Assume that someone is an excellent researcher (many awards and at least 7-8 publications a year) and a very good teacher but he is not "liked" by some of the tenured faculty in the department (due to differences in opinions on how things should go or how decisions should be taken regarding different matters in the department).

Shouldn't being an excellent researcher and a very good teacher outweigh any social issues?

3 Answers 3


This is a really contentious issue (typically referred to as "collegiality" in the context of tenure decisions), and there's no clear standard for what to do. There have been a lot of opinions, such as this one from the American Association of University Professors, but there is no universal rule.

On the one hand, it's outrageous to deny someone tenure just because you personally dislike or disagree with them. That's an abuse of the tenure process. The goal is to end up with a good colleague, not a friend or sycophant, and other considerations are not relevant. Furthermore, there's a danger of discrimination if the current faculty prefer to be around people like them, which just compounds the individual unfairness.

On the other hand, how someone acts can be a fine reason to deny tenure, regardless of how good their research and teaching are. For example, it would be a mistake to tenure an abusive jerk. Being a good colleague involves treating people decently and participating successfully in committees or other administrative tasks. If you behave poorly enough that you can't do that, then you shouldn't be a member of the department.

Of course the difficulty lies in distinguishing between these possibilities. What one person sees as courageously standing up for their beliefs in the face of opposition, others can see as being rude and disruptive. It can be difficult to tell whether someone is behaving in a genuinely objectionable way or you just don't like them.

I'd recommend extreme caution in these sorts of cases, since there's great potential for unfairness and poor decisions. (When these issues come up, it's a good time to think about implicit bias. Maybe this behavior wouldn't have bothered you if it had come from someone else?) At the same time I can't endorse a policy that says it doesn't matter how you treat your colleagues, so the best I can say is "it depends."


Should't being an excellent researcher and being a very good teacher outweigh any social issues?

No. Being a senior professor is to a large extend a management and leadership position in the faculty. Being good at the "technical" parts of your job is not sufficient if you are terrible at the management and role model part. Further, I really cannot think of a good reason why somebody who is actively disruptive to the running of the faculty (such as the one annoying faculty that everybody seems to have, the one that takes a stand on everything) needs to be kept in the faculty despite better knowledge.

At the end of the day, tenure is not an individual teaching or research award. It is the department telling an academic "you are really valuable to us - we want to keep you around". Clearly, there will always be cases where somebody is ok at teaching and research, but other (more inter-personal) factors keep them from being "somebody you want to keep around". You may think this is sad, but really it is not much different to the cases where a really likeable person does not get tenure because her/his research isn't great - in both cases, it is just that one integral part of the job that is missing.

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    +1. Many people have a tendency to view academic decisions like admissions, hiring and tenure as rewards given to high achievers. Instead, all of them are, as you say, about the candidate's overall value to the institution. Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 14:23

At my university (a large private, research-oriented institution in the United States), tenure has several stages.

  1. The senior faculty votes on whether to try to pursue tenure for a junior faculty in their tenure year.
  2. Outside letters are solicited and the tenure portfolio is put together.
  3. On the basis of the portfolio and letters, the senior faculty votes to recommend tenure or not.
  4. If the department vote is positive, it goes to the Provost's office. The divisional committee responsible for promotions examines the portfolio (including external letters) and the department chair makes a presentations of the materials. This is the most difficult hurdle to clear.
  5. If the divisional committee approves, it then goes to full senior faculty and then to the Board of Trustees. The full senior faculty and BoT rarely decline to offer tenure at this point (c.f. Steven Salaita).

Personality only really plays a role in stages #1 and #3 and only weakly at my R1 institution. And almost everyone receives a positive vote from their own senior faculty -- even though it is not always unanimous.

The real hurdle for tenure is the divisional committee and there it is the scholar's portfolio (which consists entirely of their research output) and the outside letters that matter. In a sense, the evaluation is entirely blind to the personality or character (or amount of service and teaching) the individual made.

I also don't want to downplay the role of the outside letters. These are extremely important. You want to be known as a major player in your field by the time you come up for tenure. In a sense, having an outgoing personality will help tremendously here but only to a limited amount. After all, the external tenure reviewers are also reading your entire portfolio and judging you based on that, rather than on the really great drinking games you played at the last conference.

I like to think that the system is relatively fair. An Evil Chair® can deliberately sabotage a junior scholar in many way before coming up for tenure and in their tenure bid, but absent such malfeasance it's not inherently a bad system.

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