For Georgetown’s tenure candidates, making the jump to permanent status comes with its fair share of hurdles — but administrators say a standout guidance process is the key to an acceptance rate of more than 50 percent.
The rigorous tenure application system, an entrenched component of most research universities across the United States, determines which professors will continue to contribute to the scholarship of the school with academic free reign — and national data indicate a drastic decline in tenure track faculty.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 1975 the ratio of tenure track to non-tenure track faculty was 57 percent to 30 percent. In 2007, it had switched to 30 percent to 50 percent.
But the numbers don’t hold on the Hilltop, according to University Provost James O’Donnell.
“At Georgetown we have not seen that phenomenon. We have both grown our tenured faculty and non-tenured faculty in the course of the last 20 years fairly dramatically,” O’Donnell said. “If a university abolished tenure, it would have trouble recruiting faculty. But that wouldn’t be the most startling thing about such an act. You’d really be asking the deeper question of, ‘Just what is this institution committed to?'” he added.
According to the provost’s rough calculations, for the 700 full-time, main campus faculty, 400 are tenured, 100 are tenure track and 200 are non-tenure track professors. O’Donnell says that Georgetown tries to strike a balance between the two types of hires.
“For us, getting the right mix of the career-tenured academic commitment and the special quality of instruction that you can get off the tenure track, especially in Washington, D.C., is an interesting part of my job,” he said.
According to O’Donnell, the benefits of the Hilltop’s tenure system arrangement are evident.
“If you like our faculty and you like what we do here, then you do, in fact, like our tenure system,” he said.
O’Donnell said the emphasis on supporting junior faculty on their way to tenure and the high percentage of faculty members who are successful in securing tenure — consistently more than half the applicants — sets Georgetown’s tenure system apart.
When these applicants are hired for a tenure track position, they know they have seven years at Georgetown to prove themselves worthy. Most apply for tenure in their sixth year and in rare cases, if denied, faculty can reapply for a final chance in their seventh.
“It’s a pretty challenging period in one’s life as an academic. One feels a lot of pressure to do what you need to do to get tenure. … Most of us want to keep our job,” said David Edelstein, who applied and received tenure last year with joint appointments in the College’s government department and in the School of Foreign Service.
The Trail to Tenure
An applicant’s preparation begins early in his or her sixth year at Georgetown, starting in September or earlier, as the tenure clock runs on the academic year.
Applicants spend time compiling every significant piece of academic writing they have published, writing a personal statement about the mission of their scholarship and assembling a dossier that demonstrates their record of scholarship, teaching and service to the university — the three main components of the tenure decision.
After candidates submit this package, they anxiously await an answer for the entirety of the academic year.
“It’s a pretty uncomfortable year in the sense that all of this is kept pretty strictly confidential from the candidate so you submit your material and you hear very little,” Edelstein said.
Though the process varies slightly by school, the university has standardized the path of a tenure dossier.
During the departmental review, the first and most important step in the process, the faculty member’s department selects undisclosed external peer reviewers from across the country to review the candidate’s work and write letters regarding the applicant’s contribution to academic discourse. The department also drafts a recommendation letter signed by the department chair or the chair of the faculty for the SFS.
From there, the file heads to the dean of the school, who reads the letters of recommendation, reviews the candidate’s scholarship, service and teaching, and writes his or her own letter for the candidate.
The dossier then makes a brief pit stop at the Office of the Provost to check for completeness before going on to the University Committee on Rank and Tenure, the university-wide 15-member committee that makes decisions about tenure and promotion for faculty across the main, medical and law school campuses.
On the UCRT, each application is assigned to a reviewer of the committee who prepares a presentation for the rest of the committee.
“[The presenter’s report] is followed up by robust discussions,” said Elliott Crooke, chair of the UCRT. “One of the things I think works best about the committee is the confidentiality by which it works, that folks are very comfortable with.”
After the debate, the committee submits its recommendation, and the document returns to O’Donnell, who then writes a letter and sends it to University President John J. DeGioia, who has the final say on all tenure decisions.
Each candidate receives either a letter of acceptance from the president or a denial from the provost in early summer.
Keeping Candidates on Track
O’Donnell said that the university’s high acceptance rate is a reflection of Georgetown’s hiring processes and its mentoring system, which he said keeps expectations realistic.
On the Hilltop, junior faculty members undergo a formal review in their department each year and receive a letter that provides feedback on how they are progressing on their paths.
“Ideally there should be very few surprises come tenure time,” Robert Cumby, who led the Main Campus Executive Faculty Task Force on Rank and Tenure Standards, agreed.
“The probationary period itself and the feedback you get from your department during that time is an essential part of [the tenure] process,” O’Donnell said.
Edelstein agreed that the guidance at Georgetown is a plus.
“Georgetown does a very good job of supporting junior faculty, which makes [the tenure process] a little less anxious,” he said.
According to Cumby, a third-year review process that is more akin to the formal tenure process — in that it goes outside the department to get a preliminary reading on a candidate — will likely go into effect this coming year.
Georgetown also stands out from the pack because it tends to hire candidates that are likely to make tenure, in contrast to a select group of peer institutions like Harvard and Princeton. Many deans on the Hilltop confirmed this culture’s prevalence, saying that those institutions typically tenure very few of their young faculty, instead choosing to hire already-distinguished professors once they have made a name for themselves.
“Every time we hire, we are looking for someone … who will be around for a good long time,” O’Donnell said. “If we go to someone who has just got a Ph.D. … and we ask them to come and start their family life and buy their house here, to do so without a reasonable hope that they can stay around for a good long time I think we could be accused of acting in bad faith.”
Patrick Deneen, a professor of government, was hired with tenure at Georgetown after being denied tenure at Princeton. He attested to the atmosphere of the hiring process there.
“At Princeton, there was a strong expectation that as a junior professor, there was a better than even chance that you would not receive tenure,” he said.
What Does It Take?
Three categories — scholarship, teaching and service — are the guidelines for evaluating every professor who applies. On a broader level, however, the decision is less exact than a mathematical equation.
“The word we tend to use now is trajectory,” O’Donnell said. “Metaphorically, we’re trying to plot the course you’ve been following. … It’s a judgment about the future, which is always uncertain.”
But, he said, the focus is not on the past six years. Instead, it is a reading of whether the candidate will continue to contribute to the Georgetown community.
“It’s not a question of, ‘Has someone done enough to get tenure?'” O’Donnell said.
Within the categories of a tenure decision, scholarship is the most important. Crooke said that the peer reviewers of academic expertise play the biggest role.
“They provide detailed comments as someone in that field, what do they think of this applicant’s scholarship,” he said. Both the comments and the background appraisal from the external evaluator are taken into account.
The committee also heavily weighs the professor’s performance in the classroom, which is judged by teaching evaluations, in-class observation and evaluation of curriculum — depending on the department and school.
A résumé of committees served on and positions held within and outside of Georgetown typically make up the service component.
According to Cumby, service has little weight comparatively, but many administrators said that service is the mark of a team player.
“We want people here who are good citizens of the university,” Dean of the SFS Carol Lancaster said.