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Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31815c64d5
Faculty

Evidence-Based Appointment and Promotion of Academic Faculty at the University of Chicago

Feder, Martin E. PhD; Madara, James L. MD

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Author Information

Dr. Feder is professor and faculty dean of academic affairs, University of Chicago, Division of the Biological Sciences, Pritzker School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois.

Dr. Madara is chief executive officer, University of Chicago Medical Center, university vice-president for medical affairs dean, and Sara & Harold Lincoln Thompson Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago, Division of the Biological Sciences, and Pritzker School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Feder, Division of Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine, The University of Chicago, 5841 South Maryland Avenue, MC1000, Chicago, IL 60637; telephone: (773) 702-4311; e-mail: (m-feder@uchicago.edu).

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Abstract

The authors report how one academic medical center (AMC) and associated nonclinical departments implemented evidence-based academic criteria and an evidence-based academic vetting process, which may be models for other institutions.

In 2004–2005, The University of Chicago Division of the Biological Sciences and Pritzker School of Medicine reconceptualized its appointment, promotion, and tenure criteria to recognize all forms of scholarship as equally legitimate bases for academic tenure. The revised criteria also accommodate differences in academic effort consistent with varying clinical demands. Implementation of these criteria, however, necessitated revised practices in providing objective evidence and analysis of their satisfaction.

Three complementary mechanisms now yield excellent evidence and analysis. The first, electronic forms (e-forms) comprise highly specific response items with embedded instructions, advice, and rationale. The e-forms encourage candidates and departments to provide the evidence that subsequent review needs to evaluate appointment or promotion proposals. Unexpectedly, the e-forms have been coopted as effective mechanisms for faculty development. Second, a faculty dean of academic affairs, a regular faculty member, was appointed to provide robust academic authority and perspective to the process. Third, the promotion and tenure advisory committee was restricted to evaluating academic criteria, and from considerations of institutional value. This change interposed a “firewall” between academic and institutional review. These changes have attenuated dissatisfaction with the appointments and promotions process both within and outside the AMC.

The appointment and promotion of excellent faculty are key to an academic institution’s overall excellence. Some especially challenging aspects of these processes are the definition and ascertainment of excellence itself.1,2 If the definition of excellence is unclear, the expected level of accomplishment too low, too high, or inequitable, and/or the evaluation process too opaque or too subjective, the processes of appointment and promotion can lose credibility and fail to achieve their intended goals.2 Additional consequences, moreover, can include erosion of faculty excellence through stress3,4 and loss of morale,2,5,6 attrition of highly valued faculty,2,7 and difficulty in recruiting the best new faculty. These issues are neither imaginary nor infrequent. A recent national survey of 4,500 tenure-track faculty across the United States reported that on a five-point clarity scale (5 = highest and 1 = lowest), standards were rated a 3.2; the body of evidence required for tenure was rated a 3.46; tenure criteria a 3.53; and the tenure process a 3.63.8,9

At academic medical centers (AMCs) with multiple faculty tracks and corresponding academic criteria,2 perceived disparities among tracks and inequities in criteria and the availability of tenure can exacerbate these promotion- and tenure-related issues.10 These phenomena are more pronounced for female faculty than for male.6,8,9 Many AMCs, moreover, report to universities whose leadership can be unfamiliar with academic medical practice, including the diversity and fluidity of individuals’ career pathways within this setting and its criteria for excellence. Promotion and tenure decisions at higher levels, unless properly informed, can appear arbitrary and capricious, and can themselves become a significant source of faculty dissatisfaction. The University of Chicago has not been immune to these issues; a 2001 review of the concerns of nonclinical and clinical faculty identified faculty appointments, promotions, tenure, and tracks as especially prominent.

Although not all problems in the evaluation of faculty excellence can be eliminated, recent experience at The University of Chicago suggests that many can. The corresponding practices revolve around clear, rational, and comprehensible expectations, and an evaluation process that holds subjectivity to a minimum. With the implementation of these practices, the growing body of experience we describe below is eroding faculty concerns and facilitating the appointment and retention of academic faculty at our institution.

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A Need for Reform in the Promotion Process

Institutional and historical setting

The University of Chicago finds its core academic values in the three major functions of universities in the modern world: (1) creating important new knowledge, (2) training students in this knowledge and in how to pursue it further, and (3) training students to enter professions.11 The function of academic review, then, is to appoint and retain faculty “who will perform at the highest level the functions of research, teaching, training, and the maintenance of the intellectual community of the University.”11

From its inception, The University of Chicago has had a distinctive organization with respect to biological and medical faculty. The Pritzker School of Medicine is embedded within the Division of the Biological Sciences, one of four major academic divisions of the university and now comprising 11 clinical, 7 nonclinical, and 3 “bridge” departments. Thus, a single divisional dean oversees these departments rather than separate deans for the medical school and nonmedical school departments. In academic matters, the divisional dean reports to the provost, who is the chief academic officer. This reporting structure and a long institutional heritage of academic values11,12 has necessitated academic1,13 evaluations at each step of the appointments and promotions process within the AMC—often in resonance with practices in the arts and sciences departments.

By statute, only departments can propose faculty appointments. Only the provost can approve departmental appointment proposals. The divisional dean, however, is responsible for recommending proposals to the provost. Since the 1980s the dean of the Division of the Biological Sciences has sought advice in this process from a standing Committee on Appointments and Promotions (COAP), comprising full professors from the breadth of the division.

Initially, the statutes and bylaws of The University of Chicago14 provided for a single and tenurable faculty track, defining faculty members as scholars and educators without exception. During the 1970s, increasing demands for clinical knowledge and skill undermined the uniform application of this definition to the Division of the Biological Sciences’ clinical faculty, many of whom could not both meet a rising standard of clinical practice and deploy a program of academic scholarship of the same magnitude of that of a counterpart with no clinical obligation.15 This circumstance led to the implementation of two additional but nontenurable faculty tracks in the Division of the Biological Sciences, one allowing nontraditional clinical scholarship in consideration for promotion16 and another crediting but not requiring scholarship17 in the promotion process. As we will describe, these tracks, their corresponding criteria, and the availability of tenure have recently been reconceptualized.

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Criteria and their evolution

The statutes and bylaws of The University of Chicago14 require that faculty members (again, defined as scholars and educators) cannot hold the rank of assistant professor for more than seven years. Assistant professors who have reached this limit must either be promoted or terminated.

The current criteria for academic appointments and promotions have their basis in the 1970 report of a faculty Committee on the Criteria of Academic Appointment, appointed by then-President Edward Levi and chaired by Professor Edward Shils. Thus, the Shils Report,11 as it has become known, preceded the origin of the additional faculty tracks in the Division of Biological Sciences. In remarkably spare language, the Shils Report states:

* ▪ Scholarship, the creation of important new knowledge, should be the primary basis for faculty appointments and promotions.

* ▪ The criteria for excellence in scholarship should be its rigor, originality, and fundamental significance, and the promise of such in future scholarship.

* ▪ Faculty appointments and promotions should also require regular and effective teaching, which the report defines broadly to include both formal and informal teaching, supervision of research and clinical trainees, and development of educational materials and curricula.

* ▪ Associate professors should be clearly en route to becoming leading figures in their field, and professors should be among their field’s leading figures.

Over the years, the Division of the Biological Sciences used various circumlocutions, peregrinations, and accommodations to implement its faculty tracks while remaining in compliance with the university statutes and Shils Report. These are not relevant to current practice, but at the time resulted in faculty dissatisfaction with the tracks and their associated criteria. In response, a committee comprising mainly departmental chairs, itself chaired by Professor Bruce Gewertz, MD, then chair of surgery, took the first steps toward a more rational and straightforward system beginning in 2004.

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Current tracks and tenure system

Tenure may be proposed when a faculty member’s scholarship (i.e., the creation of important new knowledge) exhibits appropriate rigor, originality, and fundamental significance.11 The nature, kind, and variety of the scholarship (i.e., whether the new knowledge arises from theoretical insight, basic experimental science, observation of the natural world, clinical investigation, translational inquiry, educational activity, clinical practice, public service activity, and/or integration or application of preexisting knowledge) should be irrelevant to its evaluation. Faculty members in all tracks are eligible to receive tenure when the requirements (as stated above) have been met. Therefore, tenure track is a misnomer.

Two tracks, Research Scholar and Clinical Scholar, require scholarship for promotion from assistant to associate professor, but the difference between and rationale for these tracks involves time protected for scholarship. Productive and excellent junior faculty will accumulate scholarly accomplishment with time in rank, but the magnitude of this accumulation will reasonably vary with effort, all else equal. An accomplished clinician–scientist whose clinical service consumes 50% of his or her time will reasonably accomplish half as much as a nonclinical colleague with no clinical obligations—not because of any deficit in capability, intelligence, or motivation, but simply because of the effort available for scholarship. The unavoidable but unpredictable interruptions that patient care involves may increase this difference. Time to completion of individual bouts of scholarship, moreover, will differ dramatically according to the nature of the scholarship. In vetting for promotion, colleagues differing in time available for scholarship and/or time to completion for each bout of scholarship should reasonably be compared not to one another, but to the best in their field with comparable amounts of protected time and at a comparable career stage. The two scholarship-requiring tracks reflect this principle. Assistant professors are appointed in the Research Scholar track if they foreseeably will have enough protected time to satisfy the tenure criteria before they must be promoted. These typically are basic scientists or clinician–scientists with modest clinical obligations. Assistant professors who foreseeably will not have enough protected time to satisfy the tenure criteria by promotion review are appointed in the Clinical Scholar track—but, as stated, they are eligible for tenure whenever the tenure criteria are satisfied. These faculty typically are clinician–scientists with intermediate or moderate clinical obligations.

A final track is for faculty members whose predominant activity is clinical care, during which they educate, administer, and/or perform scholarship. Importantly, this track is for faculty members rather than full-time clinicians; academic appointments by definition are for those with substantial educational roles. Although some in this track are superb and productive scholars, typically clinical, educational, and/or administrative obligations are cumulatively so large that these faculty have too little time available for scholarship to justify a uniform requirement for substantial scholarship. Instead, promotion from assistant to associate professor in this track recognizes a diversity of accomplishment. Some faculty members may achieve substantial external recognition outside The University of Chicago from educational, administrative, clinical, and/or scholarly activity. Alternatively or in addition, some faculty members may have substantial impact internally on educational, clinical, or administrative practices. This is the Clinician–Educator track, although it clearly accommodates a broader diversity of practices and accomplishments than clinical and educational activity. Because this track does not require scholarship (although it credits scholarship), faculty members in it are exempted from the seven-year limitation of assistant professorships and have the freedom to proceed towards promotion at their own pace and in their own way.

The overall philosophy of the tracks, thus, is that they accommodate a diversity of faculty activity and roles. All embody a similar standard of excellence, while each allows that standard to be met in its own way. The Web site of the faculty dean of academic affairs (http://pondside.uchicago.edu/feder/For-Faculty.htm) develops these criteria in greater detail.

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Evidence-Based Appointments and Promotions

Importance, rigor, originality, fundamental significance, external reputation, leading figure status, and educational excellence are abstract concepts that, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, just as medicine can be “evidence based” (or not),18 candidates for appointment and promotion in the biological and medical sciences and their appointing departments can produce numerous objective and semiobjective data that can indicate a candidate’s satisfaction (or not) of these criteria. The challenge is to obtain these data and an analysis of them that rigorously addresses such criteria.

Two exemplary instances of online marketing and surveys inspired practices at the University of Chicago that have now met this challenge. First, many online Web forms are programmed to reject incomplete, irrelevant, or erroneous information (e.g., an inaccurate credit card number). Second, the Project Reports System (https://www.fldemo.nsf.gov/a0/about/features.htm#project_reports) of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Fastlane electronic business system19 embeds detailed instructions for each response item in a Web form about what each response is expected to address and the end to which such information is being requested. These embedded instructions enable the user to provide the specific response that the NSF seeks instead of unintentionally providing inaccurate or incomplete responses. Although the impact of this system has not yet been documented rigorously, NSF’s experience and unsolicited testimonials suggest that asking questions as “discrete data elements” has markedly improved both the quality of data obtained and its pertinence to the specific query (D. Hofherr, personal communication, 2007).

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Using e-forms for accurate evaluation

The single most important innovation at the University of Chicago resulting from these Web-based examples is the creation and implementation of electronic forms (e-forms) that systematically call for the specific data and analyses that are pertinent to each faculty track, rank, and appointment or promotion action.20 One of us (M.E.F.) created and implemented the first e-forms in 2004 and continues to modify them in response to feedback from users at every level of review. Many of the data requested on the e-form are simply the information customarily provided in the promotion process, such as curriculum vitae and citations of publications. But other layers provide substantial added value:

Problem: In the past, candidates for appointment or promotion would provide a package of materials, and departments and decanal reviewers each provided a singular comprehensive evaluation of the candidate. However, candidates commonly failed to address specific criteria in their materials for appointment and promotion, and/or higher reviewers neglected to analyze the candidate’s satisfaction of all criteria. Solution: Breaking these materials and evaluations into highly specific response items in the e-form ensures that both candidates and analysts address each item; failure to do so is obvious when navigating the e-form.

Problem: Before implementing the e-form, candidates, departments, and higher-level reviewers were seldom aware of the issues to be addressed by one another. Solution: The response items are now sequential and visible to all as the e-form moves through the review process. For example, a candidate would first be asked on the e-form to report all educational activity via a narrative, a listing, or from an online teaching portfolio. Immediately after this item, the candidate’s department would be asked to analyze the significance or importance of this educational activity, and to verify the accuracy of the candidate’s self-study. Immediately after the departmental item, decanal reviewers would be asked to comment on the accuracy and thoroughness of the departmental item and to add their own analysis. This sequencing has several advantages. Trivially, the juxtaposition of items on a single page eliminates the need to repeat material from one level of analysis to the next, or, if repetition is warranted, text can be copied and reinserted electronically. If the information and analysis are accurate, each higher level of review can verify the lower levels and/or provide additional insight without restatement. Most important for the participants in this process, the clustering of all three levels makes each lower-level participant aware of the questions to be asked of him or her at higher levels. This allows each level of participant to provide pertinent material and avoid extraneous material. Moreover, it deters hyperbole and gratuitous verbiage. In most cases, the party most knowledgeable about the candidate is the candidate. Ordinarily, material provided by the candidate would be viewed as self-serving and, therefore, suspect. With verification at each higher level of review, the entire process can benefit from the candidate’s self-knowledge. In our experience, when candidates deviate from accuracy in their self-studies, the deviation is on the side of modesty rather than exaggeration.

Problem: Instructions were not explicit before the e-form was implemented; for instance, “Provide a research statement or analyze external recognition.” Solution: As in the NSF Fastlane Project Reports system,19 substantial instructions, advice, and rationale are embedded next to the items to which they pertain. Again, instructions to candidates, departments, and decanal reviewers are all visible to one another, further increasing the clarity and transparency of the process. Model letters of solicitation to external reviewers are also included. All this encourages each level to provide information or analysis that will be pertinent to the case.

Beyond these general features, specific items on the e-form solicit information and analysis that are difficult to obtain by traditional means. The assignment of credit for collaborative scholarship, for example, is an issue that ordinarily bedevils promotion committees,21,22 and one that will expand in difficulty along with the growth in collaboration,23 team science, multidisciplinary scholarship,24 and size of author lists.25,26 Typically, promotion committees will attempt to infer credit from the position of a candidate’s name in a list of authors, but this practice is fraught with difficulty, as authorship customs vary among fields and differ with circumstances. For the appointment or promotion of scholars, the e-form builds on an item that requests candidates to identify up to five “exemplary” scholarly publications or products (see example 1 in Appendix 1). Whereas this practice is in itself valuable in focusing attention on the best of the scholarship and away from the number of publications, it also provides entree to the evaluation of collaborative scholarship. For each exemplary publication, the candidate is asked to describe the role or contribution of each author. In the next item, the department is asked to verify whether this description is credible, and decanal reviewers are asked whether the departmental assurance is credible. Again, the candidates’ descriptions are almost always accurate and, when not, they have always been too modest. From this material, reviewers can evaluate a candidate’s actual scholarly accomplishment instead of inferring the candidate’s role from a list of authors.

As noted above, clinician–educators can be promoted to associate professors in part on the basis of internal impact. If handled improperly, this practice could be abused to reward, for example, faithful but routine service. Response items on the e-form calls for all of the data needed to evaluate a candidate’s internal impact; following items ask for verification from higher levels (see example 2 in Appendix 1). Again, the e-form provides a forum not only for listing accomplishments, but also for verifying their accuracy and relevance.

As at most institutions, the faculty of the Division of the Biological Sciences are diverse, and faculty members often have difficulty in evaluating excellence in a specialty not their own. This difficulty compounds at the university level, for the provost and president are often not life scientists or physicians. Several items in the e-form force departments to explain a candidate’s work to nonspecialists (see example 3 in Appendix 1). In our experience, this exercise also forces departments to distill what is excellent in a candidate for appointment or promotion, and requires them to make it obvious.

E-form items can also be used to reinforce institutional values. For example, when the perception arose that faculty mentorship is irrelevant to promotion, the e-form was modified to request specific information on faculty mentorship activity, establishing mentorship as an official component of consideration for promotion (see example 4 in Appendix 1). Similarly, the instructions and advice embedded with each response item also remind respondents of the purpose of specific items. For instance, the purpose for asking about funding levels per se is to evaluate the ability of the candidate to carry out his or her research, and this should lead to a discussion that evaluates funding in this context instead of on the basis of some normative number or type of grants from particular sources. Secondarily, this item can provide information about the candidate’s independence as an investigator and, for highly competitive nationally peer-reviewed grants, about the importance of the candidate’s research. The e-form, therefore, makes it easier to focus on funding as information about the promotion criteria, and harder to focus solely on the dollar amounts or the percent of salary recovery (which are important to the institution, but not directly relevant to whether a candidate meets the criteria for appointment or promotion).

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Reaction to the e-form

Since the e-forms have been implemented, seldom have decanal reviewers complained of insufficiency of information and never has the provost requested additional information, as occasionally occurred in the past and still occurs in other areas of the university. Reaction of candidates for appointments and promotions has been biphasic; candidates initially regard the forms as onerous and intimidating, but eventually come to prefer the specificity of the response items over open-ended “personal statements.” An unforeseen benefit of the forms is that they have become a career development tool. The process of completing the forms, particularly for assistant professors seeking reappointment, involves extensive interaction among junior faculty and their mentors, section chiefs, and/or chairs. This interaction sometimes reveals career development opportunities or informs supervisors of unrecognized problems. Additionally, some departments require that faculty update and submit e-forms annually as a component of merit review because the e-forms lead faculty to report systematically all of their activities.

We have surveyed all faculty candidates for reappointment, promotion, and tenure, promotion and tenure committee members, and chairs who participated in these processes before and after the introduction of e-forms (Table 1). Whereas most respondents reported that e-forms increased their work (presumably by requiring them to address fully each criterion for reappointment or promotion), most found that the e-forms helped clarify both the criteria themselves and the evidence or analysis required to address these criteria. Furthermore, viewing the e-forms in advance caused most candidates to alter how they prepared for or thought about promotion and tenure, and departmental chairs regard them as useful career development tools. Promotion and tenure committee members and departmental chairs reported that the e-forms both enhanced their ability to assess the merit of promotion cases and led to greater realism or honesty in the characterization of accomplishments (Table 1).

Table 1
Table 1
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Beyond E-Forms: Innovation at the Faculty Level

The faculty deanship of academic affairs

In moving to an evidence-based promotion model, there have been innovations at the administrative level as well. The faculty dean of academic affairs, a position created in 2003, serves this entire process. The basic thesis of this administrative innovation is that an active faculty member is necessary to evaluate faculty members’ academic performance and help faculty members (and their departments) prepare for promotion. Nonfaculty can capably support the process (and do so across The University of Chicago) but cannot make academic judgments. Importantly, the faculty dean of academic affairs is also the counterpart of the computer program that rejects erroneous credit card numbers in online forms, and can decide when the information or analysis in the e-form is unresponsive to a specific query. The faculty dean also recruits the regular and ad hoc members who participate in meetings of the COAP, chairs the meetings as a nonvoting member, and tallies the votes.

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A firewall for academic evaluation of faculty

Every academic institution must resolve a conflict between the criteria for academic performance and the practical necessity of populating a large, complex organization with experts in nonacademic practices (e.g., administrators, informaticians, legal officers, etc.), and institutions vary in how they do so. This variation poses an additional challenge: recruitment of individuals who satisfy academic criteria for rank or tenure at the original institution but not at the receiving institution. This conflict and challenge can be especially severe for AMCs, which obviously must recruit or retain the faculty necessary to cover the various clinical services and needs of the AMC and/or retain key specialists in the face of recruitment from outside. Some potential solutions are to abandon rigorous academic criteria or to pretend that these criteria are satisfied when they are not. These solutions, though facile, can corrode the academic excellence of an institution and undermine both the morale of faculty members who must make great efforts to maintain academic performance, and the credibility of the appointments and promotions process.

In the Division of the Biological Sciences, the standing faculty COAP has become a key element in coping with these issues. Previously, COAP was rarely—but sometimes—asked to advise on appointment and promotion proposals that were weaker than preferred on academic grounds but necessary for pragmatic reasons. Because its members were faculty, COAP could evaluate academic accomplishment in such cases but lacked the knowledge, background, and information to weigh academic accomplishment against the greater institutional good. Currently, in every case COAP is instructed to:

▪ exclude considerations of institutional need or the implications of a candidate leaving the institution (or not joining it) should the committee’s advice be negative;

▪ base its advice solely on the information and analysis in the departmental proposal, and not on information “not in evidence”;

▪ address only the question, “Does the departmental proposal establish that the candidate satisfies the academic criteria for the proposed action?”

Although the faculty members of the Division of Biological Sciences are highly collegial and interactive, COAP members have proven themselves able to set aside their collegial instincts, departmental agendas, and personal scientific/medical “tastes” and focus simply on the question presented to them. In this sense, they perform as would jurors in a legal trial. An important component of this mechanism is the faculty dean of academic affairs, who chairs COAP but does not vote. In this capacity, the faculty dean can serve as parliamentarian and insist that the committee’s deliberations not stray from academic evaluation.

Thus, a “firewall” exists between the academic evaluators (i.e., COAP) and those who must balance the purely academic evaluation against institutional needs and priorities (the divisional dean and provost). Accordingly, COAP’s evaluation is viewed as highly credible and has become a “gold standard” in academic decision making. Departmental chairs have come to accept this process, and they now separate the academic evaluation from institutional need issues in their proposals for faculty appointments and promotions. All but one of eight responding departmental chairs agreed that COAP’s exclusive focus on academic criteria had improved the entire promotions process.

Because COAP is a standing committee, its members can be progressively sensitized to issues of academic cultural insensitivity27 (e.g., clinical versus nonclinical perspectives, individual versus collaborative/team science) and disciplinary chauvinism.21,22,28,29 Members can become specialists in the evaluation of scholarship30 and learn to value all forms of scholarship31 equivalently. Each meeting, however, includes several ad hoc members who vote and serve two purposes. First, the ad hoc members provide academic expertise in the candidate’s area. Second, although the committee’s deliberations are confidential, the ad hoc reviewers’ attendance is a device to disseminate information about the appointments and promotions system, criteria, process, and values, and thereby educate the entire faculty.

Committee members evaluate each case on a signed ballot that is tallied by the nonvoting chair, who is the only one to know how each member voted. This practice enables members to be candid, and facilitates the detection of any systematic bias in evaluations (e.g., by faculty track, rank, department, clinical versus nonclinical, regular versus ad hoc members) or individual reviewers who are regularly hypercritical or uncritical. Interestingly, no systematic bias has been evident thus far; that is, nonclinicians, clinical scholars, and clinician–educators evaluate cases from all tracks and reach similar conclusions, as do full professors and the associate professors who occasionally serve as ad hoc members.

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Impact on faculty career development

A common complaint of academic faculty,32 particularly clinician–educators5,10 and female faculty members,6,9 is that criteria and expectations for academic advancement are unclear. Because the e-forms make obvious the specific evidence required for promotion and tenure, junior faculty are empowered to develop their careers in ways that furnish this evidence, and their mentors and/or supervisors are informed as to how best to facilitate career development of junior faculty. The e-forms are always available online, and junior faculty are encouraged to download the pertinent form(s) for frequent review.

In particular, the e-forms for reappointment of assistant professors facilitate career development. In the Division of the Biological Sciences, appointments of assistant professors typically are for three to four years, usually necessitating reappointment before promotion or tenure review. During the past decade, reappointment as assistant professor has become a mechanism for career development rather than for culling (indeed, in most cycles 100% of departmental proposals for reappointment are approved). Thus, the e-forms for reappointment systematically call for a candidate’s self-study of impediments to excellence in scholarship, education, and clinical activity, a corresponding departmental analysis, and for the proposition of feasible solutions to each of these problems. Additionally, the e-forms require a description of planned career development practices and mentorship. Again, when problems arise without corresponding feasible solutions, these are glaringly obvious and decanal intervention can lead to appropriate remediation.

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Challenges

The implementation of this system is still a work in progress. One significant challenge is that although the revisions in criteria and process were implemented beginning in 2004, many faculty members have long tenures at this institution and still-longer memories. Although junior faculty and incoming chairs are systematically educated in the new system, senior faculty are not. The result is a cultural inertia, due to which some junior faculty receive career development advice that may have been pertinent decades ago but no longer is. To paraphrase Santayana,33 those who remember history seem condemned to repeat it. Only time will solve this problem.

Another challenge concerns reviewers at other institutions, from whom analyses are sought for every appointment and for promotion to associate or full professor. These analyses are highly valued in corroborating internal evaluations of academic excellence. The reviewers at other institutions, however, may be unable or unwilling to supply analyses that are consistent with internal needs, values, and process. Whereas the internal analysis consistently focuses on academic criteria, the external evaluators’ local appointment and promotion processes may not. Indeed, a growing number of letters from medical school faculty are tending to drift toward testimonials and away from thorough analyses of academic achievements. If this trend continues, it prospectively may undermine the valuation of academic medicine in the eyes of university faculty and administrators outside the AMC. We are attempting to reverse this trend with increasingly explicit language in our letters soliciting external references, but this is a work in progress. Our present practice, moreover, is to furnish external evaluators with curricula vitae and representative publications, which as noted above are insufficient for accurate crediting of collaborative activity. The verified description of the contributions of each author to the “exemplary publications,” which the e-form elicits, is not shared. Our intent is eventually to expand the e-forms to accommodate external reviewers’ responses and to make them available online via a secure, password-protected server. If e-forms can elicit the specific evidence required from candidates, departments, and reviewers on campus, they almost certainly could do so from external reviewers.

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Promoting Excellence

The evaluation of academic excellence can be a vexing process for candidates for appointment or promotion, mentors, chairs, deans, and provosts. Or, it can be an opportunity to affirm and communicate core academic values, and to obtain evidence of and, thereby, celebrate accomplishment. Through a combination of (1) rational and clearly stated criteria for appointment and promotion, (2) a process that explicitly obtains exactly the evidence that is needed for rigorous evaluation—and in a way that shares the expectations of each level of review among all levels, (3) a decanal position that provides academic oversight, and (4) an explicit compartmentalization of academic review and larger institutional considerations, the Division of the Biological Sciences at The University of Chicago has addressed many of the problems inherent in academic review. Departmental proposals for appointment and/or promotion of faculty members here are typically successful. The clear communication of expectations and evidence required has led to a shared sense of academic criteria. With this shared sense, departments and their chairs can reliably anticipate the academic qualities that are necessary in new appointees, and the resources that will be necessary to ensure these appointees’ successful promotion in the future. Not all departmental proposals for appointment and promotion are approved, of course, but even when these fail, they do so with a sense that the necessary evidence has been obtained and weighed objectively and fairly.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Vinay Kumar, Stephen Lerner, Linda Roth, Richard Saller, Ronald Thisted, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript, and Dan Hofherr in the Office of Information and Resource Management, National Science Foundation, for information on the Fastlane system.

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