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To reform tenure process, GW could shift power to campuswide committee

Media Credit: Camille Sheets | Senior Staff Photographer
Board of Trustees chair Nelson Carbonell, who spent six months meeting with more than 600 faculty members, advocated for a wider tenure review process.

Updated March 28, 2014

A professor’s fate for earning tenure could be in the hands of a committee of faculty from across the University under a recent recommendation from the leader of the Board of Trustees.

Nelson Carbonell revived the controversial idea for a University-wide tenure committee at a Faculty Senate meeting last Friday, looking to replace the current model of department-based groups who give the first greenlight for professors seeking lifetime employment.

Carbonell said in an interview Friday that the move would help streamline tenure standards, ensuring the University promoted using the same yardstick across schools.

“We don’t want a school where it’s impossible to get tenure and a school where it’s really easy to get tenure. We’d like to really make sure that we’re getting the same caliber of people across the institution,” he said in an interview after the Faculty Senate meeting last week.

While Carbonell said he didn’t want to force the proposal through the Faculty Senate, he strongly advocated for a change in the way the tenure process is run. He also said he wants to get the Board out of the business of rubberstamping tenure cases because trustees don’t have the expertise to judge faculty.

Now, tenure-track faculty are reviewed for promotion by their sixth year after they prepare a packet of their academic achievements. If professors’ departments approve them for tenure, the cases move up to the dean and the provost.

A University-wide tenure committee could be less likely to approve as many cases, but would put GW in line with five of its competitor schools, as well as other top-ranked universities like Stanford and University of California at Berkeley, which all give the power to interdisciplinary faculty committees.

“It’s something that’s going to require some thought and some study, but we need a system that aligns with where we’re trying to go with the institution,” Carbonell said, adding that he’s not advocating for major shifts in policy.

“I want to make sure that tenure-track faculty understand that we’re not going to change the system and make it impossible for them to get tenure,” he added.

Each college would likely keep its own committee, which reviews tenure cases before the dean. In some colleges, those committees are new. The GW School of Business created one last year.

The proposal for a campus-wide committee was floated two years ago by the provost’s office, but quickly squashed after top administrators admitted it would face flak. Provost Steven Lerman said Friday he wanted to see the idea move forward. That could happen as the Board of Trustees looks to revise the faculty code in the next several months.

“It’s quite common practice elsewhere, it is not unusual. In some cases, the committees are extremely powerful representatives,” Lerman said.

Murli Gupta, chair of the Faculty Senate appointment, promotion and tenure committee, said he resists the idea because the senate’s executive committee already comprises professors from across schools.

That group reviews tenure cases if the provost or dean disagrees with the department’s decision to grant tenure.

“I believe it’s running very smoothly there are checks and balances,” Gupta said.

But administrators and faculty leaders typically walk on eggshells when discussing tenure cases, where about $2 million worth of lifetime earnings and spending hang in the balance for professors and the University.

Faculty leaders complained last year that standards were applied unevenly across colleges, and business professors contended that former dean Doug Guthrie was unfairly raising the bar for tenure.

If groups disagree on whether a professor should become tenured, the case moves to the Faculty Senate executive committee and the Board of Trustees. One Faculty Senate executive committee told Guthrie he was an “abomination” during a tenure appeal meeting last year, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education story last fall.

Fred Lindahl, chair of the GW School of Business’ appointment promotion and tenure committee, said a University-wide committee could gauge a candidate’s worthiness for tenure by looking at letters of recommendation and outside evaluators’ analysis that candidates submit.

They do not need to evaluate the scholarly work particular to that field, he added.

“People would object that there are challenges, like, ‘I do research in business subjects, how can someone from the law school tell if I should be promoted?’” Lindahl said. “I don’t think that’s a legitimate objection. I have a lot of evidence already from the department and outside evaluators.”

– Chloe Sorvino and Jacqueline Thomsen contributed to this report.

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