What’s a visiting professor? Who cares about course evals? A guide to hiring, tenure and promotion at the 5Cs

Two people sit and stand around a table in a physics laboratory.
Professors are hired into the tenure-track, a process that often takes up to six years to reach the coveted position of “professor.” (Florence Pun • The Student Life)

This article is the first in a series exploring the faculty hiring and tenure process at the 5Cs.

What is tenure, how do you get it and why do some professors seem so stressed out about it? 

Tenure can mean a few different things at different academic institutions, but it ultimately signifies that a professor has been granted academic freedoms for their accomplishments that come along with more job security. 

With several steps between having just finished a doctoral degree and earning the title “professor,” it can be hard to decipher which job title means what and how professors progress from one position to another.

To help clarify these differences, TSL consulted faculty handbooks and talked to academic deans, faculty and students across the 5Cs about tenure and what it’s like for faculty who don’t have it. 

At the 5Cs, faculty are hired on one of two tracks: the tenure-track or the non-tenure track. 

Non-tenure track faculty are usually hired for shorter periods of time, although they can be promoted and their contracts extended. Unless they are rehired in a different position with a tenure-track, they have no way of getting tenure, according to Pomona College’s Dean of the College Robert Gaines.

Meanwhile, professors hired on the tenure-track have the potential to receive tenure after years of teaching and a lengthy revision process.

So, what is tenure?

The American Association of University Professors, which devised the modern concept of tenure in the 1940s, defines academic tenure as an indefinite appointment in an academic position that can only be terminated under extraordinary circumstances. 

Professors that secure tenure gain near-lifetime job security at their institution. They could lose their job only for egregious instances such as faking data in research or a relationship with a student, according to Shelva Paulse, Pitzer’s assistant dean of faculty for academic affairs. 

a flowchart of tenure track (assistant to associate to full professor) roles and non-tenure track roles
(Graphic: Mariana Duran and Reia Li)

How do professors get tenure, and why does my course evaluation matter?

Receiving tenure can be an exhaustive process that usually takes at least six years once on track and involves several academic reviews along the way.

The tenure review process is slightly different at each of the 5Cs, with reviews at different times and different committee names, but the general process is the same. 

The position of assistant professor is the first step on the way to reach tenure, with the title “professor” being the end objective.

Assistant professors are generally evaluated after their first three years – after which, if all goes well, they get a contract renewal for four additional years. After their sixth year, they are evaluated again, which is when a college’s faculty and tenure committee decides whether or not to grant tenure. 

As they undergo their academic reviews, a college-specific committee evaluates how well each tenure candidate meets the colleges’ criteria, which involves their performance in teaching, research and service. 

Students are intimately familiar with the main metric for teaching assessments: course evaluations. 

The student evaluations, which are required at the end of each semester, are “the primary source of information on teaching,” and are “absolutely critical,” according to Gaines.

Still, some faculty argue whether they serve as accurate reflections of a professor’s merit and question the reliability of letting student evaluations be the standard. Studies suggest students don’t always judge teaching effectiveness well, especially when social biases around gender and race come into play.

The committee also looks at service, which refers to the work that faculty do on administrative committees and professional organizations.

When looking at research, the committee looks at scholarly products that the evaluated professor decides to present. These can be articles, books or artwork. Sometimes, the committee brings in external reviewers to assist in this assessment process. 

An assistant professor at the 5Cs, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the process, found that reviews were equal parts self-reflection and anticipation. 

“[It’s] a lot of really hard work, compiling materials and being very critical and reflective about yourself,” the assistant professor said. “[And] then there is a lot of waiting and hoping to see how things go and if it’s going to turn out well.”

When assistant professors are promoted to associate professors, they receive tenure accompanied with a pay raise, and eventually work their way up to full professors based on their performance. 

Why is tenure so highly valued?

Some professors, like Claremont McKenna College mathematics professor Michael O’Neill, appreciate the job security that comes with tenure.

“[Having tenure] basically means you don’t have to worry about where you’re working next year or having to apply for jobs,” O’Neill said.

Other faculty members appreciate the academic freedom that comes with it. To Gaines, tenure is important to faculty as it grants protections to pursue all their research interests. 

“The essence of tenure … is academic freedom,” Gaines said. “Once you have indefinite tenure, you’re free to pursue areas that might be controversial without fear of repercussions.” 

Like Gaines, Paulse highlighted how having tenure allows professors to engage with highly political conversations, such as “issues related to Palestine.”

Daniel Segal, a professor of anthropology and history at Pitzer College, echoed the importance of having tenure when it comes to teaching about controversial subjects without fear of censorship.

“Without protections for academic freedom, faculty must be concerned about whether the knowledge they teach—about, say, the role a college trustee plays in extraction and burning of fossil fuels and thus planetary destruction—might cause offense to the trustees and administration and thus threaten the faculty member’s job.” Segal told TSL via email.

But Quin Fraley PO ’22, who has served on a faculty hiring committee and as a liaison for the history department, feels that just as tenure can support passionate and uncensored research, it can lead professors to stop engaging with a changing world.

“[Professors with tenure] stay in a position of power while the world around [them] changes,” Fraley said. “And some people are spectacular moving with the world and being dynamic and changing and researching and pushing themselves and the institution and students forward. But it also opens the possibility for people to sit tight and not be willing to grow or adjust or adapt to changing circumstances.”

What if tenure isn’t in the cards?

To teach at the 5Cs, however, does not necessarily mean having the option of receiving tenure. 

Some professors are hired on a non-tenure track. They are often referred to as visiting, contingent, lecturers or adjunct faculty and usually have short-term contracts lasting one to three years. 

Professors are hired into non-tenure track positions for a variety of reasons. When a tenured or tenure-track professor takes a sabbatical, a department will sometimes seek a visiting professor to teach their classes while they’re gone. In addition, because of budget constraints, some departments have a limited number of tenure-track positions, and thus hire visiting faculty to teach the rest of their courses. 

Visiting faculty are sometimes paid by the course instead of salaried, and they don’t always have the guarantee that they’ll be invited back to continue teaching.

What’s next for tenure at the 5Cs? 

Given the benefits of having tenure, Segal and the AAUP argue that all faculty positions at the 5Cs should be tenure-track lines, except for certain cases like replacing a professor on leave.

But despite that ideal, fewer and fewer faculty across the country are actually getting the coveted designation as time progresses.

Data from the AAUP reveals that the proportion of tenured faculty nationwide has been falling since the 1970s. Currently, about one third of faculty at four-year institutions hold tenured or tenure-track positions. 

Furthermore, several states, such as Wisconsin, South Carolina and Georgia, have recently considered bills severely limiting tenure or even abolishing it altogether. In Wisconsin, eliminating tenure was presented as a way to grant public institutions increased flexibility in dealing with major cuts to education funding. 

Paulse added that new tenure-track lines are in the works at Pitzer. 

“I don’t think the concept of tenure is in any trouble here at Pitzer,” Paulse said, “We are actually expanding the tenure-track faculty over the next couple of years.” 

At Pomona, more than 70 percent of professors are either tenured or on the tenure-track. According to Gaines, every year the college authorizes as many tenure-track lines as it can afford, based on budget constraints.

To Fraley, non-tenured professors need more support because of the vulnerability that accompanies their status.

“I’ve had absolutely spectacular tenured professors,” Fraley said. “But some of my favorite professors have been visiting. And it’s bizarre, some conversations I’ve had with visiting professors were that there’s just so much uncertainty in the fact that [they] can dedicate so much of [their] life and so much time energy, so much of [their] money to get a PhD, and have phenomenal research, but then have to, at one point leave academia because there’s such a limited job market.”

If you’re a 5C faculty or staff member and would like to help TSL shed light on the tenure process and more, fill out our survey and share it with your colleagues: go.tsl.news/survey.

Facebook Comments