Recommended (Best) Practices in the Reappointment Promotion and Tenure Process
Decisions regarding the hiring, reappointment, tenure, and promotion (RPT) of faculty determine the kind of institution Georgia Tech will be. At the same time, the way we deal with the people who are the objects of these decisions may influence both their behavior and their performance, and thus impact the outcomes of the critical RPT decisions. It is in the long-term interest of the Institute that we are wise both in the decisions and in designing and executing the process so that we encourage and empower the candidates to achieve their very best. It is essential that all faculty have faith in the RPT process, in its fairness and openness.
There is little question that there are significant opportunities for improvement in the RPT procedures. Almost universally, untenured faculty are apprehensive about the process. Their apprehension may result from an incomplete understanding of the process, uncertainty regarding the expectations of them, a lack of faith in the process, or other related concerns. Few untenured faculty express satisfaction with the nature of feedback to them regarding their reviews or the outcomes of the process for other candidates. In many regards, even tenured faculty who face a promotion decision have similar feelings. The process itself can vary significantly among units, and there may be concerns about the potential for inequities or abuses arising from these differences.
The Executive Board commissioned an ad hoc committee to examine procedures, but not policies, related to reappointment, promotion, and tenure (RPT) decisions. The committee concluded that there are a number of opportunities to enhance the RPT process by changing the way faculty are counseled or the RPT process is conducted at the unit level. The Ad Hoc Committee has identified, and in some cases elaborated upon, a number of these "best practices" from various units. These best practices are presented here and recommended to the units and Colleges for consideration.
Executive Board September 2000
Personal Development Plan. One source of difficulty in the RPT evaluation process is that both the candidates and the review committees start from the set of generic criteria listed in chapter 3.2 of the Faculty Handbook. These criteria are meant as general guidelines, not as specific requirements. These general guidelines need to be applied to each individual candidate. By the same token, not every junior faculty member arrives at Georgia Tech with a clear vision of his/her research or professional goals. A mechanism for addressing these two issues is the creation of a personal development plan as a tool for individual faculty to guide their goal setting and allocation of effort. A personal development plan could be developed independently by the candidate, or in collaboration with colleagues or unit heads. What is suggested below is simply one alternative way to accomplish the objective.
Beginning at the end of the first year, untenured faculty would be expected to draft a personal development plan, which would spell out the specific areas in which the candidate plans to make recognizable contributions, outline a research plan, identify the major conferences and professional meetings appropriate for the candidate to attend, identify the journals appropriate for the candidate's publications, suggest the set of courses to be taught, and set goals regarding student advising, publication, and proposal development. The personal development plan would be discussed with the candidate's unit head and reviewed by the unit's RPT committee. This process of discussion and review would insure the full disclosure to the candidate of the assessment of the plan by those who will be directly involved in the subsequent RPT decisions.
Well before the end of the second year, untenured faculty would have a personal "strategic plan" that had been vetted by colleagues and their unit head. The personal plan should be considered and refined in annual performance reviews, as well as in the critical RPT reviews at the unit level. Thus, the process of developing and refining the plan is shared between the candidate and the unit.
The personal development plan cannot be viewed as a "contract," i.e., as a basis for the candidate to argue that each item of the plan has been met, thus promotion or tenure should be granted. Rather, it is the basis for assessment of accomplishment, i.e., what did the candidate set out to achieve, and to what extent were these goals achieved? It also should be a flexible plan, in that candidates who discover other interests, or who reach an impasse should be able to modify their plans. Finally, as the name suggests, it should be considered a personal document, and should not be made formally a part of the RPT package. However, since the plan does provide a strong basis for evaluation of the candidate, its main points would almost certainly become part of the RPT record.
Candidate's Documentation. Chapters 3.2 and 3.3 in the Faculty Handbook provide relatively general guidelines, and are subject to considerable interpretation. For example, 3.2.7 states, "The letter of transmittal should be followed by a complete Biographical Sketch or Curriculum Vitae detailing the relevant career activities of the individual." While there have been some attempts to suggest a "standard format" for the RPT c.v., there remains substantial variability in the format, and often in the content of the documentation submitted. While this variability is of little consequence at the unit level, it may present difficulties that prejudice the case as it progresses upward through the RPT process. Some examples of troubling inconsistencies are:
The Ad Hoc Committee is not recommending a rigidly standardized format for the RPT packages; rather, we recommend that the candidates be provided with some simple guidelines for preparing those elements of the RPT package that are most likely to be problematic in the college and institute level considerations, where packages from candidates in quite different disciplines are likely to be considered at the same time. The "recommended" format for the c.v. should be flexible, recognizing for example, that faculty in some disciplines would not be expected to have patents, while faculty in other disciplines would not be expected to have public exhibits or performances.
A prototypical "charge to candidates" is attached as Appendix C; it is intended to convey to the candidates an understanding of the purpose served by the documentation package and some of the issues to be considered in its preparation.
Feedback to Candidates. In the Faculty Handbook, 220.127.116.11 states, "It is important for the faculty member to receive feedback regarding the assessments involved. The appropriate place for the individual faculty member to receive this feedback is from the unit head(s)." In general, this guideline for feedback to candidates is inadequate, and many candidates are, at best, disappointed with regard to feedback. In addition, prospective candidates find it virtually impossible to interpret the decisions made about their colleagues, whether the decisions are positive or negative. Clearly a better set of mechanisms is needed to provide feedback to current and prospective candidates.
When a unit level RPT committee evaluates a candidate, whether for a non-critical reappointment, critical reappointment, promotion, or tenure, the committee should provide written feedback to the candidate regarding the assessment of the candidate's progress, but not the committee recommendation.
At the conclusion of the RPT cycle, the unit head should review with the candidate the recommendations from each committee and administrator, and counsel the candidate appropriately. It also may be useful for the unit heads, perhaps together with the Chair of the RPT committee, to meet with all untenured faculty in the late spring to review the RPT results for the year, and provide a forum for questions and discussion of the process. Of course, discussion of specific individual cases would not be appropriate.
Peer Evaluation Committees. There is considerable variability in the operation of peer evaluation committees, and some of that variability may result from inconsistent charges to the committees. To address this issue, the Ad Hoc Committee prepared a prototypical charge to peer review committees, which is attached as Appendix D.
External references. For promotion and tenure decisions, external review letters provide an important and often pivotal source of information. The purpose of external review is to provide an independent assessment of the intrinsic merit of the creative work of the individual, its value to the professional and academic communities, and to the public at large. Great care should be taken in selecting external reviewers, and in preparing the letter of solicitation sent to them. The solicitation may state that, insofar as possible, access to the recommendation letters will be limited to persons involved in the promotion/tenure decision. The letter of solicitation should be worded to request an evaluation of the quality of contributions to the fields, not of the quality of the individual. A copy of the individual's resume and other relevant materials should accompany the letter of request. The referees should be asked to be specific and to comment on particular aspects of the candidate's research and scholarship and provide an assessment of its impact on the field, and where possible, to provide a comparison of the work to that of others in the field at the same stage of their career.
For most units, five or six external reference letters should be expected. The unit head should provide a brief explanation of why the particular external references were selected, and provide some biographical material for each.
It is best not to solicit individuals with an obvious close tie to the candidate, such as a thesis advisor, co-PI on recent research, co-authors, Georgia Tech colleagues, or former students. Candidates should have an opportunity to recommend external reviewers, and also to request that specific individuals not be solicited. It is, of course, the prerogative of the unit head and the faculty committees to determine who will be solicited. External reviewers may be contacted informally by the unit head or faculty committee to determine their willingness to provide a review within the time available. Unsolicited recommendation letters should not be included in the RPT documentation package. If a solicited letter arrives after the unit RPT committee has completed its work, the letter can be included in the package, but with a note that it was not received in time to be considered. External review letters are not required as part of the critical-review process, and should be requested only in rare circumstances.
Annual Assessment and Guidance of Untenured Faculty. Each unit should have an explicit process for continually guiding and supporting untenured faculty in their development. The following is an example of a comprehensive approach.
Appendix A: RPT Issues Identified
In some units, there is both a unit level committee vote, and a vote of the senior faculty. This is an inconsistency in the process between units, potentially leading to confusion or misinterpretation.
Some units, apparently, do not have a formal peer review committee at the unit level, charged to examine the research contribution.
The weight given to external references varies considerably from unit to unit. In ARCH, for example, the peer review committee depends almost exclusively on external reviews.
There is considerable inconsistency with regard to external letters, including:
There is considerable diversity in the way the first level or peer review committees are constituted, charged, and conducted.
The problem of potential bias in the process has been raised, in particular with regard to the ability or right of the candidate to exclude one or more colleagues from the review process. Should there be Institute guidelines to cover this?
The inconsistency in citing publications is troublesome. In particular:
The consistency and seriousness with which teaching is assessed varies substantially across units. The inclusion of individual student comments from the Course/Instructor Opinion Survey is permitted in some units, not in others.
Some concern has been expressed regarding the lack of diversity vis-à-vis the research-teaching-service trade-off in successful candidates.
Strong disagreement on the role of service in the RPT decision process.
What is the Institute’s intent regarding the interactions between the unit level committee and the unit chair in the RPT process? For example, if the committee and the chair make different recommendations for a particular candidate, is there an intent that the chair communicate with the committee or that there be any discussion?
Frequent solicitation of letters of recommendation for a candidate from the same references may create a negative perception. Are we asking for too many external reviews for untenured faculty?
Is there a need for a "code of conduct" for the people involved in RPT?
There is substantial inconsistency in the format (font, page limits, margins, etc) in the personal statements submitted with the candidates’ c.v. Perhaps exactly the same format for all units is not a good idea (e.g., English professors are not expected to have patents).
There is inconsistency in adherence to the Board of Regents policy on granting promotion or tenure to a faculty member who is on leave. Perhaps a clear statement on the possibility of a policy waiver should be given to the unit heads.
Failure of unit administration to begin the RPT process early enough in the calendar creates stress for candidates, and can damage their cases if recommendation letters are not received in time.
The feedback to unit chairs and to various committee chairs and members may need to be considered or strengthened. This is particularly true if, in subsequent levels of the evaluation, there is a perception at higher level evaluations that a lower level evaluation has been "soft" or not sufficiently critical or objective.
The RPT committee has no access to the "history" for a candidate, for example, the annual reviews during the previous 3 years. Perhaps if the annual reviews were included, they would be treated by both unit heads and faculty as an important part of the overall process of promotion and tenure, thus strengthening the process.
Should every untenured faculty member be evaluated by the unit RPT committee every year? Clearly, this would require some checks and balances, and it should not be a process that intimidates or threatens the untenured faculty.
Appendix B: Observed Best Practices
Senior faculty meet twice as a committee of the whole to make decisions regarding promotion and tenure. At the first meeting, the primary focus is presentation of research evaluations by the internal peer review committees. At the second meeting, full cases are discussed and ballots are cast. Understanding is that if you don’t participate through attendance at these meetings or other substantial involvement with the cases, you don’t cast a ballot. Computing
Peer review committee at the unit level is chaired by a person not in the same area as the candidate. Computing
Unit level committee is composed of one member elected from each formally identified "area" in the unit. Each case is presented by an advocate. Electrical and Computer Engineering
Candidate’s creative contribution is assessed primarily with regard to "evidence of public value," i.e., significance to the public at the national and international levels. Architecture
A designated "mentor" counsels untenured faculty regarding the RPT process and how they should perform to be successful. Electrical and Computer Engineering
Better use of CETL in helping young faculty do an adequate job of teaching without spending too much time and energy. Also, better use of CETL in assessment of both students in classes and faculty as teachers.
Appendix C: Charge to Faculty Candidates
Reappointment, promotion, and tenure (RPT) decisions are based on criteria spelled out in the Faculty Handbook, chapter 3.2. To be successful, a faculty candidate should do two things:
Understanding that there are no guarantees in any evaluation process involving human judgement, there are, nevertheless, some approaches and practices that may help faculty candidates as they navigate through the process.
Portfolio of Accomplishments
Each discipline may have a somewhat different esthetic regarding professional accomplishments. For example, one discipline places great value on patents, while another may place great value on public performances of creative works. It is expected that faculty candidates will understand and respond to the particular esthetic of their home academic unit.
There are, nonetheless, some general principles that apply to all disciplines at Georgia Tech. As with any attempt to identify general principles in human organizations, these principles hold in the aggregate; unusual individual circumstances may result in positive decisions for cases which violate these principles. Such cases are rare, and clearly anomalous.
Georgia Tech aspires to be considered among the very best technical institutes in the world. That lofty ambition cannot be achieved unless Georgia Tech's faculty members are accomplished in their disciplines at a similar level of recognition. However a faculty candidate chooses to focus, the goal should be to achieve national and international recognition.
For most junior faculty, research (or equivalent creative output) is the primary vehicle for achieving recognition. Especially for a junior faculty member, the need to achieve recognition in research often dictates a careful plan to focus research in a way that leads relatively quickly to significant results. Some may find this overly constraining, because they have broad interests and a field in which a broad research agenda can be pursued. The allocation of one's research time is, of course, a matter of personal choice. However, it should be understood that a collection of broad but relatively shallow research results may not be as impressive as a collection of narrower but correspondingly deeper results. The latter is more likely to lead quickly to national and international recognition. Further, publication of a few archival papers in highly regarded journals is, generally speaking, preferred to many papers in lightly regarded journals. Quality, and publication with purpose, should be the objectives.
Junior faculty must understand the importance of gaining the attention of the leaders in their chosen fields, because those are the people who will be solicited for letters of recommendation in the RPT process. In addition to publishing excellent papers, participation in national research conferences and colloquia is expected. Refereeing papers and serving on proposal review panels also are good ways to come into contact with leaders. Senior faculty are expected to perform some mentoring, and, where possible and appropriate, to provide introductions and invitations to their junior colleagues.
At all appointment levels, research and creative scholarship are considered essential. As individuals develop in their disciplines, the balance between research and other activities may change, with research playing a smaller role, and other activities playing a larger role. But all Georgia Tech faculty should aspire to continually contribute to the body of scholarly and creative work in their discipline.
At all appointment levels, teaching is an important element of faculty performance. The importance of teaching, and the criteria for evaluating the scholarship of teaching will vary, however, with the level of appointment. For Assistant Professors, for example, the assessment of teaching will focus on classroom performance and, where appropriate, mentoring of graduate students. In the classroom, the expectation is for competent performance. In mentoring graduate students, the expectation is for the successful completion of PhD candidates. For those disciplines which do not offer graduate degrees, the emphasis will be on classroom teaching.
As a faculty member develops a recognized research portfolio, it is appropriate to divert greater energy into the scholarship of teaching, for example to develop textbooks, new courses, or new degree programs. These can, and should, lead to national and international recognition. Typically, untenured faculty are discouraged from these kinds of activities, because they are believed to detract from research performance.
A certain amount of service activity is expected of all faculty. However, the expectation for untenured faculty is best thought of as "good citizenship," i.e., serving on a reasonable number of committees and performing professionally. Generally, untenured faculty will be discouraged from devoting large amounts of time and energy to purely service activities. Tenured faculty, on the other hand, are expected to take more leadership in service, both internally and externally, and to be recognized for their service leadership.
To summarize, the performance of Georgia Tech faculty is expected to be consistent with the Institute's aspirations to be among the very best in the world. The Faculty Handbook summarizes the criteria by which faculty performance will be evaluated in the RPT process. Faculty candidates in the RPT process must have a personal plan for success, and their personal plan should recognize the particular esthetic of their discipline, their current appointment level, and their own strengths, interests, and commitments.
The purpose of the RPT package is to enable the RPT committees and unit heads to assess the candidate and make the required RPT decisions. In essence, the kinds of questions that will be asked about the candidate are:
If the package doesn't provide clear answers to these questions, the RPT committees and unit heads have a more difficult time reaching a decision.
RPT candidates must understand that while the process is intended to be as fair as possible, its primary purpose is to protect and enhance Georgia Tech. Thus, if there is an unresolvable ambiguity in the package, the process is likely to make the decision that maximally protects and enhances Georgia Tech. RPT committees and unit heads are likely to be very reluctant to give the benefit of the doubt to candidates whose documentation is ambiguous.
The candidate's documentation should make it as easy as possible to answer the questions posed above. In preparing the documentation, candidates should keep in mind that those reviewing the documentation will be intelligent, mostly with some experience in the process, open minded, anxious to make wise decisions, and busy. Also, nothing can so prejudice an assessment as believing the documentation has been less than candid or accurate.
Appendix D: Charging Unit Peer Review Committees
The promotion and tenure procedures specified in the faculty handbook call for evaluation committees in each unit. For most faculty, this means at least two levels of faculty review committees, one at the School level, and one at the College level (faculty in Architecture and Computing may have only one level of faculty review). The implementation of the faculty review may further refine the process to invoke two distinct committees—one whose charge is to evaluate only the creative or intellectual contributions, and one whose charge is to provide a comprehensive evaluation and recommendation regarding the specific reappointment, promotion, or tenure (RPT) decisions under consideration.
Whenever a committee of faculty provides input or a recommendation in the RPT process, the committee should clearly understand its three distinct responsibilities:
Reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions are major events in the professional and personal lives of the candidates considered. The faculty review committee is obligated to resolve any ambiguity or lack of clarity that it may find in a candidate’s presentation. If there is doubt, for example, in the significance of the candidate’s contribution to a publication or a research project, the committee must obtain specific clarification, rather than assume either that the candidate’s contribution is significant or that it is insignificant. When reviewing candidates from different sub-disciplines or specializations, committee members are obligated to set aside any personal biases, and examine the evidence on its merits. The committee’s analysis , as documented in the committee's letter, should be reviewed with the candidate prior to being sent forward, in order to provide the candidate an opportunity to correct any erroneous conclusions. When the committee renders a negative decision, it should provide guidance to the unsuccessful candidate, regarding what they should do in the future to improve their record of accomplishment.
At the same time, reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions determine the future directions that the unit will take, and to a large extent, the nature of the work environment within the unit. Thus, the faculty review committee also has an obligation to the current faculty members of the unit—the goal of improving academic prestige sometimes must be balanced against the need for a stable, supportive work environment. The review committee must carefully consider both the intellectual contributions the candidate is likely to make in the future, and the impact the individual’s presence will have on others in the unit.
In all of its procedures and recommendations, the committee must act honorably and with dignity. Not only is this the behavior one expects from a first-rate academic institution, it is the behavior that is imperative in today’s litigious society. Every committee member must clearly understand what is inappropriate for deliberation because it violates either law or administrative rules regarding various forms of discrimination. Every committee member must clearly understand that all evaluative information received by the committee and all deliberations are to be held in confidence and not communicated inappropriately outside of the committee. Faculty members (and others providing inputs to the process) have a reasonable expectation that their input will be treated confidentially, except as otherwise provided for by law, particularly, the Georgia Open Records Act.
Finally, faculty review committees must clearly understand their role in the reappointment, promotion, and tenure process, relative to the role of unit head and Institute administrators. The faculty review committee represents the unit faculty, and its conclusions are both an expression of faculty will, and advisory to the ultimate decision-makers. Legally, the Board of Regents is the ultimate decision maker; pragmatically, it is the Provost and the President; and in reality, it is very unusual for the Provost and President to reverse the recommendations of the unit heads and unit review committees. However, from time to time, there may be differences of opinion between the unit head and the faculty review committee. In those cases, it is important for the Provost and President to know that the faculty review committee has represented the faculty will.
First-level review committees (Schools, Colleges of Architecture and Computing) prepare a letter that is included with the candidate's materials as they are considered by the unit head and at subsequent committees, the Dean, Provost, and President. Because of the diversity of disciplines at Georgia Tech, it is imperative that the first-level committee letter address issues that might need interpretation outside the discipline. For example, if in the candidate's discipline, refereed conference proceedings are the "norm" for archival publication, the committee letter should say so. If a particular journal is the top journal in the field, the letter should say so. If the level of research funding is average for the discipline, the letter should say so. If some award is the premier award in the field for a young faculty, the letter should say so. In other words, the first-level committee letter should not simply say complimentary things about the candidate, it should provide some norms for those further along in the process