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Surviving the Tenure Review Process: ‘Still Not King’

Among the worst parts of the tenure review process is the number of times one doesn’t hear the decision. In the hilarious “Very Secret Diary of Aragorn, Son of Arathorn” (a parody by Cassandra Claire based on a character from The Lord of the Rings), each day’s entry ends with some variation on the statement “Still not King.” Similarly, candidates awaiting the outcome of their tenure review are regularly reminded that they are up for review and still not tenured.

Zenzi Griffin

For me, reminders of tenure review came in two forms: requests for additional materials for my tenure packet and well-meaning updates on how well the process was going. I began to suspect that the requests for additional materials might be some sort of test. Perhaps only candidates who produced redundant documents without comment or complaint were truly fit for promotion within the bureaucracy. Indeed, it seemed like an elegant and easy way to trick undesirable whiners into revealing themselves. Thankfully, all documents were transmitted electronically, so this element of the “screening” process would not eliminate passionate environmentalists by mistake.

In theory, one could alleviate tenure candidates of these requests for additions by creating an accurate and accessible list of required tenure-packet contents. Although my whining has resulted in a slightly more accurate list for future candidates at Tech, I fear we may be making the process too easy for them. Besides, who wants to be stuck with a bunch of tenured whiners as colleagues?

Eliminating well-meaning updates is more problematic. Although no news may sometimes be good news, paranoia can slowly mount in a tenure candidate: “Is X avoiding me? Maybe the review isn’t going well. Everyone knows I am history and no one can face me!” Perhaps the most benign response when “everything is going well” but “nothing is settled yet” is a simple forced grin. In retrospect, the idea of planning a sabbatical to coincide with tenure review seems brilliant. It should be an official policy.

Ideally, candidates should be fairly well informed — even prior to tenure review — about how well they are meeting their institution’s expectations. It has been my experience that review practices differ radically across institutions. When I was an assistant professor at a large West Coast university, the psychology department did not provide performance feedback prior to fourth-year reviews, and the criteria made the outcome of any review difficult to predict. The primary criterion was centered upon having an impact on one’s field, which need not be reflected in papers published or grants funded. To maintain a solid record of publications and funding, but still not know whether one had enough impact to be worthy of promotion, was nerve-wracking. Because I left after only three review-less years, I am free to indulge in grandiose fantasies about the accolades they would have showered on me when I finally came up for review.

It was with some relief that — after 6 years in tenure-track positions — I found myself at Georgia Tech, a school that is clear about its expectations. I was publishing a steady trickle of articles in high-ranking journals and I had a grant. Moreover, I was teaching a much-needed service course as well as serving the field on a NIH study panel and two editorial boards. Even the chair admitted I was a good candidate in a cautiously noncommittal but optimistic hope-for-the-best-but-beprepared- for-the-worst way. It seemed like tenure review for me would be easy and despite my complaining, it was. While there is no evidence to suggest that my experiences should generalize anyone else’s, perhaps the following timeline will shed some light on the process and help future candidates know what to expect.

Tenure Timeline

April 17, 2004 – Receive list of contents needed for tenure review packet. Experience slight disappointment that I actually have to write a statement (my work should speak for itself!).

June 21, 2004 – Finish writing research, teaching, and service statement. Collect PDFs of all publications. List about 20 potential writers of reference letters, carefully omitting favorably disposed ones that chair should be able to generate on his own. Affirm that all teaching evaluations from Tech are included in packet. Decide that there is no reason to burden committee with teaching evaluations from previous university of employment.

August 1, 2004 – Realize that it is too late to submit more papers to beef up CV. Go to Europe for two weeks.

August 23, 2004 – Unofficially hear about how great and numerous the reference letters are.

September 13, 2004 – Revise statement for more general audience.

September 15, 2004 – Packet goes to department promotion and tenure committee.

October 7, 2004 – Discover college Web site with description of what should be in the research, teaching, and service statement. Have brilliant idea of checking faculty handbook to see how institution categorizes different activities. Training undergraduate research assistants is teaching!

October 8, 2004 – Complete revised research, teaching, and service statement.

October 19, 2004 – Department promotion and tenure committee discusses packet and makes its recommendation.

October 21, 2004 – Unofficially hear that review is going well so far.

November 2, 2004 – Faculty vote on tenure. Wonder if they still had time to vote in the election.

November 3, 2004 – Unofficially hear that re-view going well from every tenured faculty member that I pass in the hall.

November 4, 2004 – Meet with department representative on college’s promotion and tenure committee to review career highlights and explain research.

Zenzi Griffin biking

November 5, 2004 – Last minute notification that a one-paragraph biosketch needed to complete tenure review packet (although not on contents list). Interpret as a sign that no one will read actual contents of packet at next levels in hierarchy so candidate must summarize everything for them.

November 8, 2004 – Submit glowing biosketch (having lost all humility by this point).

November 11, 2004 – Packet submitted to College of Science.

November 12, 2004 – Go on cycling holiday in Florida to relieve the stress of tenure review.

November 30, 2004 – Create career highlights document (cheat sheet) for the department representative on college’s promotion and tenure committee.

December 3, 2004 – College committee meets and discusses tenure packet. Go on cycling holiday in South Carolina to relieve tenure stress.

December 7, 2004 – Unofficially hear that review going well.

Zenzi Griffin hiking

December 14, 2004 – Fly to Chile to hike, sample wines, mountain bike, and climb an active volcano to relieve tenure stress.

December 24, 2004 – Packet moves up food chain to Academic Affairs.

January 27, 2005 – Institute committee meets and decides on tenure.

January 28, 2005 – Semi-officially told that tenured!

February 17, 2005 – Official announcement of tenure with real letter to document occasion. Sign receipt to acknowledge receipt of letter. File letter in drawer and get back to work.



Thank you four your nice writing on Surviving the Tenure Review Process: ‘Still Not King.


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