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Background:

I'm in my 4th year on a tenure-track position. In June, I received an outside offer for associate professor after applying at a university where a former colleague of mine had moved to. When bringing up this offer with my current chair, he told me that, if I stayed, he would make sure that I can be reviewed for early tenure and promotion at the end of the current academic year, and my case will have no issues passing. He reiterated the same thing during an email exchange after our meeting. As the uncertainty of getting tenure was what triggered me to seek the outside offer in the first place, I was happy enough and declined the other offer. (I'm sure you can see where this is going...)

Well, now the year has ended and, after inquiring about the tenure review process, I found out it was decided that I'm not going to be reviewed for tenure this year. No more information was given to me, as the chair is still on leave for a couple of weeks.

I've discussed my situation with some senior colleagues at other institutions and the sobering advice was that I shouldn't have relied on anything that a chair/dean assured me, even if it's in written in an email, as only a signed contract has any real significance. Thus, there is basically nothing I could do. Also, I was advised to better avoid rocking the boat, as I wouldn't want to be derailing my tenure-review next year...

My questions:

  • Anything I should/could do about the current situation? E.g., should I bring this up with the dean or even the provost? (One friend suggested this but it's unclear to me what this would achieve.)
  • Did I make a strategic mistake during this process that could have avoided this outcome? Is it generally considered to be a risky move to bring up an external offer with your current supervisor?

Additional context:

I believe to have reasonable chances of eventually getting another position elsewhere, and I'm not too worried about burning bridges. However, it is very likely that I would still need to spend (at least) the coming academic year at my current institution.

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    I have no answer for your actual question, but based on how you were treated, I would be submitting applications now. Aug 7 at 6:43
  • If you made a mistake, it is nothing except trusting the word of those above you... this is not always wise, but it isn't also wise to expect betrayal everywhere... depending on how you feel you have been treated, I too would recommend you flee as soon as possible. I would clarify with your chair first what happened. Maybe he tried and failed to do exactly what he said he would
    – rage_man
    Aug 7 at 22:48
  • I do not understand the value of that promise b/c "review" != "grant". What if they decide to keep the promise, review you for tenure, and deny tenure? If you are comfortable with the possibility that tenure will be denied, you can at any time demand a tenure review (without having obtained the tenure review promise). If you are uncomfortable, then you can never enforce a tenure review promise.
    – emory
    Aug 8 at 1:28
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    @emory: no: while it's true that anyone can, at any time, request a tenure review, in my case, the chair explicitly said he would strongly support my case. (Without your department's support there's virtually no chance your case will go through afaik.) Aug 8 at 3:51
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    "it was decided that I'm not going to be reviewed for tenure this year": at my institution, we have a contract that says that faculty members get the final decision about whether they go up for tenure in a particular year. I suggest consulting your Faculty Association (whatever it might be called at your institution) for clarification on this point Aug 8 at 4:36
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Your senior colleagues are correct, in a way. In academia as well as in industry, a "promise" (independently of whether it's an oral promise or written down in some way) isn't a hard guarantee. People forget, people change their minds, people go on leave or step down, and sometimes a chair has simply promised something that they were then unable to push through administration. It sucks, but there is simply no 100%, fool-proof way to ensure that a promise made now for a time in the future will actually still hold when that time arises.

That does not mean that a promise is worth nothing. Most people will try to keep their promises, after all, and I have no doubt that most promises are actually kept. But it's not the same thing as a hard guarantee, and it never will be. Hence, if you are faced with a decision whether to take a different offer with tenure now or stay at your current place with a promise of tenure, you should take into account that the promise of future tenure always comes with a certain margin of risk. Whether that's worth it depends on the positions, the trustworthiness of the people making the promise, and how bad the "fail case" would be for you (e.g., I generally recommend postdocs to take a faculty position "now" over a promise of a slightly better faculty position later, because "no position" is a pretty severe risk; but if the fail case is "I got tenure a year later" the world will not end).

How does a (junior) faculty member ensure prior promises are being kept?

You mostly can't. Getting things in writing certainly isn't a bad start, and I generally try to recommend people in time of their prior promises, but in some cases (e.g., changing responsibilities, dean has overstepped their authority, etc.) really nothing is sure to work.

Anything I should/could do about the current situation? E.g., should I bring this up with the dean or even the provost? (One friend suggested this but it's unclear to me what this would achieve.)

I would certainly bring it up with the dean. They most certainly screwed up, one way or another, and a decent dean will try to fix it (and if that's not possible at least compensate you in some other way). Going above the dean is probably not very useful - a provost isn't going to see a promise made via email as binding, and this may indeed be seen as "rocking the boat" by your senior faculty since it doesn't exactly paint them in the best light (maybe correctly so, but prior to tenure you are still very much dependent on their goodwill).

Did I make a strategic mistake during this process that could have avoided this outcome? Is it generally considered to be a risky move to bring up an external offer with your current supervisor?

I don't think you necessarily made a mistake. As I wrote above, there is always "risk" to accepting a promise, but that doesn't mean it's always a mistake to take this risk. As poker players always like to point out: just because a play didn't win doesn't mean it was a mistake. I probably would have done the same as you did, unless the other position was also more attractive.

That said, I would bring it up with the dean as I would be expecting some sort of compensation for the broken promise. And I would look at future promises made by the same people or organisation through the lense of them having a track record of not keeping their word in important matters.

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I think you are making a subtle mistake in thinking about this situation as a case of “a promise isn’t being kept”, where in fact the issue is not that the chair isn’t keeping his promise, but that he had no authority to be making it in the first place.

The granting of tenure is not within the purview of a department chair, but happens after review by multiple university committees and administrators outside the department. People cannot meaningfully promise that something will happen when it is outside their control. Thus, the statement “only a signed contract has any real significance” is misleading, since the chair has no more authority to sign a contract that says you will get tenure than they had to write an email that says the same thing.

I cannot advise you on what to do, but it’s important to understand what your mistake was, so that you don’t repeat it. Promises that are documented in writing are generally reliable even if they don’t carry the legal force of a contract, since most large organizations know they cannot hope to have any credibility with their employees if they throw around empty promises and then don’t honor them. However, when an official promises you something, it’s an obvious red flag when the promise involves decisions that are beyond the power of that particular individual. You should never trust such a promise, but instead seek to get confirmation of the promise by the people who actually have power over the relevant decisions.

Moreover, on the specific matter of granting tenure, no one who actually has the power to promise you tenure will ever make such a promise. The only way to be completely confident that you will get tenure is to go through the tenure review process, cumbersome and time consuming though it may be, or to accept a tenured job offer elsewhere.

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    Your answer provides important context, but I'm not sure if supports the verdict that OP made a mistake. It seems that OP's chair clearly overstepped professional boundaries here by making a promise he couldn't keep. Aug 7 at 11:07
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    +1 for " the issue is not that the chair isn’t keeping his promise, but that he had no authority to be making it in the first place." Also, pulling the tenure decision ahead does not guarantee tenure (even if it looks good, there are so many ways it can go bad). Aug 7 at 14:12
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    @lighthousekeeper I am absolutely not saying that OP “is at fault”. The mistake I am referring to is a misconception about the nature of their situation that is implicit in the question, making it based on what I see as a false premise. The issue is that if I promise you that someone else will give you a million dollars and you end up not getting them, it’s misleading to say that “I didn’t keep my promise”. What actually happened was that “I made a promise that I had no authority to make”. Both of those things are wrong, but they are different wrong things, and the distinction is important.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 7 at 15:07
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    @gnometorule exactly, OP had an outside offer, but doesn’t currently have one. Some people would regard this as useless information in a promotion negotiation. Others wouldn’t. As I said, there’s no telling what’s the correct course of action based on the information given.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 7 at 20:59
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    Certainly they can’t promise to grant tenure. But from OP’s paraphrase, it sounds to me like they were promising “I will put you forward for early review, and support your case” (which often are largely in the chair’s authority), and then in saying “…and I’m confident you’ll be successful,” that’s giving their judgement/advice, not a promise. So it sounds to me like they made a realistic promise, but failed to see it through.
    – PLL
    Aug 8 at 10:06

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