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How Do We Make Our Department More Supportive Of Under-Represented Faculty?

Best Practices

Check the mission statement
The tenure process should begin even before the position is advertised. In-house faculty must have a clear understanding of reasonable expectations of the new faculty member. If the university uses research accomplishments as standards for promotion and tenure, then to add additional teaching and service expectations to the position would be wrong. If new standards of undergraduate research are being added then the department/school should reduce the teaching load to compensate for the new responsibility. In short, in-house faculty must ask "What is reasonable to expect?" and continually revisit this question throughout the tenure process.

Accept responsibility
The department/school must accept the responsibility for the major portion of the tenure process. A negative tenure decision reflects more of a failure on the part of the department/school than the applicant. An applicant for tenure is typically new to the academic community and is not only struggling to find the appropriate techniques for teaching, research, and service but also learning to balance these tasks with the demands of a personal life. It is the department/school that has the reservoir of experience, resources, and skill to guide someone through the tenure process.

Flexible expectations
One size does not fit all. So when the in-house faculty are evaluating the expectations of the new faculty members, particular attention should be made to how best to use their talents and interests. Is an applicant a gifted and passionate teacher but less interested in externally-funded research? Then perhaps an altered mix of teaching and research expectations can be arranged. Is the new faculty member expected to pursue (and interested in pursuing) mentoring activities for under-represented groups? Then compensations in terms of reduced teaching load, research demands, or additional time in the tenure process may be possible. Is the new applicant an exceptional researcher but has trouble relating to the demands of the introductory courses? Perhaps a revised teaching schedule can be arranged to allow the applicant time to learn the complex interactions of the intro sequence.

In particular, departments/schools should be wary of  over using applicants from under-represented groups as mentors and recruiters. Nor should departments/schools make the assumption that new faculty from under-represented groups are equally interested in mentoring and recruiting activities.

Timely feedback
The tenure process is one of communication. The department/school should obtain timely feedback from the entire community on the question "Is the applicant making satisfactory progress to tenure?" The frequency of "timely" will vary during the process and may be as much as 3 or 4 times a semester during the first year when the focus is on teaching and research. But it should never be less frequently than once/year.

Too often senior faculty remain silent until the late in the tenure process and then begin voicing reservations/complaints when there is not enough time to resolve conflicts or investigate problems. Tenure should never be automatic. But a surprise negative decision can usually be avoided with care and good will.

And the feedback must be appropriate as well as timely. It is unreasonable to expect new faculty to instantly be good researchers, expert teachers, and accomplished servants of the community. All these things take time, resources and at times guidance to develop.

For new faculty, attitude may count as much as aptitude.

Are they willing to learn? Do they listen? Are they growing more accomplished?

Stopping the clock
The tenure schedule was written down in an earlier era. One where the traditional picture of a single-wage earner and full time home carer was the standard. But as more women enter both the work force and academia and as more peoples, representing cultures with very different expectations of the roles of men and women in the family, also enter the tenure process a more flexible tenure schedule becomes desirable. The possibility of stopping the tenure clock or allowing extra time to accommodate a temporary realignment of priorities for family concerns should be explored. The department/school should accept that they are investing in the applicant and this may well mean investing in the applicant's family as well.

Mentoring Options
The growth of mentoring programs has greatly enhanced the number of under-represented members of the community. But mentoring is complex and continuous. Most of us need several mentors and also peer-peer groups. (It takes a village to raise a physicist.) Wherever possible the department should facilitate the growth of the personal networks of their members. A possible step would be to allow attendance at meetings of the advocacy societies, e.g., SACNAS or NSHP/NSBP, to be eligible for travel assistance. And membership in advocacy groups (AWIS, SACNAS, NSHP, NSBP, ....) as well as the professional societies (any of the AIP organizations) is another way to expand their network.

Opening the community
Why is it a problem to use "collegiality" as a criteria for tenure? Do we not spend more time at work than with our families? Should we not be able to choose our colleagues with an eye to how well we get along? And this is the problem.

Too often we mistake comfort with collegiality.

It would be nice to be surrounded by people who are similar to us, sharing the same values and experiences. Then we would not need to worry if a comment was a hidden insult or slight. We could more easily respect the opinions and ideas of others since we knew that our own opinions and values were equally respected.

But as we open the community to people of diverse background, races and culture then we encounter people who have very different ways of thinking about things, of approaching things. And we may mistake this difference in approach as insulting or dismissive of our own values. Yet this difference can be a way for broadening and strengthening the community.

In short, a department of even one person is large enough to contain contradictions. The health and vitality of the community is shown not in the absence of conflict but how the members of the community resolve their differences.

More suggestions are contained in a number of resources such as