Addressing advancement in academia

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Addressing advancement in academia

Jessica Park / Chief Illustrator

Jessica Park / Chief Illustrator

Jessica Park / Chief Illustrator

Jessica Park / Chief Illustrator

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Faculty panel offers counsel, critiques of tenure system

A modest group of SLU faculty from numerous colleges and departments gathered in Boileau Hall on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 25, to discuss a subject that is perhaps foreign to many students: tenure and promotion. Organized by Michael Lewis, Associate Vice President for Faculty Development, a panel composed of Gretchen Salsich (physical therapy, Doisy College of Health Sciences); James Ginther (theology, College of Arts and Sciences); Carol Needham (School of Law) and Frank Wang (accounting, John Cook School of Business) fielded questions from the audience.

In his opening remarks, Lewis, who is also teaches chemistry, explained that he had conducted similar panels on a more regular basis while working at the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, although these had been sparsely attended. “Most of the people who showed up were already on the tenure track looking to move from assistant to associate professor,” he said. Those attending the present panel, however, were at various stages in the tenure process; a show of hands revealed a predominance of pre-tenure candidates in colleges other than Arts and Sciences interspersed with non-tenure track and post-tenure faculty.

The administrative branch in which Lewis works is, he said, “the conduit between the dean’s office and the provost.” While themselves academics, Salsich, Ginther and Needham also serve on committees involved in the multilayered tenure and promotion process. Each took time to elaborate on their own college’s criteria and approaches to tenure. They also emphasized certain points of guidance, such as following instructions as specified by departments and the Faculty Manual; understanding the “tenure clock” on both a long-term and short-term basis; and verifying that things are done “officially correctly.” Wang had gone through tenure procedure just last year, and thus provided insight into attendees’ questions and concerns based on his experience.

Upon shifting to audience questions, discussion centered primarily on particularities such as dossier preparation, external reviewers, gray areas and inconsistencies in criteria. Audience members’ specific situations framed the conversation and often elicited expressions of understanding from others.
Despite the faculty-exclusive nature of the panel, students were brought up several times throughout. Ginther warned those present against attributing greater weight to research than to teaching; he said that the College of Arts and Sciences considers the two equal in importance.

“[Teaching] goes hand in hand with our commitment to research,” he said.
Student letters are a vital component of the tenure candidate’s dossier, since they attest to the quality of the candidate’s teaching at various levels. One audience member asked if she should include notes from students regarding the positive impact of her teaching. In her reply, Needham lauded the inclusion of any evidence of teachers’ impact on students.
“We cannot have trees falling in the forest unheard,” she said.

Speaking after the panel’s conclusion, Needham reiterated students’ importance. “Each [student] evaluation is part of [a faculty member’s] permanent record. That’s very, very valuable,” she said.

Tenure and promotion at SLU involves candidate evaluation at the department, college and university levels before reaching the provost’s desk, where the definitive decision is made. The University Committee on Academic Rank and Tenure is the university-level body made up of representatives from each college that receives tenure dossiers before they advance to the provost. Needham is the law school’s representative on UCART.

In light of the announcement of a new provost last week, university faculty is experiencing a significant change in leadership insofar as tenure and promotion are concerned. When asked whether this change might alter procedure in any way, Lewis explained that the process would remain the same, but that certain aspects may come under more intensive scrutiny. For example, he said that the Faculty Manual “should probably be opened up for discussion,” due to various gray areas. “This would be the right time,” he said.

Needham shared a similar sense of optimism, remarking that the panel “illuminated some things that definitely needed to be brought into discussion.”