establish a pattern of productivity and creativity that one can identify as promising for the future.

Clearly we are looking for leaders in their fields. Leadership and excellence take many forms. There are solitary geniuses and rain makers that resource and stimulate others. We have room and need for both of them. Our own assessments, as well as those of outside reviewers, of the relative contribution and standing of the candidate as compared to their peer group is key.

Independence from one’s mentor is another key attribute in a tenure candidate. The demonstration of a candidate’s ability to generate a new line of inquiry is a strong indicator of future productivity. It is also essential to the eventual creation of their own disciples, something we expect at the transition from Associate to Full Professor.

In the creative arts such as studio art and some domains within architecture, drama and music for example, the products may be more difficult to assess. But the same notions of impact and leadership are generally apparent. Indicators include national roles in exhibits, curation and performance, as well as national reviews of designs.

What about disciplinary strength vs. cross-disciplinary agility? Again, we value both. The great straddlers of disciplines may bring to bear the core competence of separated fields in order to solve a problem of significance to society, if not both fields. The measure of their scholarship is in the creativity and acumen they bring to the problem. But often they are not appreciated by department peers who note that such candidates are not advancing the field itself. To make this concrete with an example, consider a professor of statistics applying Bayesian methodology to study optimization of drug dosing in patients. The work may be of high scholarly and societal value even if it does not develop any new statistical methodology. On the other hand, a department that does not advance its own field does not create new core competences, which are essential for future straddlers to bridge, and will not be the leader in its field. Achieving a balance is a decision to be made thoughtfully by a department in its strategic planning of whom to hire, not used as a criterion for assessing an individual tenure case.

This mixed message about the relative value of methodology versus application is underscored by citation indexes. If you look at the most highly cited papers of all time, they are dominated at the top of the list by relatively low-level laboratory procedures that have become a standard of use and employed over and over, particularly in biological sciences. This is undeniable impact, but generally not the stuff that builds a reputation as a scholar or as a department. Nobel Prize winning papers for example are much further down the list from these most cited papers.

What about funding? In some fields the ability to obtain steady and relatively robust funding is essential in order to have the tools and team to continue to lead in that field. In such cases, funding and the ability to obtain it are critical prerequisites for someone we commit to with tenure.

Patents and other metrics of scholarly productivity.
What academic institution do you associate with the invention of the search engine? Probably Stanford because of the young PhD students Sergey Brin and Larry Page who founded Google. This is a perception to the chagrin of faculty at Carnegie Mellon who think they invented the search engine. The point is that the impact of and credit for the intellectual contributions of Brin and Page far exceed the academics who published rather than patented their work. Patents can be an important contribution to a tenure file. This is not to say that an engineer’s patent of a clever spoon rest on a cereal bowl, no matter how commercially successful, should be considered as an indication of scholarly productivity on par with a patent of a spoon with an integrated feedback and control system that enables a patient with Parkinson’s tremors to feed themselves.

Teaching, Clinical Care and Service – Research excellence is not of course the only thing we look for in faculty to whom we commit tenure. Teaching, clinical and service excellence are also valued. It is often difficult to establish national leadership in these other areas, hence the leadership judgment often falls more heavily to a candidate’s research portfolio. There are exceptions and we need to be flexible enough to appreciate and tenure someone, for example, who transforms higher education through the introduction of a teaching innovation. For the more common research-heavy portfolio, what then do we expect of performance in the other categories that make up the remainder of the faculty member’s load profile? Although we would like for everyone to be better than average at teaching or clinical care as in Lake Wobegon, by definition this is not possible. Nevertheless, there is a hard expectation that there is a bar for good teaching and care giving that everyone must be above. How we judge contributions to teaching vary and may include, in addition to teaching evaluations, textbooks and the development of courses and course materials. Judging clinical care includes a similarly wide variety of inputs ranging from patient satisfaction to safety and efficacy statistics compared to field specific norms. The best way I can say this is every candidate must teach or provide clinical care to the level of expectation of their school. Given UVA’s identity and values surrounding teaching excellence and close personal interactions between faculty and students, that bar for teaching is likely higher than it would be at most peers. The same is likely true for clinical care. We must be true to our identity as a place of scholar-teachers and scholar-clinicians, and there will be some excellent researchers who simply won’t fit here.

Service is similarly an expectation with an appropriate level to the rank of the faculty member, and includes service to the department, university and the profession more broadly. The interests and talents of faculty for various types of service vary greatly and are usually easily accommodated. While there is generally a fairly low bar in this category for tenure, it is there. Its importance grows after tenure and should be recognized in annual merit review.

By developing our confidence in our abilities to recognize with tenure those values we hold most dear, we will become the university we aspire to be.

Tom Katsouleas, Provost