Brenna Bandell has an idea what tenure is but is uncertain as to how a professor is given such a title.
“I think tenure is something that professors get after a certain amount of time that will help them keep their job,” Bandell said, a USF junior majoring in management information systems. “I think they apply for it, but I’m not really sure.”
In the simplest terms, tenure is both an award earned by faculty and a prediction of their future performance and productivity.
“You might see it as equivalent to in a law firm an attorney making partner or in medicine finally having gone through the practicum and internship experience,” said John Cochran, associate dean of faculty affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The entire process for a professor to reach tenure status can take six years, and a professor submits their application during their fifth year.
According to Cochran, USF has different lines of hire for their professors: tenure track, instructors and lecturers. Those on the tenure track are almost always new hires who start at the rank of assistant professor. He said that having a doctorate degree is not required, but more often than not, tenured professors do have their doctorate’s.
These professors are evaluated each year during the spring semesters based on duties assigned to them in teaching, research and service. After their third year with the university, they undergo a mid-tenure review and start to compile their materials for an application for tenure after their fifth year with USF. The application process itself, takes a year.
Professors applying for tenure turn in their application materials in August, Cochran said. Applicants have the choice of having their materials reviewed one of two ways – the original process or the new process.
In the original application process, a professor is reviewed by a department committee and then the head of their department and the tenured faculty within their department. The professor is then reviewed by a committee of tenured faculty within the entire college of their department.
In the new process, a professor is reviewed by a committee, the dean and other tenured faculty within their department before being reviewed by the school of their department. The College of Arts and Sciences, Cochran said, is divided into three schools – the School of Social Sciences, the School of Humanities and the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
Cochran said there’s no administration to these three schools and the university has them for the purpose of things like tenure. It is tenured faculty from these three schools that form the school tenure committees. After being reviewed by a school committee, an applicant is then reviewed by the overall college of their department.
Once the college committee has completed its review, the application goes to Cochran, who completes his review by the beginning of the spring term. The application is then sent to the provost’s office before it is sent to the president and finally, the Board of Trustees. Cochran said that the provost’s recommendation is typically binding and a professor will be notified by August if they have been granted tenure.
With a grading scale of “outstanding,” “strong,” “satisfactory,” “weak” and “unsatisfactory,” professors who apply for tenure are graded in a manner similar to their own students.
Applicants are expected to receive a minimum of “satisfactory” in the service category, which encompasses both community service and service to the university and their field. In teaching and research, professors must receive at least a “strong” and then in one of those categories, teaching and research, the professor must have a rating of “outstanding.”
In order to determine the ratings for teaching, reviewers look at things like grade distribution and any efforts professors put into improving their teaching methods.
Students typically dismiss the teaching evaluations they are required to fill out at the end of each semester, but tenure review committees take the students’ comments into consideration when evaluating a professor.
“The students are quite generous, in my opinion, in evaluating faculty,” Cochran said. “They give away good grades probably more frequently than faculty give away good grades.”
The professors who are qualified enough to get tenure, it means more academic freedom. They have more leniency with their research and the ability to teach subjects that may be considered controversial or clash with the political ideologies of the state legislature and other state politicians.
Tenure also acts as a retention mechanism for the university because it prompts professors to stay with USF. In turn, USF is allowed to have reputable professors without worrying that they will leave after a short period of time. Although tenure often means job security, the university can fire a tenured professor. For this to happen, Cochran said, USF must have a legitimate cause for termination and strictly follow the procedures established between the Board of Trustees and the United Faculty of Florida.
Not just any professor can apply for tenure though.
Laura Head, an English professor with a Ph.D in 19th century literature, was hired by USF to be an instructor and is therefore, ineligible to apply for tenure.
“The reason for that is, first of all, we have very, very few positions open for tenure and (USF is), and universities, in general, (are) getting away from tenure as much as they can,” Head said. “Tenure is a very long term responsibility and, so, a lot of universities are trying to cut back on that and increase instructors.”
Instructors, Cochran said, are only hired to teach and are not expected to adhere to the research requirements expected of tenure applicants.
Prior to being hired by USF, Head was offered tenure at two other universities, but turned them down after getting married and wanting to be closer to her family. Although she has the same economic security as a tenured professor, she has a heavier teaching load and makes less than her peers with tenure.
Head said tenure would give her a lighter course load and the ability to do more research with the university’s support. She said that in spite of doing research in her field, she is not evaluated by USF on her efforts outside of the classroom and the only current opportunities for her to have tenure would be at community colleges.
“(USF) is a major research institution and you have to publish a great deal to be eligible (for tenure),” Head said. “Even now, you have to have a book in the works to even be considered for hiring and you have to have a book and a half after that for consideration for tenure in English.”