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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Academic Exchange: What tenure-related committees are you presently serving on?
Charles Shanor: I’m in my third year on the PAC. In the law school, we have an internal promotion and tenure review committee that I am chairing. That committee makes recommendations to our tenured faculty, which makes a recommendation to the dean, who provides that and his recommendation to the PAC.
AE: How does the PAC function?
CS: The PAC is essentially a quality control device at the university level to look at promotion and tenure recommendations from all the different units of the university. It provides an outsider’s look at the recommendations of the various units. It also helps to encourage some adoption of common promotion and tenure standards across units. I think it’s also helped to elevate the aspirations of the various units, to create a more uniform scholarly work culture.
My understanding is that the president also would like the committee to serve as a sounding board for more academic policy issues. We have had several discussions of matters related to tenure policy, trying to see if we could move towards a little bit more of a university-wide understanding on some promotion and tenure matters, while still paying appropriate attention to disciplinary differences. For example, it’s always been the view of those of us who sat on the PAC that you need to have disinterested reviewers. The reviewer’s relationship to the individual whose work is being reviewed is important. It’s been said that the best reviewer is a person who has never met the candidate, but simply reads the work and says, This is terrific, or, Here are the problems I see with it. Most reviewers are critical because they’re used to being critical. It’s a mixture of applause and caution. We’ve been particularly interested in making sure that the quality of reviewers is really good, including reviewers from leading institutions. The provost is looking for this in part because he thinks that’s good for exposure of our people’s work and ideas.
A lot of work the PAC members do is frankly procedural review, to make sure that things like disinterestedness aren’t kind of lost in the shuffle. There is also an evaluative componenet: are the reviewers really being complimentary and effusive about the candidate, or are they kind of damning with faint praise? If you have someone at another school who is in essence saying, Well, maybe this person’s good enough for Emory, that’s not what you want to see. You want to see someone in the field of the person being reviewed saying this person on a national or international basis stacks up very well with comparable people at the best institutions.
I think what we’re looking for is essentially to reinforce standards for promotion and tenure across the university that, over time, as people retire and new people are hired and they work their way through the ranks, will help the institution as a whole get better and better and better.
AE: How do you answer critiques that suggest the PAC slows down the process and undermines expertise and authority in departments and schools?
CS: Of course there’s nothing like autonomy. We’d all like to have complete control over our own destinies. And there’s no question that the PAC was created by the president and provost to create a more centralized review process in addition to what happens in the various schools. But the PAC does not make decisions that override the units. The PAC is purely advisory to the provost and president. And the provost and president in turn provide their advice on these files to the board of trustees, and it’s the trustees that ultimately grant tenure. It’s a bit like federalism. The states would rather be autonomous, but the federal government sometimes says it’s going to impose this requirement or take a decision away from the states. The university always has that authority.
AE: How have you seen the role of external grants impact tenure decisions?
CS: It varies tremendously from unit to unit. In the medical school, for example, I think it’s a critical part of getting to the PAC. When I was a neophyte on the committee, I initially said this is crass commercialism. In the medical school, the funding of the research enterprise is very expensive. People are expected to carry their share of that. Different people contribute in different ways, but one way of contributing is to attract grants from the NIH or wherever, and oftentimes the fact that the person receives funding is essentially a peer review process for saying the work this person’s doing is interesting and important and new. It’s an indicator of outside approval and understanding of what we’re doing that’s good.