For faculty members, the task of getting tenure is growing tougher

Meghan Holden

Getting tenure isn’t easy.

University of Minnesota faculty sometimes work for nearly a decade to achieve tenure status. And once they’re through the process, the University can still deny tenure and ask them to leave the institution.

Next month, the University’s Board of Regents will vote on whether to approve tenure status for a list of faculty members, determining the applicants’ futures at the institution. In recent years, making it to this point has become more difficult, with fewer job openings in academia and increased requirements for approval.

“Let me just say, it’s a nervous [process],” said Karen Miksch, an associate professor of higher education and law who was granted tenure in 2008.

Miksch, who now serves as co-chair of the Faculty Senate Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, said she went through a rigorous tenure process, including internal and external performance reviews and a vote from colleagues within her department. After the extensive process, she faced Board of Regents approval.

Last year, the Board of Regents considered 88 assistant professors recommended for tenure and promotion to associate professor and denied only one.

But these numbers don’t paint the full picture of how many University faculty members don’t achieve tenure status. Unlike Miksch, not everyone makes it to the Board of Regents vote.

Tenure-track faculty go through annual reviews within their departments, and some aren’t reappointed. Others may decide to leave the University, depending on the feedback they receive.

The elements necessary to succeed are fluid and vary by department, said assistant political science professor Kathleen Marchetti, and reasons for failure could range from not getting along with colleagues to underachieving in research.

“It’s really going to be hard to point to a single cause,” she said.

Research institutions like the University will likely put great weight on a candidate’s academic research — an increasing theme in the liberal arts, Marchetti said.

Since the Great Recession, competition for jobs in academia has intensified, she said, necessitating more impressive applications filled with significant research.

Full-time tenured faculty represented about 17 percent of instructors nationwide in 2011 — a nearly 4 percent decrease from a decade earlier.

Ragui Assaad, chair of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Promotion and Tenure Committee, said the standards for faculty to gain tenure have gradually increased because applicants are making their résumés increasingly competitive.

The increased competition could also mean that tenure-track faculty have to be more careful about keeping good relationships with their colleagues, who could get a vote in deciding whether they stay.

University of Minnesota-Morris biology assistant professor Michael Ceballos said cultural differences can cause difficulties between colleagues. Faculty of color, for example, might not receive as much mentoring if they’re perceived as an “outsider” in the department, he said.

Ceballos, who’s on the second year of his tenure track, said he’s run into these problems before as an American Indian faculty member, but he is hoping that it won’t affect him negatively when it comes time for his reviews.

Student evaluations of instructors also play a role in determining a tenure candidate’s success.

Assaad said the committee notes when faculty members receive consistently poor reviews from their students in their report to the faculty member. But he said colleagues will typically confront those members about their performance before the committee makes any final decisions.

Being denied tenure can be difficult, but Marchetti said it isn’t necessarily the end of the road for scholars.

Candidates denied tenure can find success looking for jobs at different types of higher education institutions or those with similar or slightly lower rankings than the one that denied them tenure, she said.

“It doesn’t mean that you’re marked as a tenure-denial for the rest of your career,” Marchetti said.