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TENURE SYSTEM: PERFORMANCE MOTIVATOR OR RUSSIAN ROULETTE?

Charanya Kannan

Charanya Kannan

When junior professors enter the Aldrich classroom, we often imagine that they are thinking about who to cold call and how to open the case. Underpinning those fleeting thoughts of theirs, is the much larger concern, “Will I get tenure?”   

When faculty members were asked if they would share their perspectives on the tenure system at HBS, the reply was standard and predictable, “Not on record.”  

After all, the odds are largely against them. There are two pivotal junctures in a junior professor’s life, which are characterized by a high degree of emotional insecurity. Four or five years into their career, they appear in front of the Appointments Committee for promotion to associate professor. A decade into their career, the entire process is repeated to become a full professor. Past averages indicate that only one out of two assistant professors becomes an associate professor, and one out of two associate professors becomes a tenured professor.  

The Tenure Process

A faculty who is up for review submits his or her ‘research packet’. It’s then reviewed by a sub-committee of three professors who can decide to send it for further review by distinguished scholars and educators outside the school, as well as a number of faculty at HBS, both inside and outside the candidate’s unit. The three-professor-committee then writes a report, which is reviewed by a Standing Subcommittee and by all the tenured faculty at the school. The senior faculty then gather to discuss the case in the “big room.” The system looks for overwhelming support, not merely a simple majority. There are two more layers of approval above this – the Dean and the University President.

In Professor Michel Anteby’s book on faculty socialization at HBS, “Manufacturing Morals,” he quotes an emeritus professor claiming that the process has almost as profound an impact on the voting faculty members as it does on the candidates.

“No faculty member can sit through the process without being reminded of the school’s standards, feeling humbled by the standards, evaluating one’s own accomplishments, and recommitting to high performance in one’s work,” the professor says.

In making promotion decisions, HBS considers the quality and impact of a candidate’s scholarly research, course development and work directed toward a managerial audience. To be promoted to tenure, a candidate must have demonstrated excellence in one of these domains, as well as a “demonstrated potential” for excellence in another. Relevance of the research, scholarship, and teaching are three important evaluative criteria.

Professor Cynthia Montgomery, Timken professor of business administration, says, “Many faculty who are not promoted to tenure have done impressive work and made important contributions. But, the quantity may not be sufficient, or enough of the work hasn’t yet been published or perhaps it hasn’t yet had a substantial enough impact. The whole process, coming after many years of work, can be wrenching – there’s a lot on the line for candidates, but also for colleagues and the school as a whole. It’s disappointing when a candidate doesn’t make it through the process; at the same time, the care and deliberateness that go into the review, the transparency of the proceedings, and the shared belief that the standards are there to protect the reputation and quality of the school, puts it all in a larger, more reassuring perspective.”

However, there seems to be a general feeling that tenure rates have gone down over the years and that there is lesser linkage between individual effort and tenure outcome.

Survival of the fittest – Up or Out

Performance evaluations and consequent promotions are ubiquitous in every capitalistic firm. But the tenure system is different because it is an up or out system – you leave the school if you don’t get tenure. The notion of exclusion is integral to the creation and sustenance of a reputation of excellence.

“You wouldn’t want to be here if we admitted all ten thousand applicants, would you?” asked a professor who didn’t want to be named.

Professor Paul Healy, the senior associate dean for faculty development, says, “It is a tough system but it works reasonably well towards maintaining high standards. Do I wish some cases have gone the other way? Yes. But does that mean the system is a failure? No. Even if someone has to leave, my hope is that they developed a lot during the years they spent at HBS. They learn to connect their research to practice and to have access to managers at leading companies, to teach effectively in our classrooms where there a commitment to excellence, and have access to great support resources and terrific peers, all of which provide a great way to develop their careers, even if they do not get tenured.”

Dr. Anteby, who, after teaching at HBS, is now a tenured associate professor at Boston University, poignantly writes about the advice he received from a colleague.

“It’s a bit like a game of Russian roulette. But while you usually have one chance out of six to get killed, the chances here are five out of six. Only one person out of six will make it to tenure, so consider yourself dead on arrival. That way, being here will seem like a liberating experience.”  

Admittedly, the dynamics of the labor market provide a safety net. The faculty who do not get tenured at HBS have little or no trouble moving to other schools. After all, they are the precious remains of a stringent process that didn’t have enough room for them.

In the other schools, the process isn’t as demanding because the emphasis is mainly only on scholarly research while HBS has broader expectations with emphasis on industry relevance and course material creation as well.  

Seeking Betterment

Does the school deliberately keep the tenure rate low to preserve exclusivity? Professor Frances Frei, senior associate dean for faculty planning and recruiting, disagrees.

“I am embarrassed by the tenure conversion rate of 25 percent. I just need it to be better. We can’t lower the bar, but, as presumptuous as this sounds, we can do more to help improve standards of faculty,” she says.

There is nascent evidence to suggest that the school can probably play a role towards nudging faculty members towards betterment in teaching. Dr.Frei claims she is optimistic about initial results. Recent initiatives like co-teaching, where two teachers jointly handle class in every session, and videotaping lecture sessions are showing evidence of being successful in training faculty members. Her attention to detail illustrates her commitment towards creating better systems.

“We initially showed the videotaped lectures directly to lecturers, it made them self-conscious. Self-consciousness drove men to perform better in class, while it had the opposite effect on women. So now we have tweaked the system. A senior professor watches the video and only provides feedback to the junior lecturers without having them watch it. This removes any biases in the way the genders handle feedback differently. It is easier for an institution to treat women and men equally, but it is harder for an institution to identify that isn’t a solution and create a system that fosters more equal outcomes rather than equal treatments,” Dr. Frei says.

Why is the focus only on teaching? Research seems to be a larger component of the tenure evaluation, so what has been done to improve research?

“It is harder to improve research. Every paper takes two years to complete, in contrast to teaching where you can walk out of one class and strive to do better in the next,” she says.

Industry Professors

There are professors who are insulated from the tenure system – these are the industry experts who move on to academia after a long and successful professional career. They come to HBS on two or five year contracts. After their contract, they have a rigorous review if they seek extension, but it doesn’t emphasize scholarship as much as a tenure review would. It isn’t as demanding as the tenure review. The industry expert faculty are expected to develop young faculty members by co-authoring cases with them and more importantly, wield influence in the industry as members of the community.

“Our crucial role is to bridge theoretical research with practical insight from the industry. We enjoy a symbiotic relationship with academic professors; while we bring in industry trends and learnings, they bring in the research rigor. We are more than an academic institution; we are a professional school that has responsibilities. What we teach can impact life and death and relevance is crucial. Real practitioners working with theoreticians create a balance that is required for relevance and rigor,” says John. R.Wells, professor of management practice.

In many ways the tenure system is comparable to Darwinian principles of “survival of the fittest.” A difference, however, comes from HBS’s drive to create an environment where they can help more people become the “fittest”. Hopefully the school can find more ways to raise the tenure success rates, while retaining its strength as a leader in management education.

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Charanya Kannan (HBS ‘17) is an RC from iCandy and enjoys writing about anything that she wishes to remember,  grocery lists inclusive. She also loves talking to people about anything other than the weather, which is what she did in her first job as a TV anchor.  She dreams of reading and writing more, if her one year old and a potential consulting career permit her. She is involved in the WSA Conference, India Conference and Student Moms group, and has worked in the Automotive, Education, Hospitality, and Retail industries.

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May 11, 2016

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