Unwritten Rules in Promotion & Tenure

Unspoken Expectations in the Promotion and Tenure Process Exacerbate Inequity

The CSU Career Center offers a module titled, “Unwritten Rules of the Workplace.”  In it, they define unwritten rules as:

    1. Invisible forces that shape workplace culture.
    2. Secret codes that are important for success.
    3. Hidden norms that may be the boss’s preference.
    4. Things you think you should know but no one has said… yet.

The professoriate as an occupation is also abound with unwritten rules that can have high-stakes impacts particularly when related to promotion and tenure (P&T).

The vast majority of early career faculty at CSU ask the question, “What is required to achieve promotion and/or tenure?” The answer is often ambiguous and cannot be found in the Faculty Manual or even individual departmental codes, handbooks, or guidelines. The ambiguity around P&T standards causes stress for early career faculty attempting to balance the tripartite expectations of their department head/chair and the P&T committee, and the lack of specificity and transparency can negatively impact faculty with minoritized identities even more than those with majority identities. For example, data from CSU’s Institutional Research and Planning Effectiveness shows that retention of women of color lags behind other majority/minority categories. Efforts to recruit a diverse faculty that reflects the diversity of the CSU student population can fail due to inequities in advancement that undermine retention.

A line plot showing that racially minoritized women leave their positions at CSU at much higher rates than all other faculty groups by gender and race.
Figure 1. Tenure track faculty retention 2004-2018. Retention rates for gender and racially minoritized groups is shown for seven years after hire at CSU. For additional data and analyses, visit the IR website.

How Unwritten Rules Manifest in P&T Processes

There are a wide variety of faculty contributions that might be more or less valued based on unwritten rules encountered during the P&T process. A few common examples include:

    • Valuation of research productivity over teaching and service contributions.
    • Weighting of senior author publications over contributing author publications.
    • Scholarly activity as an individual versus as part of a team.
    • Publication expectations based on journal prestige (e.g. tier, impact factor).
    • Publication in journals over books.
    • Specific numbers of publications and/or scholarly and creative works.
    • Perception of independence from previous mentors.
    • Work in mainstream areas of a discipline versus less traditional areas.
    • Meeting an unspecified target level of extramural funding.
    • Training graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.
    • Mentoring of under-represented students and faculty.

Many other examples could be cited that are more or less specific to the diversity of disciplines represented at CSU. Any of these metrics may be acceptable in P&T processes as long as they are clearly stated, strike an appropriate balance between being overly specific or overly vague so as to account for individual nuances, and are understood by both the candidate and the internal and external evaluators. Unwritten rules result in significant damage and inequity when they are revealed near or at the time of promotion, giving a candidate little time to align their work with the expectations. In the worst-case scenario, the unwritten rules become the basis of a promotion or tenure denial. Worse yet, if unwritten rules are unevenly applied, concerns of explicit or implicit bias may be raised and candidates may experience unfair and inequitable P&T processes. Bias not only damages people’s careers and negatively impacts departmental climate, but it can also lead to grievance processes.

Department Leadership and P&T Committees Have a Role in Addressing Unwritten Rules

How can we maximize the likelihood of success of early career faculty as they find their place within an academic unit and launch their career with a trajectory that is aligned with  departmental expectations? The simple answer is to write down the rules and expectations for P&T as clearly as possible and share that information regularly. However, this might not be so simple, particularly in departments with a diversity of appointment types that have different responsibilities and effort distributions. Academic departments at CSU represent the full spectrum of approaches from detailed, numerical P&T expectations to no written expectations at all. A common approach at the institutional, college, and departmental level is one of strategic ambiguity. Such an approach can be beneficial in some circumstances because it avoids rigid written expectations that could limit freedom to explore innovative or less mainstream scholarly directions. Conversely, this approach might be seen as a means for academic institutions to avoid scrutiny by invoking vague or abstract terms such as “innovation”, “diversity”, or “collegiality” as justification for P&T decisions. In a recent study, minoritized faculty were more likely to view such ambiguity as strategic (for the institution) and inequitable (for those with minoritized identities). This viewpoint is due, in part, to the limited access faculty with minoritized identities might have to social networks where unwritten rules are communicated and explained.

Here are some specific suggestions for faculty, leadership, and departments to better understand and avoid unwritten rules for P&T:

    • Implement a robust onboarding process for new faculty in departments or colleges.
    • Establish a robust and formal mentoring program in every department.
    • Review/revise departmental P&T criteria with an eye towards clarity and specificity.
    • Leadership can participate in the Chairs/Heads or Faculty Institute for Inclusive Excellence to learn more about the impact and potential damage of unwritten rules
    • Faculty and leadership can participate in training to understand the impact of unwritten rules and bias.
    • P&T chairs and committees can normalize and institutionalize processes that emphasize recognition and minimization of biases in favor of stated criteria and norms for evaluation conversations.

Unwritten rules cause stress and anxiety for early career faculty and can disproportionately disadvantage faculty from minoritized backgrounds. These unwritten rules are often based in the wide-spread systemic bias that is pervasive throughout academia, such as the concept of “premier journals” or expectations of specific types of “collegiality.” Faculty and administrators who participate in the P&T process have a role to play in addressing and demystifying unwritten rules in order to ensure that all faculty have the ability to succeed and thrive at CSU.


Author Information: The blog post was co-authored by Gregg Dean and Sue James. Gregg is a Professor of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology. Sue James is the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Professor of Mechanical Engineering.