The tenure and promotion system, first envisioned as a way to ensure academic freedom and economic security for college and university faculty members, is in desperate need of reimagination. When new modes of scholarship emerge in the academy, they often have to deal with a tenure system in which the evaluative metrics don’t take into account the type of work being produced.
For example, when the Digital Humanities emerged as a field, most tenure and promotion systems didn’t address digital scholarship, leaving this new form of academic work unrecognized and uncitable in tenure and promotion portfolio. We’ve also seen recently how outside pressures, including from political groups, can influence tenure and promotion decisions. Those realities have combined to increase the precarity of even full-time faculty members, let alone adjunct faculty, and to undermine the “economic security” goal that the Association of American University Professors originally outlined in its 1940 statement on academic freedom and tenure. Now is the time to revisit long-standing questions on the types of faculty contributions and accomplishments that universities’ tenure and promotion systems recognize and reward.
Many postsecondary institutions in North America evaluate tenure candidates along three dimensions: research, teaching and service. While some activities fit neatly into those three sections of a tenure portfolio, other valuable, cutting-edge contributions do not.
Take, for example, a tenure-track faculty member who has been deeply involved in their campus’s work on open educational resources, or OER — learning materials that are free for educators and students to use, customize and share. The faculty member spent months conducting and compiling research to create an openly licensed textbook that aligns with their course. When they taught with the OER textbook, their students’ retention rates increased, an impact of OER that other institutions have experienced, as well. The faculty member also mentored their colleagues in adopting and adapting OER to meet their students’ needs and worked with a campus librarian to host a webinar about open education.
All of these OER-related activities are forms of research, teaching and service. This faculty member’s OER work shows their expertise in their field, their commitment to supporting their students and their dedication to advancing their institution. But unfortunately, OER work isn’t a standard criterion for tenure and promotion evaluation. Moreover, the tenure review committee may not be familiar with OER and thus may not appropriately take this work into account while evaluating the faculty member’s portfolio. Indeed, we know of only one postsecondary institutions in North America — the University of British Columbia — that explicitly mentions open education or OER in its tenure and promotion policies.
If institutions value faculty’s responsibility to tailor learning and reduce barriers for students, they should update their tenure and promotion policies and criteria to recognize innovations like OER. While such changes are necessary, they will require both the time and the leadership of the faculty involved in such forward-thinking work to change the culture of their institutions.
To that end, the Driving OER Sustainability for Student Success (DOERS3) collaborative, a group of 25 public higher education systems and statewide/provincewide organizations that are committed to supporting student success by promoting OER, has developed a tool to help tenure-track faculty include OER work in their tenure and promotion portfolios. Created with input from OER professionals, this adaptable, openly licensed matrix offers suggestions for how different types of OER work can apply to research, teaching, and service, and it provides examples of how those contributions can be framed.
For example, the faculty member we described earlier could include their work on creating an OER textbook under the research or teaching sections of their portfolio; accompanying evidence could include peer reviews of the textbook they created or an assessment of it against this common evaluation rubric for open textbooks.
The matrix could also be used to incentivize OER adaptation and creation: For example, a department chair who has spearheaded an OER initiative in their department could adapt the matrix to show faculty how they can fit their OER work into their tenure and promotion portfolio, thus piquing faculty’s interest in OER. This department chair could also share the matrix with other chairs on their campus who are interested in OER so they could adapt it for their own departments.
This OER contributions matrix is one example of how faculty can lead the evolution of tenure and promotion processes to better reflect new approaches and innovations in higher education. By using and adapting the matrix to their institution’s promotion and tenure guidelines and sharing the matrix with other faculty and leaders at their institution, faculty can set in motion changes that modernize the process for all.
For the past 80 years, tenure in the academy has helped ensure that faculty have academic freedom and economic security. Now it’s time that we ensure that innovative approaches like open education are provided with the same space and security to flourish and have positive impacts on institutions, educators and students.