Achieving tenure, or its equivalent, is a remarkable feat. In today’s academic environment, it requires years, if not decades, of intense academic study, poorly compensated postdoctoral fellowships and overwhelming sessional teaching responsibilities.
So it’s not surprising that once the celebration is over, many recently tenured professors struggle. After thinking about peer-reviewed publications (or, in teaching-focused institutions, innovative course development and delivery techniques) for their entire career, now they face a degree of freedom that can be confounding.
Not all those who achieve tenure share the same academic goals. But there should be one theme that ties every post-tenure experience together: a commitment to service.
Early-career faculty are rightly encouraged to focus on meeting the qualifications for tenure established by their departments. Since service is rarely a determining factor in tenure cases, it is rarely a priority. Achieving tenure can, and should, change such thinking at four levels.
1. Service to the institution
It is both unwise and unfair to ask pre-tenured faculty to participate in their institution’s executive bodies; such service rarely supports one’s research or teaching. But taking a role in the governance of the institution is beneficial professionally and to the academy as a whole. It gives context to how strategic decisions are made and better equips faculty to navigate the dynamics of university politics. As well, it ensures that faculty play a meaningful role in the direction set by the institution’s strategic leadership.
The idea of shared governance in the postsecondary setting is rather unique, and if faculty members do not show their commitment to it, the system could end up being replaced, as it has in some U.S. institutions, by administrative processes that are considerably less faculty-friendly.
2. Service to the discipline
No one can achieve tenure without navigating the peer-review process numerous times. And every success was contingent on the contributions of at least two academics who assessed each manuscript, grant proposal or monograph.
Understandably, many pre-tenured faculty avoid reviewing duties. Good reviews take time, and some fields are small enough that anonymity is difficult to preserve.
Achieving tenure should signal that it is time to give back. At the very least, tenured faculty should aim to review two articles for every one they have submitted, and two more for every grant application they’ve received. Similarly, they should serve on conference organizing committees when asked and assess book manuscripts with the care that previous reviewers brought to their own scholarship.
Those who achieved tenure on the basis of excellence in teaching should offer their services to the learning support centre on campus or to professional development programs within their department.
3. Service to the future
Few faculty members will ever achieve tenure without a mentor, but since mentorship is rarely effective if it is imposed, finding effective ways to show support for the next generation of scholars can be challenging.
One small step that tenured faculty might consider is taking graduate students – and not just their own students – to lunch (not coffee) at conferences. Sharing a meal with potential future colleagues serves at least three purposes: (1) it allows students the rare chance to eat well at a time when departmental support for travel is sparse; (2) it initiates students into the academic community in an open, supportive way; (3) it gives faculty members a realistic sense of the job market as they take on more graduate student supervisions themselves.
4. Service to one’s academic self
There are good reasons for pre-tenured faculty to be relatively conservative in their approaches to research and teaching; committee members are human, and inadvertently alienating a tenure-and-promotions assessor can end one’s career.
Tenure provides an opportunity to take new risks. Faculty should experiment with collaborative research, if they haven’t before, or with individual projects, if they’ve always worked in teams. Teaching experiments – whether the integration of new academic technology, the re-design of an old course or the design of a new one, or collaboration with colleagues – might also be embraced.