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The Quest for Tenure

The chair of the Tenure Committee discusses what goes on in tenure decisions

Tenure committee chair Blanche Capel's best advice for junior faculty is to get others excited about their scholarship.  Photo by Jon Gardiner
Tenure committee chair Blanche Capel's best advice for junior faculty is to get others excited about their scholarship. Photo by Jon Gardiner

Anxiety is the natural emotion of many young faculty members
facing Duke's tenure review process. They probably just spent a decade pursuing
advanced education and seven more years as an assistant professor before
finally facing this decision that will determine whether they can stay at Duke for
the rest of their careers or must look for a job elsewhere.

Blanche Capel, who chairs Duke's Appointments, Promotions
and Tenure (APT) Committee, which makes tenure recommendations, thinks many of
these scholars are more anxious than they need to be.

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"Nobody who ever assembles a tenure case for themselves
thinks of it as a positive experience," said Capel, professor of cell
biology.  "I guess my
experience was positive because I received tenure," she added with a laugh. 

"But I didn't worry about it.  I thought what I was doing was interesting, and I had the
confidence that others would think so as well. That's what I would advise
junior faculty: Follow your passion. 
Do the work you came here to do and excite your colleagues and students
about it.  If you do that, the rest
will take care of itself."

Consisting of 13 senior faculty members spanning nearly all
of the university's schools, the APT committee reviews all junior faculty
members who have been approved for tenure by their departments. The committee
reviews the departmental discussions and adds new information gathered from
outside experts in the candidate's field. Its decision goes to the provost for

In an interview with Duke Today editor Geoffrey Mock, Capel
talked about the tenure process, how the APT Committee collects information and
what it looks for when making a tenure decision.


Q: When does the APT
Committee come into the tenure process for a candidate?

Capel: Once the department
approves the candidate, we start receiving massive amounts of information.  Everything used to be in one great big
notebook, but now it's all online.

The department report (which is written by the review
committee) includes a summary of the candidates record in the areas of
research, teaching, and service. 
This report is accompanied by a letter from the chair who will tell us
about her selection of the review committee and about the discussion at the
faculty meeting.  And the chair
will include a personal assessment of the candidate.  The department will also solicit letters from outside
reviewers in the candidate's field. 
All of the correspondence with external reviewers is included, even
those email exchanges with reviewers who decline to comment.  Every aspect of the case is considered:
research, teaching, the quality of the journals the candidate published in, and
his/her reputation outside Duke. 

That report goes first to the dean.  The dean will review the dossier, add
his  own letter of assessment, and
forward the case to the APT.  The
dean may recommend that we solicit further letters or other information.

After we receive the material, we appoint one of the members
of the APT committee to be primary reviewer, to take the lead on ensuring that
all necessary information has been submitted or collecting further information,
 and assisting the committee's
discussion of the case. We may seek the advice of additional outside reviewers
if we believe we need more information.

For all internal promotions with the award of tenure, after
we've had a first discussion, we schedule a meeting with the chair and the
dean.  Often we send in advance a
list of questions, generally having to do with information that was omitted or
further information we want to have. Or we may ask the chair and dean to
comment on differences of opinion in reviewer's documents.


Q. What are you
looking for when you review a candidate's file?

Capel: Our goal
is to promote scholars who will make Duke an outstanding university for years
to come.  We are looking for
evidence that this is a candidate we are willing to make a long term bet

Each element of the file plays an important role in
evaluating the candidate. The candidate's primary materials -- CV, intellectual
statement, teaching record, scholarly works, awards, participation in his
discipline, and university life -- give me a very good idea of the engagement
of the candidate in his discipline.

The external letters are also very helpful in telling
me  how the candidate and his work
are recognized outside Duke.

The dean's letter gives me a bird's eye view of the case in
the context of the university.  The
dean is good at fitting what a candidate does in a wider perspective.  And if it's a department I'm not
familiar with, it helps me understand the other documents in the case. 

The chair's letter and committee report give me a good
perspective on what is going on in the department and the field.  One thing I look for is whether there
is a division in the discipline that affects faculty members' opinions in the
case. For example, take my department, cell biology. Some of the faculty specialize
in structural cell biology; others work in cell signaling.  You don't want these differences of
specialization to affect the case.

An important aspect of the APT Committee is that diverse
views are represented.  We stand
above any of those differences.  We
try very hard not to get mired in differences of methodology.  You even see this in reviewer
letters.  One person may think a
candidate is the best thing since sliced bread, and another may think he's
fiddling around in a minor field. 
Our job is to extract the value of the candidate's work through an
independent and candid appraisal of its quality and potential.


Q.  But Duke officials regularly talk about
being at the leading edge of scholarship. Does the person's field make a

Capel: One of the
things we do address in our discussions is the vibrancy of the field.  The dean's letter summarizes where
people think the field is going and whether it has a future ahead of it.  We want to award candidates for the
quality of their work, but we're also making a bet on their future
performance.  The future value of
their field is part of that discussion.

At the same time, fields can go through waves of being in
and out of fashion.  We want to do
the latest and greatest thing, but we also want to preserve knowledge in fields
that aren't "hot."  That
requires freedom of thought, and it's one reason why tenure is important to a
university. Tenure gives people freedom to pursue intellectual life regardless
of the current fashion.  It
safeguards a repository of learning that might otherwise disappear.



Q. Do you handle
interdisciplinary scholarship differently than research firmly based in a
single discipline?

Capel: Interdisciplinary
work isn't more difficult to evaluate, but we do have to make extra
effort.  We've incorporated Duke's
mission to be an interdisciplinary place into our thinking, and this affects
cases in several ways.  Many
candidates that come before us now play significant roles in more than one
department.  Traditionally, the
department has been the best place to evaluate the contribution of a

But these days, sometimes the best person is outside the
primary department.  We can ask an
individual outside of the candidate's department to assist us in assembling the
materials we need for our discussion. 

Again, using my department as an example, if I'm in cell
biology [in the medical center], but I'm putting all my time in systems biology
on the university side, I have to hope my department doesn't get miffed that I'm
not able to teach a class or do graduate studies work.  They don't know if I'm doing service in
my other role in systems biology. 
We don't want to penalize faculty members for this kind of work.  [Provost] Peter Lange has made it clear
that we value interdisciplinary work and the chairs have digested that

I think APT was in a transitional period three years ago
with regards to assessing interdisciplinary work.  I think we're now better able to do it.

The other issue that comes up in interdisciplinary cases is which
outside reviewers to ask.  If you
are working across two or three different fields, there may not be a central
group of people who are working on the same questions.  In that case we have to ask reviewers
to comment on the aspect of the candidate's work they are familiar with.  Then it becomes our job to put the
reviews together for the overall perspective.


Q: When are the tenure
decisions difficult? 

Capel: When there
are split views among the reviewers and within departments. In these cases, it's
difficult to sort out the differences in the reviewers' letters.  We work very hard to make sure we've
asked the right reviewers and to figure out why there may be differences of

About half of the votes are
unanimous.  A lot of exchange goes
on between the committee members. 
As chair, I am going to let everyone voice their views.  The committee is an outstanding group
of people, very conscientious
and tempered in their views. A couple of times, the discussions
have been heated.  You want strong
opinions, and strong advocates do arise, but what we do is get the issues on
the table, discuss them, and try to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the
case in some independent and impartial way