Beginning a Faculty Appointment

In the next few days, I will receive a written offer of a faculty appointment. What subjects should the letter of appointment cover?

Two initial matters require emphasis. First, the terms of the offer should be consistent with the published announcement for the position. For example, if the announcement states that the position is probationary for tenure, it would be improper to offer an appointment that is not on the tenure track. Second, oral offers and oral acceptances are generally not considered binding, although they should be frank and accurate on both sides. The written offer should be an unequivocal letter of appointment signed by the responsible institutional officer, such as the department chair or the dean. Such letters often state that the appointment is not official until the governing board of the institution gives final approval.

As to the content of the letter of appointment, each of the following should be stated clearly: (a) the length of the appointment; (b) the academic rank; (c) the conditions of renewal; (d) the salary and benefits; (e) the duties of the position; (f) as applicable, whether the appointment is with tenure, the amount of credit toward tenure for prior service, and the maximum length of the probationary period; (g) as applicable, the institution’s “start-up” commitments for the appointment (for example, equipment and laboratory space), as well as any continuing research support (professional travel, sabbaticals, and the like); (h) the date on which the appointment begins and the date on which you are expected to be on campus; (i) the date by which your response to the offer is expected, which should be not less than two weeks from receipt of the offer; and (j) information about institutional policies and regulations (as well as departmental bylaws, if any) that bear upon the appointment.

In addition to considering what is stated in the letter of appointment, you should review the complete text (or texts) of the institution’s current faculty regulations. Optimally, you should do so before you respond to the offer, even though the regulations may be somewhat difficult to obtain if they are not collected under a single cover but are scattered in several sources. It is important to become familiar with the regulations as soon as possible in order to learn what they say about faculty appointments, both new and continuing.

What is the maximum length of the period of probation?

The AAUP’s answer is seven years, with a decision on tenure to be reached by the end of the sixth. But two further questions immediately arise: why have a maximum length, and, if there is one, why should the number be seven and not some other figure? Several reasons justify a maximum period of probation. To begin with, it prompts a careful and exacting evaluation of an individual’s work. When everyone is continually subject to contract renewal—in other words, if there is no specific time, as occurs in a review for tenure, for reaching a decision about a faculty member’s career—there will be a strong tendency to avoid firm judgments about the quality of individual performance. The results of a tenure review can be unpleasant not only for a faculty member who is denied tenure, but also for those responsible for the decision. But if there is no definite time for a decision on permanence, it is all too easy to put off for tomorrow what does not need to be decided today.

Second, and most important, a maximum period of probation strengthens academic freedom. A system of open-ended probation is a condition of permanent transience, and faculty members who each year (or every two, three, or four years), indefinitely into the future, have to ask if they can stay, are not likely to feel free to speak and write the truth as they see fit.

As for a maximum period of seven years and not a different number, it was a compromise agreed to by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities), the two organizations that jointly issued the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.1  Too few years (three or four, for example) seemed too brief for a considered decision, while too many years (ten, for example) would have alienated younger faculty members. The AAUP wanted the AAC’s agreement to a fixed and generally accepted limit to the number of years a faculty member could be at an institution without the protections of tenure, and seven was the result.

I have taught part time, and successfully, for several years in the same department, which is about to conduct a search for a new full-time tenure-track position in my area of teaching. Am I right in believing that, because of my teaching experience in the department, I should be interviewed for the position?

It is the decision of the search committee as to which applicants for the position will be invited to meet with the committee. The members of the committee may conclude that your teaching experience matches the announced criteria for the position, and therefore ask you to meet with them. Alternatively, the search committee may determine that even though your teaching has been successful, your background and experience in other respects fall short of the expectations for the professional work of the faculty member being recruited. Your situation is not different from that of any other faculty member, whether serving part or full time, who has been teaching in a department for some years and has submitted an application for a newly created position. As a candidate from inside the department, one may have the advantage of being well known to other members of the department. Of course, being well known may also be a disadvantage. In any event, while prior teaching in the department might give a boost to a candidacy, it does not create a right to meet with a search committee.

In one respect, however, your status as a current member of the department argues for your being treated somewhat differently from applicants outside the department. Candidates for faculty positions are usually not given an explanation for why their candidacies were unsuccessful other than to be told, if they ask, that a more suitable candidate was chosen. If your application for the position is not successful—you are not invited to meet with the search committee, or, if invited, you are not offered the position—and you were to ask why it did not succeed, then it would be reasonable to expect the committee to respond fully rather than perfunctorily given your service to the department. One hopes that the committee would see that doing so presents no difficulty.

I taught for ten years at another college before starting at my current institution. How much of my previous service can count as part of the probationary period at the new college?

Before answering this question, let me explain why, in principle, any previous service should be counted. Because there should be a maximum limit to probationary service, failure to grant credit for service at one or more previous institutions would result in excessive probation. It does not follow, however, that all of one’s previous service elsewhere should be credited by the current institution. There is great diversity among colleges and universities—not all experience is interchangeable—and an institution may want some time to determine for itself whether an individual meets its standards for tenure.

A compromise was agreed to by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges, the two organizations that developed the standard for crediting previous service: the years that a faculty member has served at another institution should count as probationary years at the current institution, but no more than three years need be so credited. In other words, a probationary period of up to four years at a given institution is a reasonable arrangement in appointing a person with prior service, even though the person’s total probationary period in the profession will thereby extend beyond the normal maximum of seven years. This compromise serves the interests of both institutions and individuals. It gives institutions the opportunity to make decisions based on a faculty member’s performance on their own campuses, while faculty members have the chance to obtain appointments that might not otherwise have been available to them because of insufficient time for evaluation for tenure.

Of the ten years you taught at a different college, three years of that service should ordinarily be credited at the new institution. There may be other issues, however. Did the previous service occur many years in the past? Was the teaching in a distinctly different field of study? Was the teaching in a significantly different type of institutional setting? Because the answers to these questions can influence the decision about the amount of prior service to be credited, the administration of the new college should seek advice on such issues from a faculty committee at the time of the initial appointment.


1. The statement provides that, “[b]eginning with appointment to the rank of full-time instructor or a higher rank, the probationary period should not exceed seven years.” For the circumstances under which the period of probationary service may be legitimately extended, see questions 3 and 4 under Leaving the Institution—or Staying. Back to text