Academic promotion mishandled; how do I respond
April 25, 2018 8:09 PM   Subscribe

I’m an engineering professor at a large R1 university. Last spring, I submitted my package for promotion to full to my chair. This week, I found out that requests for letters have yet to be sent out. What should I do?

It’s a private school, and the promotion process is incredibly opaque. I’m unambiguously qualified for promotion based on my publication and funding record in comparison to recently promoted full professors.

My chair probably dropped the ball big time, but promotion is ultimately the dean’s responsibility. Also, my chair has no power to make things happen; everything here is from the top down and the dean has total control over faculty affairs. All I know about what happened is that the people in charge of the process did not execute at all.

Right now, this is the path of action I’m considering: I will ask my Dean for a raise slightly greater than that typically granted upon promotion to full as well as a named chair (the typical means of awarding unrestricted funds at my university). I will also ask that a cover letter be included with my promotion package next year explaining how the school fucked me. I will also retain a lawyer.

Anything else I should do or that I should do differently?
posted by mr_roboto to Work & Money (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you have a union or faculty association that you can engage? Might be worth a conversation to talk about options as well.
posted by bonehead at 8:25 PM on April 25, 2018

Wait, because they lost some paperwork and you didn't follow up with them for a year, you want an endowment? Did I read this right??
posted by clseace at 8:44 PM on April 25, 2018

Response by poster: Oh, I followed up consistently and was told that everything was in process. I found out this week that this was essentially a lie.

Like I said, incredibly opaque.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:46 PM on April 25, 2018

Response by poster: And I don't necessarily *want* an endowment. It's just a starting point for negotiation before I sue for breech of contract. My contract states that associate professors' request for promotion will be considered in a timely fashion.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:55 PM on April 25, 2018

For security's sake, I would ping a mod and see if you can get this anonymized - based on your profile information and what you've said in the question, there are only two schools it could be, and one it's far more likely to be, and I'm not even in academia.

I wish you good luck in getting this resolved. This sounds incredibly frustrating, to say the least.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 9:01 PM on April 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm not a lawyer but I would think that if you sued for breech of contract, you'd be awarded the terms of the contract (your letters would go out and you would get the salary of full professor for the lost year.) I don't see how any judge would award you an endowed chair or other damages for a 2 semester delay in promotion. It's understandable that you're angry but this isn't as if you were denied tenure because no one sent out letters and you wound up homeless.
posted by flourpot at 9:22 PM on April 25, 2018

If you don't have a faculty union, I would talk to an employment lawyer to get a sense of how strong your case is really is. You don't want to go in making strong demands with assumption that if it isn't met, you will sue and then, after the fact, find out that your case would be dismissed out of hand by the court. I'm not an academic, but my concern is that if you piss people off at this stage, you run the risk that they will find a way to make sure that you don't ever actually get the promotion so before you throw your weight around, you want to understand how strong that weight really is.
posted by metahawk at 9:23 PM on April 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

A thought: when strategizing, if you haven't already, consider that it may have been purposeful.
posted by Verba Volant at 9:47 PM on April 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

Have you looked around for other offers? That is a common process during the step up to full. I would probably remain quiet now, let the case go through, look for other offers next year and then negotiate once you hear back with an offer in hand so that you can leave instead if they don't meet your terms. They don't have to give you full, and you don't have a lot of leverage in this situation now.

Also recommend anonymizing your question.
posted by sockermom at 9:57 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oof. Is there anyway you can let this ride until next year? It’s not up or out, and you may risk real political and social repercussions if you sue.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:08 PM on April 25, 2018


I hope you're venting here, and talking to your colleagues with a less aggressive / entitled tone. (If you go full-attack-mode every time something doesn't work out well ... I wouldn't be so eager to promote you either.)

There's a fair bit missing from your description, including critical details about departmental/school politics that it's part of your job to be aware of and good at dealing with.
* Are you trying for an early promotion? Or is there something else weird in your case? Are they trying to tell you to wait your turn?
* Do you get along with your colleagues? Do students like you? Would you be happier at a different institution?
* When you found out that requests for letters hadn't been sent, what else did you find out? Was this by talking to your references, or by talking to the department? Is there a chance that you washed out of the promotion process before such requests would have been sent?
* "department chair dropped the ball" -> Does your chair like you? (If you bring in as much money and publish as much as you say, they should like you.) Regardless, have you talked to them to find out what happened in the process, and why? What is their suggestion for dealing with this?
* "dean's responsibility" -> What happened to other professors who were up for tenure this year? Was there an across-the-board fuckup? Did some key admin leave? What does the dean have to say about this?

So yeah. It seems to me like you need to be on an information gathering mission before you'll know what the appropriate steps are. Try to treat it as a thing to be collaboratively solved, and outwardly act based on the assumption that whoever fucked up will feel bad and want to make it right even if you privately think they're a twit.
posted by Metasyntactic at 11:20 PM on April 25, 2018 [13 favorites]

I understand that you are super pissed - hence the lawyer and demand for named chair...but have you tried the "talking" route first? I feel like going in guns blazing might not be necessary yet. I'd suggest scheduling a meeting with your chair and the dean (probably separately at first) to find out what their next steps are going to be and to get a timeline. Then send e-mails to both with "to confirm, this is what we discussed" and then hold them to that timeline. You could speak to a lawyer before to ensure you get your language right, but I wouldn't share that with them until you need to. Regarding unrestricted funds and a raise, that can be part of the conversation - i.e. I was depending on the raise as per our previous discussions, how can we ensure I receive it even though the promotion got flubbed. Same with the funds - I need that for research, how do we ensure...and so on. Again put it into an e-mail (professional e-mail) afterwards to "confirm" what was discussed with an associated timeline.

I know that someone posted here that maybe the flub was intentional - which, who knows, maybe? More likely the people involved got lazy or distracted or are overworked (or all three). You can be mad, but don't waste your time on taking in personally.

Good luck.
posted by Toddles at 2:46 AM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Your outlined path is advisable only if you want to torch every bridge on campus. Academia is small and the above puts your professional future in grave peril. Waiting a year does not.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:01 AM on April 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Seconding the (horrible) possibility of Verba Volant's suggestion. An associate prof friend at a private US .edu found out earlier this year that the lack of response to his academic promotion application was due to the university not wanting to keep him beyond the end of this academic year. I really hope this isn't what's happening here.
posted by scruss at 5:22 AM on April 26, 2018

Is your process only once a year, or can you go up in six months?

I think your plan - ask for the raise on schedule - is justified, and hopefully that will solve it until you can go up for full. But as you know, there's a schedule for committee meetings as well, and the whole process.

I think it's ok to ask the Dean to write a letter saying the delay is on them, but I'd stop short of 'ducked up'. It will also be helpful to know, as said above, whether this is specific to you, or whether a lot of balls got dropped. That will alter your strategy going forward.

And, be a squeaker wheel from here on out. Call to verify things that you can, like how many letters have come bank, like weekly.
posted by Dashy at 5:41 AM on April 26, 2018

And either anonymize this question or take your location out of your profile. Or both. Your lawyer will appreciate it.
posted by Dashy at 5:43 AM on April 26, 2018

I'm pretty new to interacting with the administration while tenured (I'm assuming you are tenured at assoc), but at my private R1 these demands are out of proportion for anything one could hope to get without an offer from elsewhere in hand. I could imagine getting the raise only if you agree to not take it if/when you do get promoted (but this will require the dean formally admitting they did something wrong). I also agree that you need much more information before doing anything.

One other thing -- I agree that the university here is somewhat identifiable, and of the two obvious candidates (to me at least), one appears to have an explicit grievance procedure in the faculty handbook (though it's behind a login so I can't view it), and the other explicitly has no timing on promotion to full professor (which is going to drastically mitigate the "wrong" here, relative to places that have strict rules about this). So looking at these, relative to what's in the question here, makes me feel like you might need to look more closely at local policy.
posted by advil at 5:47 AM on April 26, 2018

I will also ask that a cover letter be included with my promotion package next year explaining how the school fucked me.

Other than demonstrating the depth of your anger, I don't see how this would benefit you at all.
posted by ook at 5:50 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A couple of clarifying points...

1. I’m definitely venting here and will take a much calmer and collaborative tone (“let’s work together to find a way to fix this!”) in my initial conversations with the administration.

2. I’m 100% sure this was due to incompetence. I have my sources and back channels of course, but it’s also typical for this institution. I also have good relationships with the responsible parties. Previous cases have been delayed by six months, this one just happened to slip past the end of the academic year.

3. Calling in the lawyers is also surprisingly typical and has worked well for a couple of my colleagues.

4. I haven’t sought out other offers aggressively because my wife was hesitant about moving. But she’s on board now.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:03 AM on April 26, 2018

I don't think we have quite enough context to give you the strongest advice in what is a niche employment environment (academic, compounded by being R1) and a complicated situation (why does anyone choose to stay in a particular working environment).

However, I can do my best here to offer some advice. I am recently tenured at a place that is between an R1 and an R2 (we are at the penultimate level of the revised Carnegie rankings, which are no longer R1, R2, etc.). I am now thinking about my path to Full Professorship and how I should strategize to get there. I am not in a "hard sciences" department, so that also influences how I see this situation...

So, in my situation, generally speaking, tenure is achieved largely with successful internal evaluations (although strong external evaluations don't hurt, they are supposed to be aspirational). So, one has to show a consistent, productive track record of research production, which in my case is exhibitions, commissioned work, publishing and conference talks. I was very, very hybrid in my field (Graphic Design), so some people would just produce a consistent, successful track record in one of those areas on my list. One also has to generally have the support of colleagues in the department and positive student evaluations.

For Full Professor at our institution the popular thinking is that it hinges almost entirely on external evaluations. So, people in the department can't really grant you Full Professor - external evaluators must deem you to have a "notable" "impact" on the field you are working in. Obviously "notable" and "impact" are incredibly elastic, but the popular thinking is that your research should be at a level where other scholars or practitioners nationally know who you are. Also you need to have positive student evaluations and probably have made at least one significant contribution in the area of service.

So, when I strategize about applying for Full Professor, and I have three more years before I can even start my application, I need to consider how to continue to raise my profile amongst my academic peers at other institutions. So, my plan is to publish and present more and exhibit or do commissioned work a bit less.

The critical point here is, if I had the same thing happen to me as has happened to you, there would still be a significant question as to whether I was going to be promoted to Full Professor. If my case were delayed due to administrative mistakes, I might still not get Full Professor because my external evaluations may come back negative anyway. The most I could see asking for here is to have my salary retroactive to the date I had intended to apply if I am successful in my application.

I can certainly see why you are mad. I too have been in situations where it seems like the administration demands perfection from faculty (and likewise so do the students), but such dedication is not reciprocated. However, again, what you have lost, or what I would have lost at my institution, is one year of increased pay. So, I can see asking for that year to be reimbursed if I am successful, but that's it.

The first strategy I would apply is to not ask for anything specific and see what is offered. I might open by saying, very calmly, "I am really disappointed that this mistake happened. If I am successful in being promoted, I will have lost an entire year of salary. I am concerned because this is a compounding problem, as well. I lost the salary, but also my 401k lost additional investments. So, that is a very frustrating situation. [Silence. Wait.]"

I find often in those situations the "offending party" can offer up restitution you hadn't considered, while remaining within a plausible scope.
posted by Slothrop at 8:06 AM on April 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Every institution handles tenure and promotion differently, obviously. If you were at my school, the administrative error wouldn't be a basis for negotiating more salary or a named chair or anything like that. Rather, you would have recourse because the process wasn't followed, through no fault of your own. At my university, that alone is grounds for appeal and a do-over of the review.

I say that because even though it may be completely untrue where you are, and your university culture is probably different, if you took that approach (asking for money, retaining lawyers) here, it would misfire badly. Regardless of how the ultimately promotion turned out, you would have a reputation that you couldn't shake, and that wouldn't do you any favors in future negotiations.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:18 AM on April 26, 2018

Based on the clues about your institution, this mistake by your chair is going to cost you ~$14--17K, plus interest. That's a lot of money! It's totally understandable to be outraged.

It's also outrageous that a couple of your colleagues went through the same thing and had to sue to have it rectified.

Sounds like the university is making money off of you all wanting to be the one who plays nice. Some of you spend the money to sue, but it's still worth it to them because not everyone does. Maybe it's time someone made it more painful for them to continue to make these mistakes.

I don't think you'll burn too many bridges. Most of the people involved went through the same process and probably sympathize with how ridiculously it's been handled in multiple instances. I did a little informal poll at my own academic institution and people were very sympathetic to you, not the university.

I know someone (different field, but hard sciences) at a large public university on the east coast. From an external point of view, his research and stature make him one of the strongest (if not the strongest) in his department, so there was no question that he would have been promoted. However, his chair *forgot* to deal with his application to full, costing him thousands of dollars. His union sued the university, and he got at least back pay. Not sure what else. His reputation has not suffered at all. Rather, the reputation of his department has, because they should have been trying harder to keep their best people, and they just seem incompetent. He's still thriving there, in any case.

Good luck.
posted by pizzazz at 10:21 AM on April 26, 2018

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