The brass ring

What does it take to tackle the tenure-track hurdle?

It’s referred to as chasing the brass ring because dreaming about obtaining academic tenure is much easier than actually doing so. That’s because of the trifecta of work: research, teaching, and service. None are easy to come by, but all three are necessary to become a tenured professor.

What does it mean to be a tenured professor? Exclusive to higher education, tenure is a permanent job contract typically offered with advancement to associate professor. It is awarded after serving in a six-year probationary period as an assistant professor.

Is there a set of rules to become a tenured professor? Or are there exceptions?

“We deal with every tenure case individually because each one has many nuances and complexities,” explains Mike Goul, professor of information systems and associate dean for faculty and research.

The paper pipeline

The nuances and complexities include the status of assistant professors’ research: Has it been submitted to a journal for review? Has a journal accepted it? Has it been accepted upon revision? Has it been published in a journal? “We try to look at assistant professors’ pipeline of work,” Goul explains. “It doesn’t look good for tenure if they’ve never done anything to get their research published.”

It also depends on which journals are valued by the professors’ academic discipline. There’s a set of widely cited journals for every W. P. Carey academic department, and they’re chosen based on consensus in their respective fields. Some departments take a vote among faculty to decide which journals to focus on, as well. It can even count toward a tenure decision if assistant professors get their work published in other academic departments’ premier journals.

Additionally, “We rely heavily on impact factor,” says Department of Finance Chair Tom Bates, “which is driven by the number of citations that an article receives. The more papers cited in a journal by researchers to help motivate or explain something in their own paper tells us which journals will affect future literature, and therefore are the journals to target.”

Equally valuable, but not directly counted toward tenure, is having an international presence. Being engaged at that level improves one’s opportunity to gain the support of colleagues. Each academic department aligns with a national association, many of which are also aligned with top-tier journals. While assistant professors aren’t expected to play top service roles, “It’s important for our faculty to travel to their discipline’s conferences and meet peers who can serve as references for their tenure review, a process where top scholars are asked to critique a candidate’s body of work. Often, these references are the ones who manage the journals as editor in chief or who serve on journals’ editorial boards,” says Goul.

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Teaching on the tenure track

As a research-intensive school, ASU tenure-track evaluations focus on research and teaching more than service. “Research is especially vital during the tenure-track appointment,” Goul says. “Teaching is usually limited to three courses an academic year because we want professors to focus on research to make progress toward tenure.”

Even so, the quality of teaching counts toward tenure. Senior faculty members observe professors’ teaching skills and students complete surveys. Some courses are more difficult to teach, so the review committee also considers class size, level, and degree of difficulty. “A department chair may assign a course that’s always had consistently low ratings from students because of the complexity of the content, for example,” Goul says. “We assess course evaluations in the context of what the assistant professor has been asked to teach.”

Pre-tenure service success

Just as teaching is limited to make the most room for research, scaling back service obligations is necessary. There’s also a saying in the academic profession that “no one ever gets tenure for doing service.” Goul cautions that contingent faculty must prioritize, otherwise “service activities can take over their research time.” He suggests professors align service commitments with their research.

For instance, reviewing papers for their field’s national association helps them develop their expertise and make names for themselves. Presenting their papers to others garners feedback to improve their work. Other service activities can include serving on department and university committees, administering university programs, mentoring PhD students, and advising student groups. But the other service opportunities are better reserved for tenured faculty who have more time to devote to these activities.

The tenure-track roadmap

While the tenure track doesn’t come with a detailed roadmap, Goul says there are some metrics that “help guide us, so we can tell assistant professors what they need to be doing and whether they’re making progress toward tenure along the way.”

During the six-year probationary period, every assistant professor gets a yearly “progress toward tenure” evaluation from their department chair in addition to their annual performance evaluation. The third-year review is the most critical hurdle, and it’s where the rubber meets the road for assistant professors. “They must be producing peer-reviewed journal articles in their field and receiving good teaching evaluations to continue on the tenure track,” says Goul.

The academic unit personnel committee, academic chair or director, college personnel committee, and supervising dean review the professor’s trifecta of work, submitted with their application for third-year review. At each level, a recommendation is determined and then forwarded to the next level. The dean makes a school-level recommendation to the provost, and ultimately each case makes its way to the president.

“As a unit chair, you have an independent voice,” says Raghu Santanam, chair of the Department of Information Systems. “I may agree with 100 percent, 80 percent, or none of the unit committee’s report. In those cases, I have to identify the portions of the report I disagree with and provide evidence to show how and why my opinion differs from the committee’s.”

The timing of when professors’ papers publish, whether they receive awards or grants for their papers, whether journals cite the papers, and more can affect professors’ tenure track.

“You don’t have to aspire to be a research professor anymore — there are more tracks than just the one leading to the tenure hurdle. We have clinical professors who are scholars of teaching,” says Goul. Clinical assistants and associates have promotion milestones similar to tenure-track assistant and associate professors, he says, but the criteria on teaching performance, innovation, and scholarship related to advancing teaching become more important than research. “Clinical professors are integral to our teaching mission.”

For those who get tenure, it is the culmination of many tough assignments. It includes published research, high teaching evaluation scores, and service to the university — all balanced appropriately during the same six-year probationary period. But the advantages of tenure include more than job security and sabbatical leave.

Seen as the brass ring of their academic career, tenure conveys professors’ expertise in the field to the benefit of the university. Peers see them as having “earned their stripes.” Perhaps most important, in freeing them from any internal or external pressure or punishment, it gives professors the space and right to explore new ideas in their area of research. Imagine if stakeholders inside or outside the university could influence professors’ creation of new knowledge.