Racing down the tenure track

Racing down the tenure track McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 2, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 05
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > November 2, 2000 > Racing down the tenure track
Illustration ILLUSTRATION: Tzigane

Slice of life:
Racing down the tenure track

Autumn at McGill: leaves fall, campus squirrels fatten themselves for the winter and students huddle under layers of T-shirts and sweaters.

Meanwhile, young professors are bustling about the file cabinets and photocopiers, preparing class materials, submitting their grant applications, and, in many cases, gathering together the evidence of scholarly and professional activity that will form tenure application packages.

Getting tenure is the last hurdle on the way to a career as a successful academic, and consequently there is more than a little anxiety surrounding the process. After all, once you've landed a plum academic position (no easy task on its own), you want to keep it. Equally, when the University hires good professors, it wants to keep them.

"I think there are very few things in university worth fighting over," says Dean of Arts Carman Miller, "but one is appointments and the other is tenure, because they shape the character of the university and its quality of teaching and research for decades."

And so McGill rigorously assesses its professors four to six years into their appointment to determine if their position will be renewed, permanently.

For young academics, the pressure is on. These first few years they must not only publish to avoid perishing, but also teach, serve on committees and carry out the numerous other little tasks that indicate a lively and committed professional.

But most new professors arrive -- in theory in any rate -- prepared for the rigours of the tenure trial.

Sheryl Hamilton, who is in her first term with the Department of Art History and Communication Studies, observes, "As a younger academic you come out of school knowing what you need to do. You know you need a strong publishing dossier, you should be working on a book, you should be employing grad students and you should provide some service to the community."

And just in case, McGill offers a two-day orientation session at the beginning of the year for all new faculty. While the emphasis is not on getting tenure, there is a preliminary discussion about starting to put a dossier together.

And the dossier proves to be the most formidable of beasts. "The process itself, particularly around this time of year, is nerve-wracking," says history professor Catherine Desbarats, "not because of the uncertainty but because of the administrative labour."

Jim Cline, a physics professor who is applying for tenure this year, agrees. "You have to document everything you've done in the way of research, teaching, service or administrative contributions since you've arrived here. It's daunting. Assembling all the documents you need is time consuming, along with updating your CV and making sure you have all the student evaluations from classes from all those years." Some professors even hire administrative assistants to deal with the workload.

Before that, though, new applicants are given a clear sense of what they need to prepare for tenure.

"Our department chair warned me to get an early start on this," says Cline. "And the most useful thing was going to the last professor in this department who got tenure and using his dossier as a model."

g notes that throughout the first years of one's appointment, "tenure is on your mind; you are thinking about what you should be doing." But, she goes on, "I didn't begin thinking about the actual process until about a year before, and then it was notional thinking."

Originally instituted to ensure that professors enjoyed intellectual freedom, tenure has come under criticism as nothing more than a life-time sinecure for a sleepy professoriate.

Such notions are misguided, Miller stresses. "I cannot think of many other jobs where a person is assessed by the department, then that judgement is sent out to external reviewers, and those two judgements are examined rigorously by a university-wide committee to ensure it meets university standards. Only after passing all of these assessments is the person given a right to continue."

But, he notes, the primary goal of tenure now is to express the commitment of the University to its faculty. "My feeling is that civil society currently provides us with what protection we need to express ourselves freely."

And, he says, should a professor fail in his or her duties, the position can be terminated. Tenure thus doesn't guarantee a labour-free existence.

Nor is tenure itself guaranteed. In 1999-2000, of 26 applications, 22 were approved and the remaining four appealed. Such cases end up before the Tenure Appeals Committee, a quasi-judicial committee that assesses the grounds for appeal and then, in a separate hearing, the merits of the case.

The appeal is conducted almost exactly like an arbitration hearing. "It's a full-fledged academic process which has the outside form of a legal process," says committee chair, and law professor, Yves-Marie Morissette, also stressing that "it's not an exercise in lawyerly shenanigans."

While the atmosphere is tense, Morissette observes that it is also civil. "As a result, in the appeals I've heard, you go to the bottom of the academic problems." Last year, two of the appeals were abandoned, and in the other two cases, the committee found in favour of the University.

Because the tenure process is so rigorous, appeals rarely succeed at the "merits" level, although quite often the committee will decide that procedural irregularities might allow grounds for an appeal. The last time the Appeal Committee granted tenure to an applicant who had previously been denied was in 1997.

Between submission of the dossier and approval, which comes in May, notes Desbarats, there is a slight change in the way one is treated. No one is permitted to speak to candidates informally about their prospects, which means that "colleagues who you know well suddenly become quite circumspect, so even if you know you have a very good case there is an altered relationship."

In Desbarats's case, there was no need to worry. "I had a party to celebrate," she says. "Of course, one feels a great relief when it's over." And then there is the matter of a small pay raise, a titular elevation from "assistant" to "associate professor," and, of course, the job security.

"Given that becoming a professor is not a lucrative career option, tenure is some sort of compensation for that," Cline observes wryly. But, as g notes, tenure does not mean that the pressure is off. "It means that you can focus on priorities." There remains, after all, the matter of the rest of one's academic career.

At the start of her career, Hamilton is several years away from applying for tenure. She admits that "there will probably be some anxiety. I think everybody is nervous about it and feels they could be doing better." While observing that now she is simply happy to be at McGill, she adds, "I'm starting to think, 'This goes into the dossier.'" So when the time comes, she will only need the name of a good administrative assistant...

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