Obtaining tenure a lengthy process at Swarthmore

Though students at the college may be unaware of the specifics of the tenure process, most can envision the security promised by a tenured position at the school.

“An appointment with tenure means an appointment for the rest of your professional career,” says Tom Stephenson, provost and professor of chemistry.

The office of the provost, the chief academic officer at the college, stresses the importance of screening potential tenure-track appointees. The Swarthmore College Handbook for Instructional Staff states that the tenure-track appointment process “is ultimately an integral decision about performance and potentiality, in which a comprehensive judgment is likely to amount to more than simple addition of separate, specific aspects of performance, despite its dependence upon their appraisal.” Academic departments are thus tasked with hiring individuals that will positively contribute to the college community for the duration of their position.

Several Swarthmore professors commented that other universities make the appointment process competitive for candidates, while Swarthmore appoints individual tenure-track positions in order to fill particular needs in specific departments. Stephenson notes that replacements for professors on sabbatical, as well as three-year positions, are separate from positions with tenure.

“Those are just in situations where we haven’t yet made a commitment to have a tenure-track appointment in a particular field,” he said.

However, for candidates being considered for tenure, the appointment process involves multiple niches of the college community. Appointed candidates are given the assurance that they will be considered for tenure after a six-year process. Candidates are hired as assistant professors for four years. After their third year, the department reviews the candidate, and, if asked to return to the college, the candidate goes on sabbatical during their fourth year. Upon returning from their sabbatical, professors are considered for tenure.

In the event that a candidate must leave due to familial responsibilities, the process is postponed until the candidate returns. Circumstances such as these, however, in no way affect the candidates consideration for the position.

Professor of Biology John Jenkins notes that professors are given several instances of advice and review. By the time their positions are up for tenure, says Jenkins, professors should be aware of their standing with the college.

“You’ve had a couple of reviews at that point,” said Jenkins. “A lot of information has been collected, and the chair will sit down with you and say, ‘Your teaching needs to improve,’ or, ‘Your research needs to improve’ — you’ve been given signals all along the way.”

The actual tenure appointment process begins in a professor’s sixth year. The department assembles a dossier of information on the professor’s six years at the college, made to review the candidate’s outside scholarship, their teaching and their service to the institution. The dossier consists of letters from other colleagues in the department — both tenured and untenured — colleagues in other departments at the college, administrative staff, current students and recent alumni.

“Students play a very critical role,” said Stephenson, regarding the letters from students. “They’re probably the most important piece on the evaluation of teaching.”

The College Handbook stipulates that 25 letters should come from students. Of the 25 students, half are chosen by the candidate and the other half are chosen by the department chair. These letters come from a wide range of students, ranging from students who excelled in the course to those who failed. Because some students opt to not send in a letter or forget to send a letter, departments generally send out more than 25 requests in order to meet the quota.

Zachary Kronstat ’15 admits that he did not know much about the tenure process when asked to write a letter for a tenure-track candidate.

“I knew that I felt passionate about her class, and I felt like she should’ve continued teaching that specific class, but based on her upper-level students, she wasn’t the best upper-level professor,” he commented. Ultimately, the professor in question did not receive the tenured position.

After the pool of letters is collected, the departments tenured staff reviews the dossier. The dossier includes the chair’s review, the colleague and student reviews, the candidate’s published and unpublished work, an updated curriculum vitae, and a letter from the candidate outlining their professional career and their future academic aspirations. The candidate can opt to submit the letter directly to the chair — otherwise, it will be distributed among their department.

Once the dossier is assembled, the Department Chair makes a final evaluation and summary of the dossier which is then sent to the Committee of Promotion and Tenure. According to Stephenson, the committee, appointed every year, consists of the college president, the provost, and four senior members of the faculty. The Faculty and Instructional Staff Handbook asserts that the Committee has sole authority to negotiate any contractual arrangements with the candidate. The contract must then be approved by the president and the Board of Managers.

Jenkins, who was appointed to a tenured position in the late ’70s, reflected on the stress and anxiety surrounding the tenure process.

“The bottom line is, at least for me it was and for a lot of my colleagues, a pretty stressful time of the year. Because it’s just one black hole after another,” he said. “The department collects all of this information, and you don’t know where it’s going. You don’t know how they’re dealing with it.”

Added Jenkins, “I think it’s a fair system — stressful, yes, but fair.”

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