The Collegian
Saturday, December 09, 2023

Students play important role in tenure process, professors say

Last March, the University of Richmond's Board of Trustees granted tenure to six members of the faculty.

Those receiving tenure were Mirela S. Fetea, assistant professor of physics; Michelle L. Hamm, assistant professor of chemistry; Ben R. Mayes III, assistant professor of political science; James W. Monks, assistant professor of economics; William Jason Owen, assistant professor of statistics; and Andrew C. Szakmary, associate professor of finance. All of these professors were also promoted to associate professor.

"I didn't know Monks got tenure," senior Kyle Engelken said. "I guess I don't know which of my professors are tenured."

Englelken said he thought students generally felt no sense of connection to this tenure process and had no idea which of their professors are tenured and which ones are not.

But Professor John Treadway, who is on the Arts and Sciences Tenure and Promotion Committee, insisted that students were very involved in the tenure process even if they were not aware of it.

"Students are an important and integral part of the process," Treadway said. "They may not realize it - but they are."

To achieve tenure, professors must prove excellence in three areas: teaching, scholarship and service. They have to compile a tenure portfolio with all of their research and publications, external reviews from other people in their field, copies of final exams, syllabi, lecture notes and all of the student evaluations from the years they have been at Richmond. In the School of Arts and Sciences, an extra random sample of approximately 80 students is solicited to fill out new, detailed tenure evaluations.

The tenure portfolio is first reviewed by the department chairman, who makes a recommendation to the Tenure and Promotion Committee. This committee then reviews the portfolio and sends its recommendation to the dean.

It is the responsibility of the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and the deans of the Jepson School of Leadership and the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business, to review the departmental recommendations for tenure following this evaluation process. The deans forward their recommendations to the Provost.

If the Provost recommends tenure or promotion, he forwards his recommendation to the president. The president then sends his recommendation to the Board of Trustees, who ultimately decides to grant or deny tenure. This process does not directly involve students, but their opinions are provided in the student evaluations.

From experience as a history professor, Treadway said he thought about two-thirds of students filled out student evaluations with lengthy and extremely thoughtful statements. Although students might not know it, these evaluations become an important factor in whether or not members of the faculty are granted tenure.

"This is a university that takes student opinions very seriously," Treadway said.

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Recently tenured professor Michelle Hamm gave her students a lot of the credit. She said student evaluations not only made her tenure portfolio stronger but also have made her a better teacher. Hamm said she thought teaching should be the priority of any professor, which makes the student opinion of teaching a valuable part of the tenure process.

"I believe the hallmark of a Richmond education is the interaction between professors and students," she said. "Teaching has been and still is the most important part of my job."

Hamm also said her students helped to make the scholarship section of her tenure portfolio stronger. She conducts chemistry research with four undergraduate students.

"Undergraduate students involved in research are a big part of scholarship in the sciences," Hamm said. "My scholarship has been heavily dependent on student involvement, which I think helped my tenure package."

Hamm also said good research and good teaching often come hand in hand. "Part of the reason research is so important is that it helps us remain intellectually engaged and up-to-date in our fields, thus hopefully making us better teachers," Hamm said.

Senior Sarah Nicolson, one of her research students, was adamant that Hamm would have been granted tenure with or without the research team.

"[Hamm] has done so much for this school, and she won the distinguished educator award," Nicolson said. "Our research was just the icing on a really yummy cake."

Nicolson said she had faith that student opinion was valuable in the tenure process. She, like many students, admitted that the process remained elusive but was sure student evaluations played an important role.

In the business school, the tenure process is similar, but there is less emphasis placed on the input of students. Professors are still expected to prove excellence in the areas of teaching, scholarship and service, and teaching evaluations are used. But according to recently tenured professor James Monks, students are not solicited again for more detailed tenure evaluations, as they are in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Monks noted that at Union College, where he attended undergraduate school, a greater emphasis was placed on student opinion and face-to-face interviews were conducted with students.

According to Therese McCarty, the dean of faculty at Union College, these personal interviews gives her an opportunity to probe more deeply about exactly what students are experiencing and perceiving. McCarty said she strongly believed that understanding student perceptions was an important part of the tenure process, and students should be heard, she said.

But McCarty also said there were some drawbacks to involving the students directly in the tenure process. The interviews are very time consuming, are often similar to what one sees in the course evaluations and some students don't take their role seriously.

"The process of getting students to show up at the interviews drives the department secretaries crazy," McCarty said.

At Iowa State University the campus newspaper, The Iowa State Daily, and the student body government recognized the need for more student input about tenure. In a joint effort among the students, faculty and administration, a Task Force on Student Evaluation of Teaching was established. This task force identified ways to make professors more accountable to students, including involving them in the tenure process.

At some schools, including Princeton University and Union College, advertisements are placed in the campus newspapers encouraging students to send their opinions of professors to the dean's office.

According to The Yale Herald and the Yale Daily News, student evaluations are not a factor in the Yale tenure process and the tenure committees focus more on a candidate's research record.

Despite the level of student involvement, the tenure process is designed to make the university better for students. Granting tenure is a two-pronged effort by the administration to hold on to the good professors and maintain an environment of academic freedom.

"We operate in an industry — we are not the only place of higher education out there," Monks said. "We would have a hard time attracting good people if we didn't have a tenure system."

Having a tenure system also allows professors the freedom to take chances with their research and teaching methods, allowing them to pursue new ideas and research that might not lead to results, without the fear of losing their job.

"Tenured professors have the freedom to take chances with the curriculum, introduce new ideas or bring a new pedagogy," Hamm said.

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