While a necessary and worthy milestone, earning promotion and tenure is not an end goal of an academic career. During the pretenure years, a faculty member is gearing up for growth in the areas (e.g., teaching, research and teaching) defined by the institution to meet the mark for tenure. Ideally, the latter part of the pretenure period is one where the quality of the work is on the rise, there is an emerging reputation, and the products (e.g., presentations, exhibitions, publications, proposals for/success in funding) of success are generated at an increased pace. At the time of dossier submission, there should be a record with a definitive upward trajectory. The challenge at this point is to capitalize on the momentum created to begin planning for the next step, the promotion to full professor. This, however, is not the way all cases proceed.

Some faculty members will do what is necessary to earn tenure, but once that goal is achieved, they are comfortable remaining associate professors until they retire. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the criteria for promotion to full professor tend to be more stringent, which exaggerates initial ambivalence.

Some cultures in higher education seem to support this unfortunate attitude. In fact, a personal experience on my own campus, I am sorry to say, exposed me to such a culture. During a panel discussion with an audience of first-year faculty members, a panelist said, “Avoid doing anything beyond the minimal amount of committee service while pretenure; once you achieve tenure you will have plenty of time for that.” Diverting attention when a faculty member is energized by a successful application for P&T and at a time when new collaborations are being established, new projects are being launched, and invitations for presentations, keynotes, and the like are beginning to be received seems a disservice to both the faculty member and the institution. To avoid the planned, permanent associate professor, some institutions have a P&T guideline statement that says, in effect, “We should not offer tenure to a faculty member who lacks the ambition or abilities to achieve full professor rank.” The problem is this: How do you know?

The focus of this article is on strategies and interventions that help mid- and late-career faculty maintain their momentum beyond tenure and on those effective in the maintaining high productivity of senior faculty. Each case will be different in its manifestations and in any necessary solutions. The individual responsible for monitoring each case, directly or indirectly, is the chair.

Higher education has evolved to monitoring well the progress of pretenure faculty. Aside from annual reviews by chairs, they are sometimes subject to annual reappointment reviews with a committee that will ultimately make the first recommendation on tenure. Some institutions have more in-depth third-year reviews in which faculty members receive feedback from a level beyond the department. Finally, mentoring of new faculty is becoming more common. However, once tenure is earned, much of the monitoring disappears, leaving the annual review as the only certain event where faculty progress is evaluated.

During annual reviews with faculty on the brink of tenure or beyond, chairs might consider the following strategies. For the soon-to-be associate professor, the chair might focus on goal setting that raises the bar on previous accomplishments while asking if the faculty member has sufficient resources to achieve the goals. This tells the faculty member that there is both an expectation of greater success and confidence that the faculty member will succeed, while it also acknowledges resource needs the chair can convey.

For those 5–10 years beyond tenure, the chair should carefully monitor productivity for changes in type and decreases in quality because these may be signs of some dissatisfaction with the present portfolio of work or a general loss of enthusiasm. The earlier the detection of declines, the better the chances of reversal. In a case in which a faculty member shows less than optimal productivity over time, the chair might consider asking questions such as, “What would you like to be doing in five years?” If the response is, “What I am doing now,” then a follow-up conversation as to possible reasons for reduced productivity is called for. A chair can work with such an individual to address obstacles. However, if the answer is, “I have lost the zeal for competitive research and want to change my career focus to undergraduate teaching or community engagement or administrative service,” the chair must embark on a longer, more complex plan of helping to make this happen.

Beyond dealing with individual cases of stalled or subpar performance, strategies and environmental conditions can be employed or created by chairs and deans to help mid- to late-career faculty remain fully engaged and productive. These strategies are based on the research of Bland and Bergquist (1997) on what matters to successful senior faculty. .

The research reveals that the number one characteristic responsible for the continued productivity of senior (mid- to late-career) faculty is their internal drive. Anyone who has spent time in a higher education environment will be able to list such faculty; these are the relentless workers who will not be denied success and who find a way around every obstacle. Successful senior faculty members are also well networked; they know all the top people in the field and are aware of the up-and-comers. In the vernacular, these faculty members are “players.” They also have a strong sense of autonomy and are very comfortable espousing their professional opinions even when they depart from the current dogma. In a sense, they are risk takers. They are also busy people, so they are sensitive to assignments that take time away from their primary work. In addition, as they age, work-life balance becomes increasingly important. Ultimately, as retirement approaches, many focus on their legacy.

Armed with this information, chairs and deans should be able to generate opportunities and conditions that would support many of these characteristics, thereby increasing the likelihood of promoting further productivity from senior faculty. To facilitate networking, the chair could send a faculty member to a conference or invite a new collaborator to visit campus for several days when there would be a symposium, ample time to discuss new projects, and opportunities to meet with students and perhaps teach a class. Sending the faculty to the collaborator would be a variant on the same theme.

Another way to promote networking is to sponsor a conference on campus in the faculty member’s area of interest. Depending on a number of factors, some help from the dean may be necessary. To address the autonomy/risk-taking attribute, the chair could provide resources for a pedagogical experiment the faculty member has wanted to try or to launch a research project that might have a high reward but for which there are no preliminary data to support an external grant proposal. The chair could easily avoid assigning the faculty member to committees where the required expertise is not a good match and generally protect the time of the faculty member. The chair might also avoid assigning classes that interfere with late Wednesday afternoons with grandchildren, for example.

Beyond reinforcing the characteristics of successful senior faculty members, there are some favorable environmental factors identified by senior faculty that a chair can enhance. Having high expectations for faculty performance (e.g., big fish like to “swim, “collaborate with other big fish), a collegial atmosphere, and recognition and rewards for excellent performance are all things on which a chair can have some influence. Chairs should recognize through department and campus venues the contributions of excellent faculty and be prepared to nominate them for appropriate awards. Finally, goal alignment among the institution, the department, and the individual has emerged in surveys as an important factor that keeps senior faculty motivated. Chairs are in a position to ensure at least part of that.

Campuses are realizing that successful associate and full professors are not guaranteed to continue high productivity until retirement. They may need help and attention from time to time in order to reach their potential and for the institution to benefit fully from their capabilities. Chairs will play a critical role in monitoring performance of these individuals. Each case will be unique, from those who are motivated and work productively throughout their careers to those who may get stuck more than once, and chairs will have to employ multiple approaches and utilize a variety of personal skills to be successful.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. 

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 32.7 (2016): 4, 5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.