For many professors, achieving tenure is the holy grail of an academic career. But it is not an easy position to obtain — or to grant.
Unlike associate or adjunct professors, who must normally renew contracts on a yearly basis, tenure-track professors are granted a seven-year probationary contract, after which they are brought under review for a tenure position — one that guarantees job security and the ability to focus their research on a particular field. Tenure candidates undergo three levels of review, starting with their departments and then the specific school they teach in before making their case to the University Committee on Rank and Tenure.
Despite the intensity of the process, administrators acknowledge that the exact requirements for granting tenure can be unclear.
“People don’t know what is expected of them or what the tenure process will entail,” said Fr. Christopher Steck, S.J., chair of the theology department. “There’s no way to say, ‘Yes, this will definitely get you tenure.’”
As with anything so potentially life altering, there is concern about whether the tenure determination process is sufficiently transparent and fair. According to a Sept. 17 article in The GW Hatchet, professors at The George Washington University have expressed concern that the guidelines for gaining tenure are not appropriately fair. Professors at the school said that miscommunication or a disagreement with a dean could prevent faculty from securing lifelong positions, according to The Hatchet.
But academic administrators at Georgetown say that every effort is made to ensure the guidelines are laid out clearly and that the process is as fair as possible.
“I am sure that any process where someone’s life is at stake makes people extremely nervous, and that can give rise to feelings that it’s unpredictable,” said Alexander Sens, former chair of the University Committee on Rank and Tenure. “But that’s really not the case.”
The committee comprises delegates from Georgetown College, the School of Foreign Service and the McDonough School of Business as well as from the Georgetown University Law Center and the Georgetown University School of Medicine. Half of the committee members are appointed by the Office of the President, and the rest are appointed by the faculty senate.
According to Steck, this common review process ensures an even playing field.
“I can see how there would be concern if one department has higher standards than another,” he said. “Ultimately, though, the [final] decision is made by the same committee.”
SFS Faculty Chair David Edelstein, who has served on the tenure review committee for the SFS, added that the process is similar at each phase of review. He said that tenure is determined at all levels on the basis of three main pillars — service, teaching and research — though it is difficult to pinpoint how those three factors are weighted.
“We value teaching, so it’s important that you’re a good teacher. It’s also important that you’re a good scholar and researcher,” Edelstein said. “There’s no single formula for weighing those things.”
Nonetheless, Sens said that clear information about expectations and frequent meetings between senior university academics and those on the tenure track ensures that those who wish to attain tenure generally do.
“I think we set expectations reasonably, and if you meet those expectations, then you should have a pretty good [chance] … that you’ll get tenure.”