10 No. 4
The Long and Winding Road
Tenure and the Presidential Advisory Committee
Presidential Advisory Committee
“I get a lot of files to read for the PAC, and I start reading and say, Why am I spending my time? This is clearly someone there is no question about.”
“I think [the PAC has] helped to elevate the aspirations of the various units, to create a more uniform scholarly work culture. ”
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I don’t mean to sound Panglossian,” says Martine Watson Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English and director of the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, “but my experience on the Tenure and Promotion Committee in Emory College and on the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) was uniformly positive. You knew that everybody would show up, everybody was carefully prepped. There was no bull. I was very proud of Emory and of my colleagues.”
Such ringing endorsements of Emory’s tenure and promotion process are common among the senior faculty who have helped shape it. Says Ron Gould, Goodrich C. White Professor of Mathematics, who has served three times on the College Tenure and Promotion Committee and just completed a term on the PAC, “It’s one of the few committees that you can look at and say, yes, it’s hard work, but it’s worthwhile work. It’s not a waste of time.”
None of that praise means, however, that the process isn’t fraught for those navigating it. Achieving the right balance and tone of endorsements in a tenure file, for example, is at best a nuanced and complex maneuver. And tenure files have demanded increasing detail and formality since 1995-96, when then-president William Chace established and appointed the PAC—Emory’s first standing university-wide committee to address tenure and promotion review. Files must account for every contingency, every credential. Teaching portfolios in the college have bulged from a two- or three-paragraph teaching statement and some student evaluations to a fat volume of five-page statements, quantitative and qualitative evaluations, course syllabi, and multiple peer evaluations.
Some of those changes result from the PAC, which was initially called upon to clarify academic policy and to review the occasional file that the president or provost deemed problematic. Before the PAC, according to Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing and a member of that first committee, tenure and promotion decisions were made by “ad hocracy, or dealmaking. The head of a department would make a deal with the dean, and the dean would try his or her best to sell the deal to the provost. There were letters from a department or an academic unit that simply said, We have already made the decision; will you please endorse it?”
Harvey Klehr, Mellon Professor of Politics and History, who also served on the first PAC, points to external review letters. “Some units had very established procedures—how they were generated, how many there were. The idea was that they needed to be disinterested—kind of at arm’s length. But in other units it was really an old-boy’s network. The chairman would just unilaterally call a bunch of his friends. One of the things we did was try to get some uniformity, so that the procedures and contents of the files were roughly comparable.”
These days the committee is, as law professor and current PAC member Charles Shanor says, “essentially a quality control device [that] provides an outsider’s look at the recommendations of the various units.” While the PAC holds no voting privileges and cannot in and of itself overrule previous decisions, it now reviews all tenure cases and advises the president and provost to “ensure comparable quality across the schools while protecting the distinctiveness of each,” according to the president’s office website. (Each academic unit now elects its own representative to the PAC, a switch made in 2001.)
In addition to ironing out procedural wrinkles, the PAC also scrutinizes for quality and credibility. “The reviewer’s relationship to the individual whose work is being reviewed is important,” Shanor explains. “It’s been said that the best reviewer is a person who has never met the candidate. We’ve been particularly interested in making sure that the quality of reviewers is really good, including reviewers from leading institutions.”
On the other hand, what of the young scholar whose work is rising in prominence? Might this goal of disinterestedness penalize those who have forged ties with well-known scholars by virtue of the quality of their own scholarship? “Such candidates are forced to turn to people whom they’ve either never met or met only on a few occasions, and who in turn are often the least qualified to comment on the merits of their work,” observes psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld.
Another effect of the PAC’s influence, suggests Provost Earl Lewis, has been to reaffirm the university’s central authority in tenure decisions. “The president and provost are empowered to always review decisions made at the departmental or school and college level,” he says, “so I think it’s a misperception to believe that they should be a final decision arbiter. You don’t get tenure in a department. Tenure is granted at the university level. That’s why the trustees ultimately are the only ones empowered to sign off on tenure.”
While many faculty and academic officials readily admit that the process remains imperfect, most would agree that Emory’s tenure and promotion standards are becoming more standard, if not in fact tougher. “It’s the one thing that does its best to ensure commensurability across schools,” Brownley says. To which Shanor adds, “I think it’s also helped to elevate the aspirations of the various units, to create a more uniform scholarly work culture.”
Gould believes this cultural evolution has raised institutional expectations. “As you hire better and better faculty, you expect the next generation to be at least as good as them. The quality of people coming through this place has certainly improved.”
Not everyone, however, categorically shares those impressions. “I look around at the senior faculty, and a lot of us came to Emory as junior faculty and developed our careers here,” says Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and current PAC member Robyn Fivush. “We’re a remarkable faculty. The perception is that the criteria have changed and it’s harder to get tenure. This is something certainly that administrators have said: ‘We’re raising the bar, increasing academic standards.’ But I’m not sure what that means when it actually comes to tenure cases.”
Fivush also questions the value of the more centralized review of individual cases. “The fact is that there are places where you can’t have direct comparability. Is it useful to educate faculty in different schools on what the job descriptions are? We’re all scholars, we all do research, we all do some form of teaching and mentoring. But how we all do that—does it ultimately matter?”
Moreover, PAC-level review of tenure and promotion cases can slow to a frustrating crawl what is already a long, deliberative process. “In the school of business we begin in the summer months for the candidate,” Sheth says. “In the early fall we review in the school, and then technically the university makes a decision around February or March. Then we all wait for Board of Trustees approval. While we are deciding whether a candidate meets our standards, the candidate is meanwhile market-shopping and often ends up getting a tenure offer from some other place. That’s the point at which the process breaks down.”
And there is the awkward cross-disciplinary position that PAC members find themselves in, of judging candidates in fields far removed from their expertise. Can a math professor on the PAC really make a call on a file from the law school? Are these uneducated second-guesses?
“Yes, it’s another hoop,” replies Gould. “Yes, it slows down the process. But hopefully we make the process more fair, not less fair. Would you rather have a faculty committee second-guessing or just the president and provost? Or the trustees?”
Adds Professor of Physiology Doug Eaton, who both served on the first PAC and serves on the present one, “The tenure process is obviously the one that has the greatest impact on both individuals and the institution. It’s a long-term commitment. The PAC, having seen packages from other departments, other schools, can really take a comparable look. Maybe the credentials don’t look well substantiated. That might be an issue of a department or dean not having done a complete job in presenting them. If that’s the case, we can go back and ask for more information, and everything is fine. Regardless of the outcome, everyone is on notice that somebody’s paying attention to what they are doing. Their decisions aren’t going to be rubber-stamped up the line.”
By all accounts, however, such instances are rare. “I get a lot of files to read for the PAC, and I start reading and say, Why am I spending my time?” says Fivush. “This is clearly someone there is no question about. The letter from the dean to the provost, the letter from the interdisciplinary committee in the school, the letter from the department all say the same thing.”
Eaton, on the other hand, thinks that is part of the beauty of it. “It’s great for the institution as a whole because we then have these vignettes about the individuals who we hope will become the stars at our institution. I think there is a responsibility on the part of PAC members to carry these vignettes back to their respective parts of Emory.”
In a way, asking scholars to articulate the value of their work to educated non-specialists places a new premium on the ability to convey their own passion and commitment. That is, tenure has the added meaning of acknowledging a scholar’s ability to say why their work is compelling and important. “If you can’t say that,” Gould asks, “then why are you even doing it?”—A.O.A.