On tenure (what, me worry ?)

Making tenure is arguably the most significant hurdle in the career of an academic professor. In particular, the year or two leading to the tenure deliberation can be quite nightmarish. Candidates attempt, often frantically, to build as impressive as possible research and teaching portfolios. Their files will undergo intense scrutiny at various levels; a number of academics, not only in their field of expertise and/or at the same institution, as well as university administrators, will be called upon to express an opinion on the applicant’s worthiness of retention.
A tenure rejection deals a huge, often devastating blow to a career, hence the apprehension that, to different degrees, all of us who have gone through the process have experienced. But is such trepidation justified ?

What is, in fact, the frequency with which tenure bids are unsuccessful, say at research intensive universities [0] ? Should tenure-track faculty who have neither been dismissed, nor have left their post during the probationary period, really worry about the outcome of their tenure application, at least from a strictly statistical standpoint ?
I am surprised by the relative paucity of tenure statistics that are available, at least on the web; I am no Google wizard, but I expected these numbers to be out in the open, extensively analyzed and discussed, especially on higher education journals and web sites, a favorite subject of which is tenure.
I have only found one study,1 published relatively recently (2006), where some numbers are furnished (I thank in advance anyone who will point me to others); data from ten different research intensive universities show that on average only about half of all newly hired tenure-track assistant professors end up making tenure at the institution that hired them in the first place [1]. However, that is not a measure of the rate of success of tenure bids, as many of those faculty who do not make tenure simply leave early, without ever submitting a formal tenure application [2].
The above-mentioned study itself reports data for one institution, showing a rate of success of 90% for men and 87% for women faculty applying for tenure on their sixth probationary year (data pertain to academic year 2004-05). These seem fairly high percentages; one may wonder if this was an unusually good year, or whether this particular institution might just be on the lenient side, when it comes to granting tenure. Upon searching, however, more or less direct references can be found, in various research papers, university documents and other news sources, to success rates around 90% for tenure applications, at institutions across the United States and Canada.2,3,4,5,6 This is consistent with the most recent data that I have been able to find, dating back to the 1997-98 academic year, showing a nationwide 81% tenure success rate, going up to 90% if only public institutions are considered.7 I have no reason to believe that things may have changed significantly in recent years, and my personal experience certainly backs data such as these.

Some university administrators have actually confirmed to me such high tenuring rates; typically, they spin them in favor of their own institutions by arguing that they merely reflect the high effectiveness and selectivity of the hiring process. In other words, since the “best and brightest” are hired in the first place, it is only normal that they should be awarded tenure, eventually. Another a posteriori (and no less self-serving) explanation for the high success rate, one that I have repeatedly heard from administrators, is that faculty whose academic performance is unsatisfactory [3] are given plenty of early warning signs, typically at annual reviews. As they see the “writing on the wall”, they leave spontaneously, again leaving only the best and the brightest at the finish line. This second argument suggests that early defections of probationary faculty should be attributed, in some part, to the predicted weakness of their tenure bids; however, if that accounted for (most of) the 50% average attrition rate reported in Ref. 1, it would clearly undermine the university claim of effectiveness at pinpointing excellence at hiring time.
Both claims seem bogus, actually.

In the absence of robust data showing it, positing that probationary faculty who leave early do so primarily out of realization that they will not make tenure is downright baseless. For every departing faculty who would not have made tenure, there may be on average another one who would have, but moves to, say, another institution, possibly a more prestigious one… and there are actually many possible reasons for leaving before spending six years on the job. They include, and are not limited to: location, pay, a wide array of family reasons, emergence of different professional interests, health reasons, dissatisfaction with the working environment… One does not see why all of that should not apply to tenure-track professors just as well as it applies to all other (mostly untenured) professionals, who can often foretell their imminent layoff but seldom resign preemptively.
Finally, if universities are, as they claim, so good at both spotting excellence [4] and at weeding out mediocrity early on, so that tenure review is merely a formality whose outcome is almost certain… why keep it in place ? One would think that administrators obsessed with cost-effectiveness, would have found by now a more expedite way to dismiss that mere 10% of remaining bad apples (who have made it to the end anyway, and therefore are presumably not that bad). A highly bureaucratic, time-consuming and futile “rite of passage”, with nerve-wracking and demoralizing effects on the faculty and even potential legal reverberations, seems hardly “cost-effective”.

Could it be, instead, that high tenuring rates reflect a rather different state of affairs than what we faculty are led to believe when we start out on the tenure track ? That, aside from few well-known places, universities are actually very reluctant to dismiss tenure-track faculty ? That the vast majority of those who leave before the time to submit a tenure application, do so for reasons unrelated to tenure ? That the purpose of the tenure review process is merely that of keeping probationary faculty on their toes, hoping to achieve a small degree of self-weeding, and perhaps to provide academic departments with a formal venue to dismiss the few, very few, who really do not make the cut ? That, ultimately, the green ogre of tenure review may be just a rabbit in disguise ?
I shall limit myself to making a few observations, mostly drawn from my personal experience, suggesting that the dismissal of a tenure-track faculty is much less frequent an occurrence than many of us may believe:

  • On each tenure rejection, a huge amount of money goes up in smoke. It is not only the salary that the university has paid during the probationary period, it is also the start-up funding and infrastructural investment that was made on the person. A brand new laboratory may have been built, and costly equipment purchased. Unless the faculty is immediately replaced with another in the same field of research (it is often the case that the department is not allowed to replace the faculty, and the position is lost), much of that will simply lay unused for a long time. No university administration will be happy about that. There will be long-term consequences, as the next requests from that department for tenure-track positions will be met with skepticism and wariness by the dean and the provost, following such a fiasco.
  • While departmental faculty may be motivated by the desire of raising the bar on their probationary faculty, hoping to increase the prestige and visibility of the department as a whole, administrators are often more pragmatic in their assessment. After all, the person whose performance is evaluated was initially picked by the same department which will be in charge of picking a replacement. If things did not work out as well as expected, there is no reason to believe that they will go any better next time around, especially if the pool of candidates in a particular field is limited, and competition among different institutions to attract the best ones is fierce (read: the person under exam may be “just average”, but is the department itself much better than that ?). If the person promises to continue to offer passable teaching and research contributions, it is best to keep him/her around.
  • The decision to reject a tenure applicant typically originates within the department of affiliation. This takes place either through a vote, or through a (more or less) formal procedure whereby faculty in the department convey their feelings about the candidate to the department chair. The chair, in turn, may elect to endorse the negative recommendation of the majority, or even of a minority of significant size, and forward it to the Dean. While a negative departmental recommendation usually results in the dismissal of the candidate, that outcome is not certain, i.e., the candidate may still be awarded tenure. Now, even if it is all presumed to be “confidential”, information can (and often does) leak, allowing the probationary faculty to find out later on which colleagues did not support his/her tenure bid. Hard feelings will inevitably ensue. When the dust has settled, a tense, and unpleasant situation will exist for many years between him/her and some colleagues. Fear of future retaliation, or simply the desire to avoid confrontation, will induce most to give a positive (if half-hearted) recommendation, or simply keep quiet.
  • Tenure rejections can and often do, lead to bitter, costly court litigations,8 with a lot of unwanted bad publicity, especially if the tenure candidate may credibly allege to be the victim of discrimination. The institution (especially a state one) will often be called upon to prove that the candidate did not perform adequately. This can be a difficult proposition, as universities seldom issue precise, quantitative tenure guidelines and criteria [5]. Building strong enough a case for dismissal can be quite tricky, especially if the candidate underwent annual or semi-annual reviews during the probationary period, without ever receiving a clear warning about possible termination. Dismissed faculty may successfully argue, based on accepted measures of productivity, that their performance was on average no worse than that of their tenured colleagues, as in this high profile case. If the case against the potential plaintiff is not clear-cut (and most are not), universities will be wary of finding themselves in some legal quagmire, opting instead to cut their losses and simply grant tenure, even if the applicant is seen as somewhat of a disappointment.

Notes
[0] I am not considering here those places, such as Harvard, that are notorious for their reluctance to grant tenure to their probationary faculty. There are only relatively few such places, although they have usually a rather high profile.
[1] The study also finds than men have a slightly better chance than women (56% versus 48%). It is unclear to me whether this (small) difference is statistically significant.
[2] It may be regarded as a measure if some correlation could be established between the decision of faculty to leave early, and their predicted chances of getting tenure. One might speculate that decisions of leaving during the probationary period largely ought to reflect pessimism about being granted tenure, and thus may well be equated to early tenure rejections. This indeed seems to be the underlying assumption in Ref. 1, even though the authors do not openly state it.
Such a correlation is far from obvious, but might conceivably exist. I suppose that one could go about assessing it quantitatively, by interviewing a large number of such professionals and asking them to what extent their decision of leaving their post early was influenced by tenure worries. On the other hand, simply assuming such a correlation, as if it were self-evident, seems scarcely scientific.
[3] Obviously, one must be talking about those few oddball faculty who “slip through the cracks”…
[4] Incidentally, there must be an endless supply of “excellent candidates”, given that the very same claim is made by institutions of widely different reputations and standings.
[5] For an extensive discussion of this problem, see, for instance, this reference.

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