In the academic review process, not talking could be costly: communication around tenure & promotion

Interfolio Review, Promotion & Tenure | Topics in Higher Education


In the landscape of academic tenure and promotion reviews, communication—of the regular, formally documented ilk—is often singled out as a “good practice.” It’s also prudent to recognize that poor institutional communication has been fodder for lawsuits and appeals brought by denied candidates.

At the most basic level, it makes sense to give feedback and thus the opportunity for improvement to candidates whose initial hiring signaled potential for long-term success. Radio silence from faculty and departmental reviewers throughout what can be a lengthy process—or even just insufficient feedback—causes surprise when candidates are denied tenure or promotion. Candidates who feel blindsided sometimes file lawsuits. Even if they don’t, they might vent their grievances through news and social media outlets. Even students, colleagues, and alumni make public noise when they hear a beloved professor has been unexpectedly rejected, including starting online petitions in protest.

None of this, of course, bodes well for the institution, even if it eventually comes out ahead in court. Poor or irregular communication with candidates about their performance in teaching, research and scholarship, and service to the community carries financial and reputational ramifications.

Certainly in Interfolio’s work on technology that supports shared governance, the question of necessary and appropriate communication with faculty review candidates—and the need for flexibility between comprehensive public institutions as well as private institutions of all sizes—continues to directly influence our Promotion & Tenure product. In our case, we added a feature specifically to account for candidate rebuttal and response, and similar scenarios, in response to our clients telling us it was critical for them to handle these things online.

What makes for good communication around formal faculty reviews?

According to a joint report on optimal tenure review practices by leading educational organizations, academic departments are responsible for ensuring candidates receive “appropriate ongoing counseling during the probationary period.” And communication can’t be proverbially phoned in—it must be appropriate in that it effectively outlines a candidate’s progress toward tenure or promotion. When communication is perfunctory and fails to critically assess performance, rejected candidates still will feel blindsided. So, merely issuing scheduled updates to the candidate during their probationary period—usually in the form of annual reviews, milestone evaluations (such as a formal pre-tenure reviews), or re-appointment letters—may not be enough.

For example, in Craine v. Trinity College, chemistry professor Leslie Craine sued for tenure denial because she wasn’t informed of her deficient scholarship in the probationary period. In reviewing her reappointment letters, the court found in her favor, concluding that “the quantity of publication was emphasized during the tenure denial but was not clearly emphasized at any time prior thereto.” Craine’s case, which also included a sex discrimination allegation, ended up bringing her a $12.7 million judgement. Other rejected candidates have instigated appeals and lawsuits specifically because the decision letter itself does not provide an adequate explanation. These lawsuits tend to speculate on reasons for denial, because without documentation of a candidate’s shortcomings, assertions about discrimination or retaliation are much more difficult to defend. Quite frequently, it’s procedural errors directly related to inadequate communication at any and all steps of the review process that are the crux of legal cases against colleges and universities.

For reasons like these, many institutions mandate thorough comprehensive formal evaluations and feedback (i.e., counseling and guidance) to junior faculty at regular intervals. When they do, they lay out expectations from the beginning of a candidate’s relationship with the university or college and facilitate regular communication with the candidate on progress towards those expectations. Institutions that take this approach do not wait until the review decision to give negative criticism. At least annually, these candidates receive formal reviews that assess performance and make recommendations for improvement of teaching, scholarship, or service. Institutions and departments may also require formal communication related to merit reviews, third-year/pre-tenure reviews, and written feedback from senior colleague mentors who visit candidate classrooms to assess teaching performance.

When an institution requires its committees to give regular updates to a candidate on the progress of their academic review case, they’re also in effect building a formal record of communication, housed in candidate dossiers. This record helps mitigate legal risk on the whole, since candidates who already understand the full picture of the decision are less likely to appeal. And if they do, the communication record will serve as necessary evidence to demonstrate the institution took every effort to foster candidate success.

Rebuttals as communication opportunities for candidates

In many colleges’ and universities’ tenure and promotion practices, the flow of communication from the candidate at regular intervals is also formally factored in. During the review period, these institutions (perhaps most prominently, public universities whose faculty advancement paths are governed by collective bargaining agreements) provide candidates the opportunity for formal rebuttals or other responses to updates on their cases.

A sample tenure/promotion policy may go something like this:

  1. A candidate is given a copy of each recommendation made by the chair or dean at the departmental or divisional level.
  2. If the candidate disagrees with any statements or conclusions in the file, the candidate may submit a letter of rebuttal and supporting evidence.
  3. The rebuttal letter and supporting evidence is added to the candidate’s dossier and given full consideration at all subsequent stages of the review process.
  4. The dossier is then forwarded for review at the next stages.

Where they are a mandatory part of academic reviews, the value of rebuttal opportunities is really that they demonstrate due process given to the candidate prior to tenure or promotion denial. In court, due process ensures that all sides of a story are heard by unbiased decision-makers. Creating an environment at the university/college level where all sides are heard throughout the process—formally and at well-defined and prescribed intervals and milestones—helps these institutions minimize allegations of wrongdoing.

It is certainly true that the culture and weight of faculty candidate responses is not the same at all institutions. At some schools, the awarding of tenure or promotion to a faculty member occurs within a strong tradition of protective anonymity for the peers who are doing the review. But essentially, where institutions mandate a greater level of transparency to the candidate, they’re not only attempting to instill fairer and more objective tenure and promotion reviews in what historically has been an overwhelmingly subjective exercise—they are also protecting themselves from future litigation or reputational harm.