At the Provost’s level, this is promotion and tenure decision season at George Mason, and given how large P and T looms for all participants some comments seem inescapable. Obviously, I have no particular cases, past or present, in mind in these comments, but some general remarks could be useful.
This is also, not coincidentally, a season in which I discuss P and T procedures and criteria with interested faculty groups on all campuses, in hopes of making the process as unmysterious as possible. It’s a tense process anyway, but I like to try to reduce any elements of hazing.
The first thing to say is how important the decisions are, obviously to the candidates but also to the institution. One is making decisions about assurance of employment—the rare case of really messing up aside—usually for many decades. Treating the cases fairly but rigorously is one of the most important annual tasks for all involved. Happily, all levels at Mason, from first tier faculty committee onward, have always taken their assignments seriously, so there is no disagreement here. But reminding ourselves of our responsibility for careful stewardship is desirable.
Cases vary, of course. Some are quite easy, with agreement at all levels, cheers from external referees, ample productivity at high quality. Most are not, which is where the care comes in particularly.
At Mason we accept cases on the basis of excellence in teaching, with suitable research accompaniment, as well as the other way around. I value this duality greatly, but there’s less agreement on what constitutes measurement for genuine excellence in teaching than for the more familiar research area, so this can be a complication. (Annually, about 10% of our cases go forward on the teaching base; another 15% get an excellence rating in both categories.)
Referee letters are another variable. A single negative in a batch may be discounted, but obviously it triggers some concern. More commonly, referees are overenthusiastic (there’s some variation by field here). Their contributions remain important but increasingly we look to our own judgments independent of these external markers.
Internal disagreements are an obvious challenge. They happen among faculty of good will, but this is where careful judgments in the later stages of the process become inescapably important, and we all do the best we can—recognizing that this is an art, not a science.
Probably the greatest challenge—and this is one of the reasons I like to talk explicitly with faculty groups—involves estimates of trajectory. We’re evaluating existing achievement, of course, but also promise for the future, which is inevitably a best-guess situation. This means that candidates whose productivity flagged until a year or so before decision, when there was a burst of energy, pose a particular problem. They may measure up in terms of existing achievement, but is their late blooming a bad omen for the future? Steadier trends are preferable. In the case of book fields, this also means that a good start on a second major project—and not just the first book derived from the dissertation—is highly desirable as well.
One final comment. Recent discussion in our faculty senate about some changes in our appeals procedure surfaced some belief about an “us-them” division between faculty and administration over P and T. There are cases, I grant, when administrators have turned fierce on P and T for budgetary reasons, where faculty might have legitimate concerns. There are also situations in which administrators have to fault judgments within a particular unit, in hopes of raising standards. In the main, however—and I do believe this is the situation at Mason with rare exceptions—there is and should be no faculty-administration split, and framing discussion to the contrary is a disservice. We all should want care and fairness; we all should want talented faculty to succeed; we all should want rigorous standards that safeguard the future quality of teaching and research. None of this precludes disagreement in an individual case, but in fact and in principle the disputes very rarely pit one group against the other.