The Tenure Process at UW-Madison

Michael Bernard-Donals, Vice Provost for Faculty & Staff

Tenure is not just an academic milestone; it’s the assurance of academic freedom to pursue areas of teaching, research and work in the community in whatever direction they may lead. It isn’t carte blanche; it is the guarantee of the rights and responsibilities of faculty that encourages members of the university community to be fearless in their pursuit of knowledge and obliges them to be responsible for giving one another the respect they are due as members of that community.

What follows is a brief catalogue, listed more-or-less chronologically, of some of the significant components of the tenure-and-promotion process.

Faculty Policies & Procedures (FP&P)
Faculty Policies & Procedures are the university faculty’s shared governance documents, or the faculty’s “constitution.” FP&P and other faculty legislation lay out, in basic form, the way the university works, including what Departmental Executive Committees do, what the Divisional Committees do, how tenure-track appointments work, the basics of annual reviews, and so on.

Executive Committee
Every department has an executive committee, which consists of all the tenured members of the faculty. Executive committees are the bodies that deal with budgetary and personnel matters, including annual reviews and tenure decisions. The departmental executive committee is required to establish procedures for guidance, annual evaluations, and tenure evaluations. A copy of the procedures must be given to each assistant professor at the time of hire.

The Executive Committee votes on renewal of contracts and on tenure. You may appeal a non-renewal decision.

Department Chair
Your chair is an important mentor and colleague, and will be the person most responsible for bringing your reviews – and ultimately your tenure case – to the Divisional Committee. Your chair knows better than most how the department fits into the school or college and university context, can be helpful in giving you a sense of how your work fits into that context, and can be a useful resource for helping you network not just in your area of interests and expertise but beyond it.

Review committee (“oversight”)
Every assistant professor is assigned an annual review committee at the beginning of their first year. These individuals are assigned by your department chair to help and support you by bringing your work before your colleagues on the Executive Committee for review. They will ask you for examples of your work – across teaching, research or creative activity, and service – so they can prepare a report to members of the Executive Committee each year. The department’s executive committee must approve the written annual evaluation and provide that written evaluation to you. In some departments, the review committee also serves as the mentoring committee.

Generally review committee members’ work is related to yours, so there’s a natural affinity that should lead to lots of opportunities to talk with members of the committee about the progress of your work.

Mentor or mentoring committee (“guidance”)
Assistant professors will also often be assigned a departmental mentor or mentoring committee, which usually consists of members of the department’s executive committee. Depending on your field of research, it might be beneficial to have a faculty member outside your department on your mentoring committee. Often a mentor or mentors do not sit on the review committee, so they can be a resource to you independent of any evaluation, though in some cases a mentor may also be assigned to your review committee. Mentors are generally assigned by the department chair in consultation with you; they can provide helpful information about navigating the department, your school or college, and the university. They will also provide advice on your teaching, research, and outreach/service activities. Particularly if they are assigned independently of your review committee, mentors can be used as confidential, honest brokers who can help you when you have questions about any aspect of life in the department, college, or university.

Annual reviews
Assistant professors are reviewed annually so that members of your department are knowledgeable about your work and your progress and can help and support you in the best way possible throughout the tenure process. The annual review is also the point at which your contract is extended. All assistant professors are on an initial contract (often three years), which is extended through the probationary period – by your department’s Executive Committee and the school or college.

“Contract extension”
Because assistant professors work on renewable contracts until they are reviewed for tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor, annual reviews are essentially opportunities for contract extensions. This gives both you and your colleagues a long window – six years, or more if you extend the tenure clock – in which you do your best work, seek advice, build support, and get your academic program underway.

The Tenure Clock
The tenure clock is set at hire and runs for a maximum of seven years, with the tenure decision coming in the sixth year. Experienced faculty may be hired with credit for up to three “tenure clock” years. You may extend the tenure clock for a number of reasons, including childbirth or adoption, significant elder or dependent care obligations, medical circumstances, or other extenuating circumstances beyond your control that adversely affect progress toward tenure.

Tenure and Promotion Criteria
Each Divisional Committee has a document that lays out the criteria for tenure and promotion and tenure, as well as the process it uses to evaluate tenure cases. Beyond these broad criteria, each department has a description of department-specific criteria and the departmental evaluation process for tenure and promotion. Every assistant professor should be given a copy of the departmental criteria at the time of hire and divisional criteria in the first year, when a faculty division (arts & humanities, biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences) is selected. This is so that you know, right up front, the context in which your work will be seen, how to pace the progress of your scholarly work, and how to discuss benchmarks with your colleagues and your department chair.

Tenure “dossier”
More like a repository than a dossier, this is the place where you keep, from year to year, a record of your work. Generally organized in sections for research, teaching and service, the dossier is where you file your published work, drafts of papers and presentations, proposals for new projects; syllabi, assignments, teaching resources, and evaluations of your teaching, both formal and informal; letters and emails assigning you to committees or asking you to serve, white papers or memos that show the result of the work you’ve done in shared governance, letters from professional organizations in which you’ve served; evidence of honors or awards you’ve received; and so on.

In other words, this is the place where you keep a running record of your work. It won’t all go in the “tenure file,” nor will it all be reviewed by the review committee or your colleagues. But this is the best place for you to keep a record of all you’ve done, so that when it’s time for a review, it’s ready to hand and easily sortable.

External networking is how you make the contacts necessary for the advancement of your career. Internal networking is the way to meet with, get to know, and make UW-Madison colleagues – both in the department and beyond it – familiar with what you do. This includes taking the occasional opportunity to present your work at departmental roundtables or poster sessions or through university venues, or simply taking the opportunity to have coffee with colleagues to discuss shared interests.

Networking includes building support among colleagues. This doesn’t mean ingratiating yourself to them; rather, it means helping them get to know your work, your teaching, and your interests in the shared governance of the institution.

Preparing a case for tenure
Generally in the year before you go up for tenure, you will consult with your department chair about what work needs to be done to prepare the tenure case. That work will usually include putting together all publications and/or creative work, evidence of grants submitted and won, syllabi and other teaching material, and evidence of service and/or public engagement; thinking about outside evaluators of your scholarly work; and touching base with members of the review committee and your mentor(s). Once you’ve assembled the material you’ll need, your review committee and department chair will assemble the actual tenure “case.” Usually in the spring of the year before the tenure year, the chair will send examples of your work to those chosen for outside review; the reviewers will have the summer to read it and write a confidential letter for your tenure file.

The tenure decision
The review committee will present the completed dossier and supporting materials, along with the confidential letters, to the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee will make its recommendation to your department chair. The chair will then write a letter that explains the recommendation, and that contextualizes all of your work – in teaching, research, and service/outreach. Your chair will send the completed case to your dean, who will ask your Divisional Committee to evaluate your dossier and supporting materials and make a recommendation on tenure and promotion.

Divisional Committees
Divisional Executive Committees of the four faculty divisions – Arts & Humanities, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences – are responsible for reviewing departmental Executive Committee recommendations for promotion and tenure, and making their own recommendations to deans of schools/colleges. The divisional committee recommendation will be based on the tenure criteria of the division as well as your department.

Divisional Committee members are elected faculty members who represent the variety of disciplines within a division. Divisional Committees meet monthly; they provide very thorough criteria for departments to follow in preparation for tenure cases, and they very carefully evaluate the dossiers and supporting materials they’re sent. Divisional committees are thorough and eminently fair and judicious in the work that they do.

Divisional Committee chairs are happy to help department chairs who want advice on how to prepare tenure cases, and the Office of the Secretary of the Faculty – which coordinates the work of the Divisional Committees – makes sample dossiers available to assistant professors, faculty mentors, department administrators, and department chairs.

The Divisional Committee will discuss each assistant professor’s tenure case (dossier and supporting materials) and then transmit its vote to your dean, who conveys their recommendation to the Provost. Generally, a positive recommendation by the Divisional Committee is approved by the dean, provost, and the UW Board of Regents.