Evaluations and Reviews

I have a probationary appointment. Can I be let go during the probationary period before I am reviewed for tenure?

A probationary period gives faculty members the opportunity to prove themselves, and it gives their colleagues time to observe and evaluate them based on their performance in the position, not just on their academic credentials and recommendations. An evaluation (several can occur in the course of the probationary period) might conclude that the faculty member is progressing satisfactorily and express the hope that he or she will continue to do so. Or it might call for improvement in specified areas and encourage attention to them. A third possibility is that the evaluation identifies weaknesses in performance, concludes that improvement is unlikely, and results in the nonrenewal of appointment. The probationary period is a time of testing. If one falls short, one can legitimately be separated from the institution at the end of any given term of appointment. Probation offers the opportunity to work toward tenure, but it does not ensure that the individual will be retained for the entire probationary period or that an evaluation for tenure will in fact take place.#1 

When I began teaching, I was told that I needed to publish at least three refereed journal articles in order to get tenure. I am at the end of my fourth year, and the requirement has just been changed to five articles. Is that fair?

Sound academic practice requires that your institution define its criteria for tenure and advise you of those criteria early in your appointment.  Any special standards adopted by your department or school should also be brought to your attention. But criteria can change as the needs and expectations of the department and the institution change. Who is properly subject to the new criteria? Certainly, new faculty members cannot plausibly claim that they should be evaluated under previous criteria that were applied when senior colleagues were reviewed for tenure. The difficult issue is the application of new criteria to faculty members in the middle of the probationary period who were informed of different standards for tenure, and who may well have made important professional decisions based on those standards.

There is no reason to question a college or university policy that requires that new standards for tenure be applied only to new faculty members. A policy that calls for applying the new standards to continuing probationary faculty can also pass muster, but much will depend upon local circumstances. Consider the following situations. In the first, a faculty member is told six months after starting to teach at a university that the standards for tenure now require the publication of at least one book; previously, a minimum of six articles in refereed journals was required. Neither the timing of the change in the standards nor the substance of the new requirement seems unreasonable. In the second situation, a faculty member in her fifth year of teaching at a university learns that, to attain tenure, she must have a PhD in hand; the master’s degree that she holds no longer suffices. Plainly, applying the new standard to this individual is unfair.

As to your situation, the change in the standard requires that you publish two articles in the next, or fifth, year of teaching (I’m assuming that the tenure evaluation at your institution takes place during the sixth year and that you have already published three articles). By contrast, the earlier requirement was the publication of three articles over the entire course of the probationary period. You are now asked to do almost as much as was required in five years in only one year, and that is unfair.

In a recent conversation with the college president, I was told that my demonstrated usefulness and loyalty to the institution will be key considerations in determining whether my appointment will be renewed. Is that appropriate?

The traditional and still widely used criteria for evaluating faculty performance focus on teaching, research, and service. The weight and meaning assigned to each of these areas varies among colleges and universities (and often among departments or divisions within institutions). Different emphases may also exist at different points in a faculty member’s career. For example, teaching and service might loom large at the outset of an appointment, while during an evaluation for tenure, published research moves to center stage.

These areas of faculty performance are broad—but not so broad as to encompass the standards for evaluation described by your president. “Demonstrated usefulness to the institution” is both redundant and undesirable. Faculty members who have furnished evidence of excellence in teaching, research, and service have demonstrated their usefulness to the institution, and a specific criterion of usefulness is superfluous.

As for loyalty, it is difficult to define and readily open to abuse. A faculty member who criticizes the administration or board of trustees may be considered by some to be disloyal to the institution, although the criticism, whether right or wrong, might be better understood as serving the institution by furthering the robust exchange of ideas. The president’s concern for loyalty to the institution may be a harmless way of encouraging you to do your best as a faculty member, but experience suggests that an emphasis on loyalty can readily become a means for stifling criticism. Indeed, uncertainty about the meaning of loyalty may deter you from engaging in activities protected under principles of academic freedom, because you might fear being thought insufficiently loyal if you speak critically.

I believe that letters have been placed in my personnel file that are defamatory, and I want to read them. Can I be denied access to my own personnel file?

Many colleges and universities still do not allow faculty members to have access to their personnel files. Perhaps the strongest argument advanced in support of this practice is that prohibiting access is the only way to ensure complete candor in the evaluation of candidates for appointment, reappointment, promotion, and tenure. Honest evaluations are at the core of personnel decisions and are indispensable to the quality of an academic institution. Some have therefore argued that access to one’s personnel file would result in revealing the identity of evaluators and their comments, which would lead to evaluations that are less candid, reliable, and useful.

For the AAUP, however, the argument in favor of openness—that faculty members should have access to their own files, including unredacted letters, both internal and external—is more compelling.2   A key consideration is that access promotes care and accuracy in evaluations. It also provides affected faculty members a fair opportunity to learn of and respond to critical letters and evaluations. Such access is therefore likely to discourage evaluations that are based upon improper bias. The identity of the writer should be known, because the importance of evaluative comments may often be intensified by the scholarly credentials of the evaluator—or diluted or altogether discredited by that individual’s known professional or personal biases.

Moreover, an individual who is considering whether to appeal an adverse personnel decision will be at a disadvantage in determining whether a basis exists for appeal unless he or she knows the stated reason for the decision; the substance of letters and evaluations, internal and external; and the identity of their authors. In sum, you should not be denied access to your personnel file.


1. . See the AAUP’s “Statement on Procedural Standards in the Renewal or Nonrenewal of Faculty Appointments” in Policy Documents and Reports.Back to text

2. The arguments for and against access to one’s own faculty personnel file are covered in greater detail in “Access to Faculty Personnel Files” in Policy Documents and Reports. Back to text