Ky. Voices: Tenure process fair only when expectations clear, firm

The tenure process is as close to a sacred tradition as exists in academia, and as such its integrity is not to be compromised. Granting tenure assures one of lifelong employment, short of committing some egregious illegal or immoral act, and is a relatively easy decision to make.

The integrity of the process rests on three fundamental principles. The first is that all cannot be tenured. Second, all must understand the criteria to attain tenure. Third, the criteria for tenure shall not be altered while one is in the process of attaining tenure.

I have been tenured at three universities, and have been an academic administrator, where a significant part of my responsibility was to guide and monitor new faculty members through the clear, but still often intimidating, tenure process.

This important responsibility was not difficult; in fact it was often enjoyable because of the clarity and objectivity of the expectations, as well as the entire process. There was very little room for guessing, interpretation or subjectivity in evaluating a faculty member's dossier. The expectations either were met or they weren't.

The tenure process lasted seven years with a two- and four-year informal review and evaluation of one's progress, with appropriate feedback given on where the individual stood, and what was needed to strengthen her dossier. Part of my responsibility was to assist faculty members in preparing their dossier, primarily to help them standardize it so that there would be less room for interpretation or subjectivity by those evaluating it.

The unfortunate situation at Transylvania University, although troubling, does not really appear to be that complicated. Serious, yes, but not that complicated. It is not a breakdown in the tenure process. Rather, it is a subversion of the process by the president.

During the final review, several committees at different levels evaluated dossiers. If any level disagreed with the decision of a level below it, the criteria for the disagreement had to be explicitly and objectively noted. The final decision, objectively considering all of the previous decisions, was made by the president of the university. Like all others in the evaluation process, he was bound by the process.

Although I have not been privy to all that occurred regarding the president's decision to deny tenure to two faculty members, I have enough information, as well as a wealth of experience, to offer a reasoned assessment and a partial solution to the beleaguered university.

First, one must know precisely how clear and objective the expectations for attaining tenure are. If they are unclear and/or capable of being evaluated subjectively, a red flag goes up. If a higher level disagrees with the decision of a lower level, is the nature of the disagreement objectively spelled out or is it a subjective matter of interpretation or something else? If so, raise another red flag.

Next, is it clear to all that all candidates have been evaluated by the same criteria? And, have all candidates in a given year been evaluated by all parties using the same criteria used in previous years? If in doubt about this, get another flag ready.

Finally, and arguably the most important point, is to ascertain if, at any level in the evaluation, the expectations have been changed by fiat, unbeknownst to the other evaluators. If so, the process must be declared a sham, a hoax. The time-honored tradition of granting tenure has been corrupted.

From what I know, the faculty believes the president, in evaluating candidates, used criteria not used in previous years — criteria of which the candidates were unaware, hence could not prepare.

This is the epitome of an unfair and unethical practice. It would seem to be a violation of trust. Someone needs to step in and proclaim that since the integrity of the tenure process has been assailed, negative tenure decisions must be set aside.

Whatever else must be done to rectify this unfortunate situation is a matter for the entire university community to decide.

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