US tenure relies on rigorous peer reviewing

Whenever academic tenure is eroded in the US – most recently in the University System of Georgia in 2021 – faculty rightly point to the deleterious consequences, and numerous national and international colleagues take note.

For the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), tenure is the holy grail that protects academic freedom, the precondition for any successful higher education work. “When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge,” the body states.

But tenure also has its enemies. For many accelerationists higher ed consultants, it is the last bastion of an antediluvian era in which the proverbial slow professor impeded innovation and progress. Economists sometimes stress that a tenure track appointment presents a risky “commitment with a lifetime present value of several million dollars – a huge unfunded liability.” And conservative politicians around the country feel that tenure offers state-funded protection to tenured radicals whose goal is to infect studious young Americans with feminism (1970s), deconstruction (1980s), or critical race theory (2020s).

Recognizing the unusual privilege represented by tenure, the academy has established a bulky bundle of processes, codified in faculty handbooks, human resources guidelines and collective bargaining agreements, to regulate appointments. At their center is review by peers – so you might assume that all faculty apply the highest degree of professional care to peer review. However, in my long experience at three US public universities, as a chair of promotion and tenure committees, external reviewer, and administrator at departmental and decanal levels, that’s only true in about two-thirds of cases.

Most institutions offer candidates a chance to tell their own professional story, on three to five pages. This “personal narrative” is meant to explain focus areas, contextualize publications and demonstrate impact in the three classical areas of faculty responsibility: research/scholarship, education and service. But since candidates know best their professional paths, internal review committees all too often ignore their duty to independently review the materials and instead make the candidate’s narrative the foundation of their own letters – often inserting entire sections verbatim, without attribution. Hence, what arrives at dean and provost level sometimes reads like personal narrative fan fiction.

Among external reviewers, too, too many cut down on the time-consuming task of producing an independent overview of candidate productivity, confidently following the information provided by the candidate narrative. Sometimes they paste into their letters online materials (reviews, bio sketches), apparently oblivious to the fact that the “similarity” function in Microsoft Word (or a Google search) reveals such laziness within seconds. In one egregious case, a reviewer plagiarized the entire publisher’s description of a monograph, thus effectively quoting the candidate’s own words, since most blurbs are written by the authors themselves.

Overall, too many external review letters recommend and advocate more than evaluate. While perhaps collegially intentioned, such letters cheapen the rigor and value of the tenure process. How can it be, for instance, that every single candidate publishes in flagship journals? Am I the only one who publishes with the rest of the fleet?

In some cases, letters will be excluded from further consideration because external reviewers do not disclose conflicts of interest. Why, for example, would a senior colleague not mention that the candidate published a long and positive review of their most recent book? A simple Google search reveals such connections and creates a cloud of suspicion. In this specific example, the review was also absent from the candidate’s CV, creating the impression of collusion. Imagine what we would do with a student who acted in a similar manner.

Both external and internal reviewers also rely too heavily on proxies for quality, such as publications, conference invitations or working papers – especially those associated with prestigious journals and universities. And while dedicated colleagues engage deeply with the specific research samples selected by a candidate and substantiate their observations on the quality of journals via evidence (acceptance rate, distribution), too many offer only insipid summaries of scholarship, amplified by name recognition.

Such laxness in reviewing has already done much damage to what oversight boards and the public think about the academy’s ability to self-govern. It feels as though there is a case every other year of journal editors and peer reviewers being duped into publishing bogus content. These scandals can have serious consequences. The most contested change recently made to the Policy Manual of the Georgia system states that the Board of Regents reserves the right to intervene if any member institution were not to conduct faculty review “in a sufficiently rigorous manner”.

It isn’t entirely clear what objectives the proponents of this change had in mind. What is clear is that too many among us do not recognize that a rigorous peer review process is much more efficacious protection against the erosion of tenure than an AAUP censure. Only in the rarest of cases are such processes challenged—and when it happens, a tempest of protest will expose such political machinations for what they are.

So let’s ensure our reviews meet those high standards. Let’s sustain and reinvigorate peer review by reading and deeply engaging with our colleagues’ work, one tenure file at a time.

Richard Utz is associate dean for faculty development at Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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