Tenure at Dartmouth: the path of recognition for faculty

by Debora Cobon | 8/30/19 3:15am

At Dartmouth, classes are taught by faculty members with varying titles, from “instructor” to “assistant professor” to “professor” — and everything in between. Though the specifics of each position are often unknown to students, these different titles generally refer to stages in an important process: faculty tenure. 

Tenure is a life-long permanent employment awarded to professors after a number of promotions and a lengthy selection process involving review by department and program faculty, associate deans, the Dean of the Faculty, the Committee Advisory to the President, the College President and the Board of Trustees. Of the 632 faculty members currently employed across the academic departments and programs in the Arts and Sciences at the College, over two-thirds are either tenured or on the tenure track. This is a stark contrast from national trends, which predict that around 70 percent of faculty employed nationwide are on non-tenure-tracks, according to sociology professor Emily Walton. 

A professor’s journey to tenure often begins upon completion of a Ph.D. or the comparable advanced degree or experience. However, due to the College’s prestige, most professors granted tenure at Dartmouth hold prior teaching experience, according to computer science professor Thomas Cormen, who started teaching in a tenure-track position at Dartmouth in 1992 and received tenure in 1998. 

Cormen said that there are two ways to get on the tenure track at Dartmouth. A professor can either be hired with tenure— typically if he or she has previously achieved tenure at another university — or he or she can be hired as an assistant professor or instructor and work through the tenure track. 

The difference between an assistant professor and an instructor simply refers to whether that individual has completed a Ph.D. or equivalent degree — an assistant professor has completed his or her advanced degree requirements at the time of appointment, whereas an instructor has not. Instructor appointments last two years and are followed by appointment as an assistant professor, provided that the advanced degree requirements are completed, according to the Handbook of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. Professors given either of these titles are referred to as junior faculty members who are just beginning on the tenure track. Recently, the competition for tenure-track positions has made it more difficult to land a position immediately out of graduate school, even in the computer science department, which hires faculty members frequently, according to Cormen. As a result, he added, there has been an upward trend of hopeful candidates gaining industry experience or completing postdoctoral fellowships prior to applying. 

A candidate’s search for a tenure-track position involves finding positions aligned with his or her particular research interests and finding the right fit, which can take a few years, according to Walton, who was hired in 2012 and received tenure in 2018. 

“I spent two years on the job market and in my first year, I interviewed at four places and didn’t receive a job offer — that was typical,” Walton said. “In [the sociology department], we might receive about 200 appplications for a job and narrow the list down to three people to contact for interviews. It’s definitely very hard.” 

All professors who have obtaineda tenure-track position as a junior faculty member will be reviewed for tenure six years after their initial appointment, allowing ample time to begin building up their tenure case, according to government professor Lisa Baldez, who previously served on the Committee Advisory to the President. That committee makes recommendations for tenure directly to the President and is comprised of six full professors, two from each of the three academic divisions: Arts & Humanities, Sciences and Social Sciences. A majority vote is needed from the Committee Advisory to the President for a case to be passed along to the President of the College. 

Baldez noted that, in certain cases, a professor may be reviewed for tenure earlier than six years into the job if he or she feels his or her case is strong enough. Occasionally, she added, tenure candidates receive extensions on their review due to family leave or other extenuating circumstances. 

Prior to being considered for tenure, tenure-track professors undergo a reappointment evaluation in the winter term of their third year of employment. 

“You’re not guaranteed a job for six years; you’re guaranteed a job for three years,” Cormen said. “If you don’t get reappointed, you’re given one more year — the ‘terminal year’ — to figure out what your next landing place is going to be. However, most people here get reappointed because we hire well.” 

In a professor’s sixth year, tenure cases are based on three criteria: research, teaching and service. At Dartmouth, research and teaching are weighed equally and more heavily than service, which is not the case for all universities, according to Cormen. A large research university may heavily favor the quality of a candidate’s research over teaching and service, for example, whereas Dartmouth values quality teaching equally to research. 

“One aspect of research that is important is obtaining external funding,” Cormen said. “If you do not obtain external funding, that can be an indication that your work is not well-received by your peers and by funding agencies, which can be a real impediment to getting tenure.” 

A faculty member’s portfolio includes a curriculum vitae, a list of eight to 10 individuals qualified to review his or her scholarly work, a list of students qualified to speak about his or her teaching and mentoring, published works or other evidence of artistic or professional work, published reviews of the candidate’s work and a five-page statement outlining his or her achievements and goals related to scholarship, teaching and other contributions to the College and to the profession, according to the College’s Handbook of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

“We’re looking for someone who has completed really high quality work and has every likelihood of continuing to do high quality work for the remainder of their career,” Baldez said. “Tenure is life-long employment and it’s an incredible privilege, so it’s a decision that the university takes very seriously, so we may see anywhere from three to six tenure cases a week.” 

The last component, service, considers how a professor has contributed to his or her department, the College and his or her professional community, according to Cormen. Service can include being on program committees, reviewing papers, serving as an editor for a journal or organizing workshops amongst other professional and departmental duties. 

Tenure cases are given multiple rounds of evaluation including recommendations based on departmental votes, an associate dean’s recommendation and the Committee Advisory to the President’s recommendation before being presented to the President of the College. If the president votes in favor of the candidate, that decision is then reviewed and voted on by the members of the Board of Trustees, comprised of the President of the College, the governor of New Hampshire and 24 alumni. Walton said that in her department, about half of people who apply for tenure receive it, highlighting how difficult and thorough the tenure selection process is. 

Once a professor reaches the status of associate professor, they have earned life-long employment and can be promoted further to full professor, which involves a similar review about six or seven years after getting tenure. 

“At that point, you have to demonstrate leadership in your field beyond just research output and have to show that you’ve taken extra steps, which often refers to your commitment to service to the College” Walton said. 

The majority of courses at Dartmouth are taught by tenure-track faculty, but a department may reach out to hire visitors and lecturers to teach courses depending on interferences with faculty schedules or sabbaticals. Some departments, such as the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, teach all incoming freshmen and thus need to have a large faculty pool, so it is not uncommon for courses in the department to be taught by lecturers and other non-tenured faculty, Walton said. 

Along with a feeling of relief, tenure grants the benefits of significant salary increases, job security and more time to focus on teaching, according to Walton. 

“Everyone comes in with this idea of ‘publish or perish,’ and we measure our success by our research output,” Walton said. “It’s life-changing to receive that phone call saying you’ve been approved. You can focus more on your teaching and have more investment in the institution because they support you as someone they want to keep around."

This article is a part of the 2019 Freshman Issue.