Tenure decisions.

In light of the ongoing flap about Iowa State University's decision to deny tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, I thought it might be worth looking at an actual university policy on tenure -- the policy in place at my university -- and considering the sorts of judgments required by policies like this. The take-home message is that tenure can't be taken as a "sure thing" if only you produce a certain number of publications.

First, it's worth pointing out that each college and university has its own policy on tenure, and my sense is that the policy at my university is rather more explicit than most in laying out the expectations. As well, as I've mentioned before, here we have performance reviews every single year, which gives us regular feedback about whether we're on a good trajectory or one that could use adjustment.

Also, my university has a more teaching-focused mission than Iowa State. You'll see this focus reflected in our tenure policy, but you'll also notice that research (i.e., "scholarly or artistic or professional achievements") is an important part of the case one has to make for earning tenure.

Here's the overview of the important factors on which we're judged in tenure decisions:

Effectiveness in academic assignment is the primary, but not the only, consideration in evaluating a faculty member's performance. For most faculty, academic assignment consists primarily, but not exclusively, of teaching. Thus, contribution to the teaching mission of the university is the essential condition for continuation and advancement within the university.

However, teaching effectiveness is normally not sufficient without appropriate scholarly or artistic or professional achievement. Although service to the university is ordinarily evaluated as part of a faculty member's academic assignment, truly outstanding service to the university which is characteristically informed by genuine scholarship -- such as distinguished teaching, curricular development, or advising of student scholarly or creative activity -- shall be counted in the category of scholarly or artistic or professional achievement. The dossier should clearly document the activity and support its consideration within this criterion. In any case, significant service to students and university -- or to one's profession or discipline, to public education, or to the community at large -- must be recognized under one basic criterion or the other.

In applying common sense and flexibility to the criteria, it should be recognized that faculty who are outstanding in one area but less active or successful in other areas may well be contributing more to the university than someone who is adequate in all areas but outstanding in none. While competent teaching of assigned classes or competent performance in academic assignment, modest scholarly or other professional activity in an academic discipline, and a normal amount of committee work may represent "threshold" levels of accomplishment in these areas, something more in at least one area will be expected for tenure and promotion; individual faculty can and will differ in how they balance these roles or dimensions of their professional careers and relate them to the criteria outlined in the present policy. The guiding principle should be thorough and candid evaluation for the sake of encouraging and recognizing achievement. Outstanding accomplishment is sufficient reason for an exception to the normal expectations for appointment, retention, tenure, or promotion.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Even at a teaching-oriented (rather than research-oriented) university, you can't skate on scholarship. And, being merely "competent" or hitting some minimum threshold for scholarly input does not guarantee you tenure. Given that tenure represents a lifetime commitment on the part of the university, this is as it should be.

Here's what our policy says about "Scholarly or Artistic or Professional Achievement":

The second basic criterion for appointment and advancement within the university is scholarly or artistic or professional achievement. [The first is effectiveness in academic assignment , i.e., teaching.] Such contributions to a faculty member's discipline or professional community are normally expected for continuation and advancement in the university. The nature of the expected contributions will vary according to the nature of a faculty member's discipline and professional interests. The expected scholarly or artistic or professional contributions should be clearly stated in duly established college, school, or departmental guidelines. Scholarly or artistic or professional achievements must be documented and evaluated if they are to be properly used in faculty personnel decisions; departmental and/or college guidelines may address the extent and nature of the documentation that is appropriate.

1. Types of Achievements

Scholarly achievement includes, but is not limited to, books, articles, reviews, technical reports, computer software, application for and/or awards of grants, or papers read to scholarly associations -- in general, work based on research and entailing theory, analysis, interpretation, explanation, or demonstration. Noting the particular requirements for curricular development in a period of changing information technologies, multicultural education, and the necessity of incorporating into higher education students from varied and diverse backgrounds, faculty members may demonstrate scholarly achievement through the development of curricula and curricular materials for one's disciplinary field and/or General Education courses. Curricular development, contributions to technologically mediated instruction, or other pedagogical innovation informed by genuine scholarship may be included within this criterion, as may genuine scholarly achievement in the course of supervising student research.

Artistic achievement includes, but is not limited to, the creation of original work in poetry, fiction, drama, dance, the aural and visual arts; or performances or direction in music, theatre and dance requiring interpretation and the mastery of a skill in addition to research.

Professional achievements include, but are not limited to: active participation or leadership in professional associations and meetings; service to the K-14 educational segments; professional involvement with other groups and institutions related to the institutional mission of a "metropolitan" university; panels, activities or workshops; patented inventions or discoveries; consulting; service on editorial boards or as editor of a professional journal or newsletter; adjudicator, translator or reviewer for publishers or other agencies and associations; public lectures; honors and awards. Professional achievement generally includes active participation or leadership in the CSU or in professional associations related to a faculty member's discipline. Service to other associations and to the community, state, nation, or international community in a capacity related to the faculty member's discipline and requiring the application of the faculty member's professional knowledge or skills shall also be recognized as a professional contribution or achievement. Departments, schools, and colleges are encouraged to establish guidelines for the definition and evaluation of participation, leadership, and other service that is to be considered scholarly or professional or artistic achievement.

2. Evaluation of Achievements

Scholarly or artistic or professional achievement should be thoroughly evaluated by one's disciplinary peers, within and/or outside one's department, not merely enumerated. Acceptance of scholarly or artistic work by an editorial or review board (or jury) constitutes an evaluation of that work. Work in progress and unpublished work should be assessed whenever possible. When appropriate, professional contributions should be evaluated by professional persons in a position to assess the quality and significance of the contributions. Ordinarily the number or length of publications per se shall not be a criterion for tenure or promotion. In cases where a faculty member has made significant contributions to his/her discipline or professional community over a number of years, that total contribution should be taken into account.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Notice that this policy is explicit that the criterion is not that one publish a certain number of articles or books. It's neither a requirement without which you'll be denied tenure, nor a minimum threshold that will guarantee tenure to all those who meet or exceed it. What counts is the quality of the scholarly contributions, something whose evaluation falls to others in one's discipline or professional community.

Of course, when one is seeking tenure, it's nerve-wracking to have other scholars evaluate your work. There's an element of it that seems unavoidably subjective. What counts as an "important" contribution, or a "promising" new direction or methodology in a field? How much are scholars judgments about these questions dependent on their own theoretical and methodological commitments, their sense of where their field is going or of the direction it ought to go?

But if scholarship is more than getting words on the page in a published book or journal article, evaluations of quality have to come down to the judgments of members of the relevant scholarly community. There isn't an algorithm that will get you the answer.

Finally, here's what our policy says about grants:

3. Grants

In recognition of the nature of San Jose State University, a comprehensive university as distinct from a research-oriented institution -- and of the teaching load of the faculty as they carry out the primary teaching mission of the university -- these criteria, although encouraging and rewarding faculty members for successfully obtaining research grants and other external financial support, explicitly exclude any requirement that faculty members must obtain such support as a condition for retention, tenure, or promotion, with one exception: when external funding is explicitly designated as part of a particular academic assignment (such as director of a research center, or gallery), for which appropriate assigned time is provided. Work done under such circumstances must be evaluated.

In other words, in most circumstances we can't be dinged for not bringing in external grants -- but that's because we aren't a research-oriented university. If we were, it would be entirely appropriate to make our success in securing outside funding a criterion in tenure decisions.

Now consider the statement Iowa State univesity President Gregory Geoffroy released to explain his rejection of Guillermo Gonzalez's tenure appeal:

As part of this decision process, I appointed a member of my staff to conduct a careful and exhaustive review of the appeal request and the full tenure dossier, and that analysis was presented to me. In addition, I conducted my own examination of Dr. Gonzalez's appeal with respect to the evidence of research and scholarship. I independently concluded that he simply did not show the trajectory of excellence that we expect in a candidate seeking tenure in physics and astronomy -- one of our strongest academic programs.

Because the issue of tenure is a personnel matter, I am not able to share the detailed rationale for the decision, although that has been provided to Dr. Gonzalez. But I can outline the areas of focus of my review where I gave special attention to his overall record of scientific accomplishment while an assistant professor at Iowa State, since that gives the best indication of future achievement. I specifically considered refereed publications, his level of success in attracting research funding and grants, the amount of telescope observing time he had been granted, the number of graduate students he had supervised, and most importantly, the overall evidence of future career promise in the field of astronomy.

I know extremely well how to assess the qualifications of a candidate seeking tenure. Over the past two decades -- as dean of Penn State's College of Science, provost at the University of Maryland and as president of Iowa State -- I have reviewed and passed judgment on close to 1,000 faculty promotion and tenure cases. And while I have not worked in Dr. Gonzalez's field of astronomy, I have a significant understanding of the field and far greater experience than most university presidents. At Penn State, I worked closely with the astronomy faculty in advancing the department, and I reviewed many promotion and tenure dossiers in astronomy. I have also had more than a decade of service on national astronomy boards and committees, where I advised and led groups building telescopes, oversaw personnel appointments in astronomy and astrophysics, and frequently attended research presentations on the current and future directions of astronomy and astrophysics.

The tenure review process at a university like Iowa State must be handled with great care, because granting tenure guarantees a lifetime appointment to the faculty member who receives it. That's why the standards for tenure are very high. Before tenure is awarded, the university must be extremely confident that the faculty member will continue to achieve at a high level of excellence and with significant impact in his/her research specialty. In conducting that evaluation, we carefully examine the candidate's record of accomplishment, with a primary focus on what the candidate has accomplished during his/her appointment as an independent faculty member at Iowa State, since that gives the best indication of the candidate's future success. Over the past 10 years, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in the physics and astronomy department were not granted tenure.

(Bold emphasis added.)

On the face of things, we have a situation where Gonzalez's colleagues in his field at Iowa State didn't judge his research record or success in securing outside grants sufficient for tenure. (Evil Monkey has a detailed discussion of Gonzalez's publication record.) It is quite likely, in the course of making that judgment, that Gonzalez's department solicited "outside evaluations" of his work by other scientists in his field from other universities. In universities where such outside evaluations are sought, they are generally given considerable weight in tenure decisions. As far as the scholarship goes, a jury of Gonzalez's scientific peers was asked to judge it on its importance to his field, and to judge whether his track record of scholarship during his probationary period at Iowa State promised excellent scholarship in his future.

To the extent that his scholarly record was a reason he was not granted tenure, it would appear that his colleagues (both at Iowa State and in his scientific discipline) judged his research to be good enough. Of course, where to set that line is, in some sense, an arbitrary choice, but for a department trying to achieve a certain level of excellence in a particular field, judgments often converge to a reasonable extent.

I imagine the failure to bring in enough outside money was an even easier deficiency to nail down. As Evil Monkey notes, Gonzalez brought in funds amounting to about a tenth of what the average was in his department for research funding secured during a faculty member's first six years at Iowa State. To the extent that research funding is pretty much a requirement in order to sustain a research group (which includes supporting the grad students you're supposed to be training and mentoring), this low level of funding might be a problem even if Gonzalez's research was judged to be of excellent quality and very important in his field. (Mike Dunford has a thorough discussion of the money angle.)

President Geoffroy, who reviewed Gonzalez's appeal of the tenure decisions, cites factors that probably put him in a better place than most university presidents to evaluate the scholarly output of an astronomer. Undoubtedly, his review of the decision also considered procedural issues -- especially whether the decision not to grant Gonzalez tenure in the first place was made on the basis on considerations that were not (by policy) supposed to be considered in making that decision.

There is nothing about the facts of Gonzalez's record that mark him as a "sure thing" for tenure -- and this would be the case even if he had no dealings with the Discovery Institute and had no connection at all to the Intelligent Design movement.

Unless we decide that someone else besides astronomers is better qualified to evaluate the scholarship of an astronomer, the rest of us who are not astronomers have to recognize the expertise of the astronomers in evaluating Gonzalez's research and finding it wanting. Unless there is hard evidence that the proper procedures were not followed in deciding Gonzalez's tenure case, there's no good reason for a do-over.

As Evil Monkey put it:

Tenure is not a right. Tenure is not a minimum set of hurdles to clear. Indeed, a faculty member who treats it that way should be the last person to be awarded tenure. A department has the right to determine who their colleagues will be, and undoubtedly they wish to choose people who show a tendency toward self-sufficiency... They want people who will continue to produce, not slowly peter out as they get farther and farther away from their mentored postdoc years. The department also has the right to determine who they associate with, as [the tenured professor] will represent the department to the rest of the world... Not getting tenure is not the equivalent of termination of a permanent position... Academic freedom means that the rest of the department must have the freedom to discuss the ramifications of granting tenure.

There are certainly people who question whether tenure is a good system, but criticisms of particular decisions made within that system should be grounded in a reasonable understanding of how the system actually works. "Adequate" is hardly ever adequate from the point of view of a department considering wedding its future to yours.


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"It is quite likely, in the course of making that judgment, that Gonzalez's department solicited 'outside evaluations' of his work by other scientists in his field from other universities."

It is more than "quite likely"; it is absolutely certain.

Eighth-from-last paragraph: you wrote

To the extent that his scholarly record was a reason he was not granted tenure, it would appear that his colleagues (both at Iowa State and in his scientific discipline) judged his research to be good enough.

From the context, I suspect that you meant to write not good enough.