Include Untenured Faculty in Departmental Tenure Decisions

By Needhi Bhalla (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Once a scientist begins their position as a tenure-track faculty member, acquiring tenure becomes a primary goal. This crucial professional benchmark is a formal assessment of a scientist’s standing in their department, institution, and scientific field. Achieving tenure is associated with relative job security and can be accompanied by increased social capital and institutional power, all of which may be particularly relevant for minoritized1 scientists. During the tenure process, members of a department, institution, and scientific field evaluate a scientist’s ability to effectively manage multiple academic roles, including obtaining and maintaining funding, publishing papers, teaching, and providing service to the department, institution, and field. Because of the wide array of these skills, it can often seem unclear how each of these individual roles are weighted during the tenure process. Further, there are often hidden, or unwritten, rules about what types of funding, publications, teaching, and service are valued by a scientist’s department, institution, and field during the tenure process. The fact that untenured faculty are excluded from discussions about and/or voting on tenure files of their more senior colleagues in most departments exacerbates the perception that tenure can be a moving target.

This lack of transparency, and its potential effect on consistency, makes tenure an unnecessarily gate-keeping enterprise. Having committed to the hiring and development of early career scientists, it is in the best interest of departments and institutions to make the tenure process as transparent and consistent as possible to ensure success. One mechanism to accomplish this is to allow untenured faculty to discuss and vote on the tenure files of more senior faculty members. Observing these discussions, and participating in them, allows untenured faculty to directly observe how these decisions are made. This insight into the criteria by which they will eventually be evaluated demystifies the tenure process, and clearly highlights what specifically they should focus on to ensure a successful tenure file. Having untenured faculty observe and participate in the tenure process can also provide accountability and trust so that the process can remain equitable, consistent, and less likely to be derailed by either overly powerful advocates or detractors.

This policy is currently in place in the Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My personal experience in both participating in these decisions and receiving tenure in this department is that being involved in the tenure decisions of my senior colleagues was simultaneously comforting and eye-opening, providing much-needed external input to my internal conversations about whether I was on track for tenure. This policy produces a unique combination of transparency, consistency, and accountability to a process that all too often can seem opaque and mysterious. Thus, it should be more widely practiced, particularly when the professional development and academic ascent of minoritized faculty is a priority.