Fixing Stetson’s Tenure and Promotion System

Chris Ferguson, Faculty Contributor

I wanted to share some observations regarding the promotion and tenure procedures at Stetson University in hopes that they might start some dialogue on these. I have now been involved in several promotion/tenure cases including pre-tenure reviews as well as been through the process myself successfully. Most of my thoughts focus on transparency issues, clarity and balance of standards and efficiency.

I should say that my comments should in no way be considered a “diss” toward the folks who have worked hard to develop the current system. It is clear a lot of good thought and effort went into it.

One issue of concern is the non-transparency of department-level reviews. As I understand, letters written by individual faculty members as well as the committee chair’s review letter are not shared with the faculty member (although curiously the chair’s review letter is shared with the faculty member during 2nd and 4th year reviews, so there is some inconsistency there.) Openness of review letters will enhance the degree to which they are evidence-based, professional and on point. Given that, at the department level, more senior members are evaluating junior faculty I do not think the need to “protect” senior faculty’s anonymity should supersede transparency. Related to the above, I am not sure individual faculty member letters at the department committee level are necessary. I have not seen them before at other universities, though I suppose we cannot be unique.

One problem that I have observed is that, at least in practice, the standards for research and service are unbalanced. My impression is that standards for research tend to be rather minimal, but standards for service fairly dominant (this may be more true at the professor than associate professor level). From the Faculty Satisfaction Survey from last year it seemed that many faculty complain about the high service load at Stetson (and often blame administration for this), but these standards, and faculty enforcement of the same, would appear to perpetuate this problem. I think this is one area that is really not working as we bring in more research productive faculty. This is also an issue where service requirements are fairly minimal on paper (perhaps 15% or so for most faculty), but the “all or nothing” P&T evaluation system used by Stetson (in which one must excel at all three of teaching, research and service) belies an evaluation system where all three areas count for 100% of an evaluation. Given that the research requirements are pretty minimal, the current system would appear to drive all faculty toward heavy service loads that will interfere with research productivity. It may be valuable to reconsider a “two out of three” system (which I have heard was a previous system) where teaching excellence is a must, but faculty could be rewarded for focusing more on either research or service (some of each would still be expected, but faculty would be evaluated for their overall contribution to Stetson, not negatively evaluated if they have a strength in one area and a weakness in another.) At present under the current system, a faculty member could win a Nobel Prize for their research and still be denied promotion if a committee felt they were weak in service/leadership.

I believe that we can work harder to make expectations standards clear from day one for junior faculty, as well as to keep research a priority through the assistant professor years. Although anecdotal, I have heard from some junior faculty that expectations are not always clear or made clear to them early on in the time at Stetson, or they may be told not to worry too much in the early years about the tenure process or research specifically. I am also concerned that some junior faculty, upon achieving the minimum stated requirements for research may be being told to back off of research in favor of service from that point forward.

Although it is important for promotion/tenure standards to have clear guidelines/goalposts, the current standards keywords system (i.e. rigor, maturity, evolution) tends to be laborious and confusing. I am not saying things like rigor and such are not important, just that the keywords system tends to create letters that are rigid, ill-thought out, and lacking narrative flow often making them difficult to read/follow. Granted, I have seen a few good letters using the keywords, but they have been the exception, at least in my experience. I understand that this system replaced a kind of “free for all” in the past, but I think the pendulum has been swinging too far from pole to pole and the current approach is too rigid. We need clearly stated objectives and goalposts, but I think the narrative structure of letters can be a bit more open.

Stetson needs greater clarity regarding faculty who begin their careers at Stetson while already in a senior rank (i.e. associate professor or equivalent.) Unfortunately, in many circumstances, clarity is not often provided by appointment letters. I think committees are trying to deal with this in good faith, but in the absence of clarity, mistakes will be made. I think, again, that it is typical to evaluate senior faculty according to “time in rank” not “time at Stetson” and that all activities related to research,teaching and service would be considered, not just those at Stetson.

Regarding service/leadership, Stetson may wish to reconsider the range of activities that count toward this category. At present, the evaluation appears to be heavily weighted toward activities specifically occurring within Stetson campus (committees, administrative tasks, etc.) While these are certainly important, I think it would behoove Stetson to consider a wider range of activities, including community service, service to professional associations, government service, public relations, etc. If it promotes Stetson at all, it should be considered service, and people are going to have different strengths and weaknesses.

In summary, I believe we can improve our P&T process to a point where we are looking comprehensively at faculty’s overall contribution and promotion of Stetson University. Stetson’s strengths will come in diversity, including finding ways to capitalize on and encourage people’s specific skills and assets which will ultimately differ from one person to another. We have a lot of great folks here and we are bringing in a lot of wonderful new faculty and I am sure we can tweak our P&T system a bit to meet the exciting changes and challenges our university will see in forthcoming years. I remember being a student here (class of ’93!) and what an amazing experience it was. As always, I am beyond proud to call myself both an alum and faculty member at this wonderful university and I am excited to see how we take Stetson into the future.