Duke Faculty Get Insider Perspectives on Promotion and Tenure Review

December 1, 2020

Provost and committee members share insights on preparing for and navigating the process

Panelists from the workshop.
Panelists Sally Kornbluth, Nancy Armstrong, Cynthia Kuhn and S. “Vish” Viswanathan took part in a workshop on November 12 through the Faculty Advancement and Success (FAS) series.

In a typical year, at least 50 faculty members will go through an extensive review process with Duke University’s Appointment, Promotion and Tenure Committee (APT). What do faculty need to do in the preceding years to position themselves for success? 

“I will tell you up front,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth, “make sure you keep track of everything. When I came up for tenure, I was looking through my old calendars and trying to remember what I had done!”  

She joined current and past APT members to present an online workshop moderated by Abbas Benmamoun, Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, on November 12. Panelists discussed the stages of the review process, dossier components, evaluation standards, the impact of COVID-19, ways to address biases and tips for success. Here are excerpts: 

On Seeking Guidance  

Nancy Armstrong, Gilbert, Louis and Edward Lehrman Distinguished Professor of English 

“Find at least one person with a national or international research profile who can help you make the basic professional decisions that will enhance your research profile. Ideally, this person will have written many tenure evaluations and know how a strong candidate for tenure at one of the top ten universities looks on paper. There should be a person whom you can trust to tell you the unvarnished truth even if you don’t want to hear it.” 

Sally Kornbluth, Provost and Jo Rae Wright University Distinguished Professor  

“Ask for really clear, sometimes even brutal, criticism. You aren’t going to do very well at the end if you’re just hearing nice things. I can remember from my own early grants, it’s really hard to hear, but it’s really important to solicit honest and frank feedback.” 

On Striving for Equity and Addressing Bias 

Cynthia Kuhn, Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, Chair of APT 

“We are moving toward an environment in which we increasingly look at ways that you are inclusive and equitable in your teaching and mentoring, and so it can be helpful to include those materials in your dossier. I’ve kept a list of all the undergraduates I’ve mentored and [noted] who is from an underrepresented field.” 

Sally Kornbluth 

“We take great care in trying to ensure a fair and equitable process. We try to consider all of the literature that indicate biases, and we try to step back and look at the reviewer letters for indication of unfair bias. But in order to address this in a more direct way we are considering edits to a number of features in our dossier, including the letters that we send to external reviewers. We want to say explicitly, ‘In your evaluation, we encourage you to keep in mind potential biases including but not limited to systemic biases based on race, ethnicity, gender, and area of research in the broader academic community. Those biases may have an impact on access to research funding, citations, awards and recognition and publication venues. We encourage reviewers to focus on the rigor of the candidate’s research output and its significance.’” 

On Telling Your Story 

Nancy Armstrong 

“You should have a story to tell about yourself, to tell granting and fellowship institutions, and to retell in the personal statement included in your tenure dossier. It’s a story of an idea, your idea. This narrative should spell out the thinking process that coalesced an argument, became a project, materialized in publications and generated the next problem and project that you will pursue post-tenure.” 

“In telling your story, please try to imagine an audience of extremely smart, accomplished and good-willed but impartial readers – some of whom, namely your external reviewers, will be familiar with the terminology of your field and the importance of your argument to that field. Most members of APT will not be. Please look at your personal statement as your opportunity to provide APT with a reader’s guide to the seven years of intellectual work that you bring to the Duke community and a sense of the future we can anticipate from those first seven years.” 

On Considering External Reviewers 

S. “Vish” Viswanathan, F.M. Kirby Distinguished Professor of Investment Banking 

“It’s important to make your arguments not just in the publications, but in the academy as a whole. Go to the conferences, make sure you are heard, make sure you know the important people in the field and make sure that they know what your argument is.”

“Partly what we are looking for from the letter writers is some recognition that they have heard your arguments. You might have some controversies in your field, there may be disagreements, the evidence might not yet have come to complete fruition, but there must be […] some view that what you’re saying is important.” 

Cynthia Kuhn 

“We read the letters very carefully. They should be from the highest-reputation people who know and love your work – not the highest-reputation people period, but the people who really know you and can really speak to how you contributed to the field. They must be independent, not collaborators. It’s good to remind your chair of who your collaborators are.” 

On Assessing Impact  

S. “Vish” Viswanathan  

Generally, we compare you with peers at other institutions. If it’s a book field, we won’t pay much attention to citations. On the other hand, if it is a field where citations are important and your citation count is much less [than peers], then the committee will have to explain why it is, and maybe it doesn’t matter. Also, if you’re not well cited but the letters say that your research is transformative, we’re not going to just focus on the citations. We do look at them, but only in a peer-matched way, and only in fields where it matters.” 

Sally Kornbluth 

“You have to have some way to demonstrate that your work is widely perceived among your peers as outstanding. This is often through citations. In the case of books, that will be through positive reviews of a book in multiple venues. We had a composer come up, and the New York Times picked their composition as one of the top recordings of the year. There are lots of ways for us to determine whether the world at large is noticing what you’re doing.”  

What Faculty Members Want to Know

Selected questions and answers from the workshop

How you will evaluate contributions in collaborative work?
There are multiple places in the dossier to indicate this, including in your intellectual development statement [and] in the section where you list your top ten publications.

How do you address bias in student evaluations?
This is the reason we consider teaching evaluations carefully – we tend to look carefully at the written comments as well as the scoring. These biases tend to be most evident in the free-form comments.

How many people normally go up for promotion in a normal year? How many people are on APT?
Normally we do 50-70 per year. There are about ten people on the committee. We meet once a week in the fall, and twice a week in the spring typically. This year may be slower because of COVID. (Further info on COVID: Everyone has been given a year’s extension on their tenure clocks. You may exercise this option up until the day you hand in your dossier. You should also explain in your dossier how COVID delayed your work. Make sure to keep your chair apprised. If you need more than a year, you can make a case through your chair.)

Any advice on how to capture extent of mentorship provided for the university?
You can list mentees – but also include this in your intellectual development statement (and provide more detail on these individuals if you’d like).

For a promotion to an associate professor, should all top ten papers be from one’s time at Duke?
Not necessarily. The more the better, but sometimes someone did something so transformative earlier in their careers that they want to include this work.

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By Sarah Dwyer