Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, January 24, 2011

Provost considering a more flexible tenure probationary time frame

In a change designed to better meet the needs of today's tenure-track faculty, Phil Hanlon, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, is considering a change that would increase the maximum allowable tenure probationary period from eight to 10 years.

The change, Hanlon is quick to point out, would not mandate that any school or college adopt a longer tenure probationary period, but would give more flexibility to units where the faculty wants it.

"A decision on the length of the probationary period continues to lie in the hands of the faculty within each school and college," Hanlon explains. "But we believe it's important to give faculty the option of additional flexibility."

And, Hanlon says, the university likely will continue to have different probationary periods, as it does today. Depending on the unit, the maximum allowable probationary period today ranges from six years in the Law School to seven years in LSA and engineering to eight years in business and medicine.

Already, the faculty governance bodies in a number of schools and colleges are supporting the idea, especially since it would allow a change but does not mandate one, Hanlon says.

The eight-year maximum tenure probationary period now in use was adopted by the Board of Regents in 1944. A change requires a vote of the regents because the maximum time is referenced in Regents Bylaw 5.09.

While that bylaw is titled "Procedures in Cases of Dismissal, Demotion, or Terminal Appointment," the possible change does not affect those procedures. The change comes only in the opening paragraph where "eight" would be changed to "ten." Here is how that section reads:

"The procedures prescribed in this section shall be followed (a) before recommendation is made to the Board of Regents of dismissal or demotion of a tenured member of the university teaching staff or of any member of the teaching staff during the term for which any member of the teaching staff is appointed; or (b) before recommendation is made to the Board of Regents of dismissal, demotion, or terminal appointment of a teaching staff member holding appointments with the university for a total of eight years in the rank of full-time instructor or higher."

Much has changed since 1944 that makes it more complex today for a junior faculty member to be able to make the advancements necessary to earn tenure, says Hanlon, a professor of mathematics. Among the issues that can add to the time needed to achieve tenure are these:

• Research funding: Young faculty members often need multiple tries to achieve initial research funding.

• Interdisciplinary research and joint appointments: Work that crosses boundaries requires more time and effort to launch and there can be varying service requirements among different units.

• Work-life balance: Faculty members more often are part of two-income households, making child and parental care issues increasingly common.

• A more complex research model: Complicated equipment and lab setups often take more time to get established, and managing large research groups can take additional resources.

• Increase in regulatory requirements: Additional oversight and reporting required with some types of research can slow productivity.

The possible change is especially important to the Medical School where professors are concerned that the current probationary period is not long enough to deal with the increasingly complex medical research model for "big" science and the translational research that moves science from the lab to the bedside. In fact, the Medical School faculty already has voted overwhelmingly to support a longer probationary period.

"The Medical School is in favor of this change," says Dr. Margaret Gyetko, professor of internal medicine and associate dean for faculty affairs. "Given our faculty's need to focus on our tripartite mission in clinical care, education and research, flexibility to a 10-year probationary period is most appropriate."

Medical School faculty members point out that there is a strong trend among medical schools nationally toward a more flexible tenure probationary period. Already the Yale, Case Western Reserve and Washington University medical schools have a 10-year probationary period and Harvard has an 11-year tenure clock.

The possible change is consistent with recommendations for greater tenure probation flexibility from the American Association of University Professors and the American Council on Education as well as the recommendations made by a U-M faculty committee in 2005.