Tenure surprises

Via Jonathan (@phylogenomics) Eisen on Twitter: The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an article on fear and loathing among the untenured. Overall, the content is good, common sense stuff: mentor your junior faculty, hire with the expectation of promotion, give frequent feedback, don’t discourage creative teaching by overemphasizing numerical student reviews.  What led me to want to inaugurate the new Blogs for Industry around this article is the idea that tenure decisions should not be surprises.

Glenn R. Sharfman, Manchester’s dean of academic affairs, says, “I don’t want there to ever be any surprises when someone comes up for tenure. They should know where they stand.”

The idea that there should not be surprises in any group decision-making should not just apply to promotion and tenure.  Surprises mean we have not adequately planned for reasonably foreseeable contingencies.  So I don’t want there to be surprises either, and promotion and tenure is an area where surprise reduction is a good thing.

This post is just to point out that reducing surprises is a goal, but it is not the only goal. This is because there are bad ways to reduce the surprises as well as good ways, and getting to zero at all costs tempts us to resort to some of the bad ways. The desire to remove subjectivity can unintentionally send a message to the pre-tenured faculty that there is a hard and fast checklist: I need to get X grants and pass a threshold for log2(publications x impact factor). I don’t know anyone who literally makes the decision that way, but I have seen junior faculty interpret their feedback as if that’s the hidden, secret meaning of the entirely conventional advice we give them to get funded, publish more, and promote your work at an appropriate number of conferences.  At institutions like mine, we also see versions of this problem described at the Volokh Conspiracy, where candidates ignore the explicit advice they are given based on their (probably incorrect) perception of standards at institutions higher in the usual rankings. After all, why listen to the schlubs who are actually going to vote on your promotion when you can get advice from superstars elsewhere. Dear life sciences Asst Profs everywhere:


  • You might want to notice whether the stars advising you are actually participating in promotion decisions at their own institutions.  Great scientists are not necessarily good faculty builders
  • Your unfinished manuscript in preparation for Science, Nature or Cell wouldn’t get you promoted at Harvard either.
  • If it’s not close, there’s nothing to fear.

We can and should strive to identify and suppress things like implicit bias.  But the review for promotion and tenure is necessarily subjective. Many of the attempts to remove subjectivity just outsource it, in some cases to unidentified grant panelists and journal editorial staff.