Tackling Tenure: An Explanation of Conn’s Tenure-Granting Processes

The personnel review process for faculty receiving permanent appointments at a college, more commonly referred to as the granting of tenure and promotion, are contentious and confusing procedures at any institution. Granting tenure to a professor means giving them a permanent appointment at that institution, and is a practice employed for at least some teaching positions at most institutes of higher learning in the country. Tight institutional budgets and competitive job markets cause the proportion of impermanent faculty appointments, known as “contract,” “visiting,” or “adjunct” positions, to trend upward, resulting in the reality that half of current faculty positions at U.S. colleges and universities are non-tenure track, the Association of American University Professors reports. While Connecticut College is certainly not exempt from this trend, the College employs most of its professors in either tenure-track or tenured positions, as the College’s 2016-2017 Academic Fact Sheet reports that last year, 62% of the College’s 177 full-time faculty members were tenured, 20% were untenured but on the tenure track, and 18% were non-tenure track. It should be noted, however, that according to the Fact Sheet, the College employed 68 part-time faculty members, who would not figure into tenure track vs. non-tenure-track statistics, in academic year 2016-2017. While the College may deviate from national trends, its policies for granting tenure and promotion are similar to those of other institutions.

As many students are likely aware, Connecticut College is governed like any nonprofit school, public or private: by a Board of Trustees that has the final say on the College’s operations. However, the distribution of power between the Board and the College may not be apparent, leaving students largely unaware of how much control the Board has over the College and how much it cedes to College administrators. Connecticut College’s Trustees have oversight and final decision making power over all decisions regarding faculty hiring, firing, and promotion, a standard practice at any institution of higher education. However, the Board cedes this power to the President and other officers and faculty in charge of making these decisions and is expected to vote in accordance with the advice they give.

According to “Policies And Procedures: Information For Faculty, Administrators, And Trustees,” the 26th edition of the Connecticut College Faculty Handbook, “Tenure is often perceived as a reward, but it was not designed as such. Tenure is a precondition, a means to certain ends, specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security.” In essence, the Board of Trustees grants tenure to faculty members as a way of guaranteeing and enabling their academic freedom.

Trustees do sometimes take votes that go against the established practices for faculty hiring and termination. These actions may risk bad publicity for their institution, much of which stems from potential sanctioning or censure by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an advocacy organization that sets the standards for tenure and promotion that regulate many college governing boards, including that of Connecticut College. One prominent recent AAUP censure occurred at the University of Missouri in June 2016 in response to the dismissal of assistant professor Melissa Click by the Board of Curators. Click, who has since become a lecturer at Gonzaga University, was dismissed without a faculty hearing in line with the university and AAUP’s standards.

Click was originally expected to gain tenure that year until an incident during which she confronted two student-journalists during the November 2015 protests led by Concerned Student 1950, a student-led black civil rights group, on the University of Missouri campus. Standing with protesters during a period when protest leaders had requested a media blackout, Click told student-journalists they needed to leave and was filmed saying, “Hey who wants to help me get this reporter out. I need some muscle over here.” While the University had initiated disciplinary proceedings against her, the Board voted to dismiss her prior to their completion under apparent pressure from Republican state legislators. What’s important to understand about this case is that the sanctity of tenure at colleges and universities is an extraordinary practice, but it can easily be encroached upon.

Assistant professors at Connecticut College traditionally receive tenure after serving a six-year probationary period. Probationary periods for assistant professors can be shortened by up to three years if a new faculty member has prior teaching experience and consents to the reduction. A department may also recommend exceptional faculty members with at least two years of service for early tenure with the faculty member’s consent. Although a rare occurrence, professor may be appointed at the associate or full professor level if they have significant previous teaching experience and thus command a higher salary. These professors serve a one to three-year probationary period. Any professor in their probationary period at the College can be referred to as “tenure-track,” meaning they are appointed with the expectation that they will ultimately receive tenure.

The probationary period for an assistant professor can further be divided into two two-year appointments and one three-year appointment. By Oct. 1 of their second year, assistant professors are expected to have completed all work for their doctorate if they had not yet done so before becoming a professor at the College. Assuming that a professor has received their doctorate, they undergo second-year review. In this step the professor’s department’s chair, in consultation with the department’s faculty, submits a letter to the President of the College recommending whether to reappoint the faculty member by Nov. 1 of the faculty member’s second year of service. Given the timeline of the second-year review, such a recommendation is based primarily on the professor’s first year of service. If chairs recommend that the President not reappoint a professor, they must provide substantial evidence of poor performance that’s unlikely to improve. This includes letters from all department faculty stating their recommendation on the matter and student course evaluations. Assistant professors receive notice of the president’s recommendation to the Trustees by Dec 10.

Assistant professors then undergo a third-year review, which is a much more stringent process, and investigates whether their work is at a place and up to the standards necessary for being granted tenure by their sixth year. For the third-year review, all tenured members of a department (or an ad-hoc committee if there are less than three members) submit letters to the Dean of the Faculty expressing whether they recommend the faculty member continue with the College for four years. The department chair then writes a summary of these letters. The professor must also submit a curriculum vitae, evaluations of scholarship and teaching. and 15-page personal evaluation on their scholarship, teaching and service among other documents by Nov. 15 of their third year. The professor’s third-year review file is then evaluated by the Committee on Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure (CAPT), Dean of the Faculty, and the President. Following evaluation, the President notifies the professor of their recommendation to the Trustees by March 1. Professors who do not pass the third-year review have the option to teach at the College for one final year.

The final step is the tenure decision, which occurs in the sixth year of an assistant professor’s appointment at the College. The process, which is similar to the third year review,  reviews a professor’s abilities as a teacher and scholar over the past five years to decide whether to make their appointment at the College permanent. A file similar to the third-year review is submitted on a similar timeline, and 4-6 reviewers from outside the College are asked to submit additional letters that assess the professor’s scholarship. An assistant professor who receives tenure is promoted to the rank of associate professor. Like professors who do not pass their third-year reviews, professors who do not receive tenure have the option to teach at the College for one final year.

It is worth noting that, after gaining tenure, a professor can still be fired by the College in extreme cases, or laid off if the College were in extreme financial trouble. Officially, a tenured professor can be terminated for any violations of the College’s non-discrimination or consensual sexual relations policy as considered by the Faculty Grievances and Hearings Committee and Board of Trustees or other violations of policy as considered by the CAPT and Trustees. The power of faculty to determine whether to terminate a tenured faculty member is integral to the protection of the privilege. Since tenured faculty members sit on the committees that consider faculty termination, they and the members of CAPT may have a bias against recommending termination to the Trustees given that such an action always risks setting a precedent that could lead to the termination of other tenured faculty, including themselves.