Zen and the Art of Tenure and Promotion

by Jay Maddock, PhD


The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

As we reach the end of the fall semester, there is the typical rush to complete all of the reviews of the tenure and promotion dossiers before sending them forward to the university level. For those of you not in academia, the process of tenure and promotion can be a mysterious one. Sometimes it is just as mysterious for those of us in academia. At research intensive universities, tenure-track faculty are expected to teach (and mentor), conduct original research, and provide service to the university and scientific community. This is often described as the three-legged stool of academia. However, anyone who has ever been in the system can quickly tell you that would be a very dangerous stool to sit on since the three legs are quite uneven. Throughout Tier I research universities, it is widely acknowledged that research is essential, while doing an adequate job teaching your assigned classes is important and doing some kind of service checks that box. In reality, the tenure and promotion process really revolves around one and maybe two areas of review.

Within these levels of review, teaching tends to be somewhat straightforward in the review process. The number of classes taught, the numbers of students in the class, student reviews, and number of students mentored all account for some measure of teaching. The review process tends to focus on whether you teach enough and whether it’s of significant quality to pass the promotion bar. For research, there is much less clarity in what reviewers are looking for. The typical promotion guidelines indicate that a faculty member should be an independent scientist with an emerging national reputation for promotion to Associate Professor. For Professor, this is raised to a leader in the field with an international reputation. These vague guidelines have led to numerous issues in assessing if an applicant has met this standard or not.

One of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This book explored the metaphysics of quality. He concludes that quality cannot be defined and may be only directly experienced. It many ways, an academic record is like this. New faculty often ask how many publications or grants they need to have before applying for promotion. Most often the answer is “It depends.” There are many factors that play into this: the quality of the journal, author order, scientific rigor, etc. For many of us in academia, judging quality in an academic record is similar to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward once explained for his test for obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

The way universities have attempted to address this problem of measuring quality is through the opinions of multiple scholars. Starting the summer before the applicant applies, their dossier is sent to 5-10 outside faculty members working on similar research in peer or aspirant ranked institutions. Each of these scholars writes a letter of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, which becomes part of the dossier. After these are written and returned, the long journey through the universities begins. Typically, there is a review at the department level by a group of the senior faculty, followed by an assessment by the department head. The dossier is then reviewed at the college level by senior faculty there and then by the dean. Once the dossier leaves the college, there are a few more levels of review before it lands on the president’s desk for the final decision. As anyone who has ever submitted a grant or a research paper can tell you, academics often disagree. What is quality and how do we measure it? Cases of the Nobel Prize winner and the faculty member who sat on the beach for the last five years are easy. It is in the vast middle where judging quality is difficult.

Today, metrics of research productivity are easily accessible. One can quickly go to Google Scholar or ResearchGate and find the number of times a faculty member’s work has been cited. While this seems simple, the definition of a citation and the ability to search for it differs between platforms. Google Scholar lists my publications as having been cited 3,750 times while ResearchGate has it at 2,712. Which one is correct? I don’t know, but of course I prefer Google Scholar. The field of Alt-Metrics, which measures the influence of social media, is also growing. How many times was your research tweeted about? Are 1,000 tweets more important than 10 citations in scientific journals? It depends on who is judging quality. How should the public health impact of one’s work be judged? Is it more important for your research to be used to change policy or to have other scholars cite your work? In a new article published in the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice, Ross Brownson, Justin Moore, and I explore the role that dissemination of one’s research should play in the promotion and tenure process.

The tenure and promotion process remains an interesting issue and one I cannot bring much additional resolution to. As Pirsig noted, quality cannot be defined only experienced. Maybe this is where we end up. Since a piece of music or a work of art can be experienced quite differently, quality may indeed be a facet of the receiver rather than the body of work itself. As dean, one of my duties is to judge quality among academics. I do my best to be fair and even across the process. This is not an easy task, but one that is required. In the words of Robert Persig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof!


Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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