This article is published in the September 2008 issue.

Best Practices in Promotion and Tenure of Interdisciplinary Faculty

Interdisciplinary research and education is an increasingly important feature of the academic landscape. The fields of computing and information science and engineering are no exception: CISE researchers collaborate with electrical engineers in the design of low-power chips; with linguists in the development of natural-language processing systems; with education experts on the use of digital technologies in formal and informal education; with biologists in the exploration of the genetic code; with economists in the formation of theories of on-line commerce; and with statisticians in the discovery of new ways to extract information from rich sets of data—to name just a few examples. Some of these efforts have even led to the establishment of new disciplines, such as bioinformatics and data mining. While “core” areas of computation, such as operating systems, programming languages, networking, and others, will continue to produce key advances, there is an emergent agreement among computer and information scientists that close interactions with other disciplines are essential to the health and advancement of our field.

Not surprisingly, then, academic departments in computing and information are increasingly recruiting and hiring people with interdisciplinary skills. While this indicates a healthy responsiveness in the field to the broader research and funding trends, it also poses challenges both for computing and information departments and for their faculty.

One particular challenge involves the tenure process for interdisciplinary faculty members. At the request of the CRA Board of Directors, we therefore undertook the task of providing a set of recommendations for ‘best practices’ in interdisciplinary tenure. We are not aware of definitive research that evaluates practices in managing the careers of interdisciplinary faculty members. Therefore, our recommendations are based on the shared experience of a large number of unit heads (including the authors) and anecdotal information on the practices of units with successful interdisciplinary programs.

The full report is available on the CRA web site. Here we provide a very brief overview of the key recommendations. We distinguish between faculty who have appointments in more than one department and those who, while pursuing an interdisciplinary program of research, have an appointment within a single unit.

For Interdisciplinary Faculty Members with Multiple Appointments:

  • Hold meetings, at least annually, for the chairs of the appointing departments to coordinate teaching and service loads, and to review the requirements for, and progress towards, tenure.
  • Identify a “lead” department to manage promotion and tenure and, if possible, make a 75%-25% split instead of 50%-50%. Alternatively, consider having a tenure-track appointment in one department, and a renewable, non-tenure-track position (such as Research Faculty) in the other(s).
  • Try to have a single promotion and tenure (or evaluation) committee that includes faculty from all the departments involved.
  • If a single committee is not feasible, specify “retreat rights” in advance: what happens if one department awards tenure and the other doesn’t? Retreat rights should also be specified when one of the appointments is not tenure-track: what happens if the non-tenure-track position is terminated?

For All Interdisciplinary Faculty Members (with Multiple or Joint Appointments):

  • Mentor, mentor, mentor! If possible, select someone who already has interdisciplinary experience to serve as a mentor.
  • Provide additional guidance in finding appropriate funding sources.
  • Provide support and compensation for the added demands of being “first of a kind”—and, if possible, eliminate some of those demands by making cluster hires of multiple faculty members in an interdisciplinary area. This is especially effective if both junior and senior faculty members are part of the cluster.
  • Provide detailed feedback at annual and third-year reviews. If possible, include people from different disciplines and/or people with interdisciplinary experience in those reviews.
  • Make sure that the promotion and tenure (or evaluation) committee includes people who can assess the faculty member’s contributions to different disciplines and, if possible, include people who themselves have interdisciplinary experience. If the faculty member holds an appointment in a research center or institute, be sure to include members of that center in the reviews.
  • Educate yourself and the members of the P&T (or evaluation) committee on the standards of scholarship within the relevant disciplines.
    When you forward the tenure dossier to the upper promotion and tenure (or evaluation) committee, be sure to convey the most important implicit information needed to evaluate the tenure case.
  • In requesting letters of recommendation, include wording that specifically asks the letter-writer to evaluate the candidate on the basis of the letter-writer’s own area of expertise, while recognizing that the candidate has conducted interdisciplinary research.
  • Anticipate that the tenure case will take longer to prepare and to evaluate than purely disciplinary cases, and plan accordingly.

The report also provides the following advice to young faculty candidates who seek to pursue interdisciplinary research. They should keep in mind that different departments have different cultures that may encourage or hinder interdisciplinary research. When interviewing in a department, one should seek information about the formal and informal attitudes toward interdisciplinary research: Does the department encourage joint appointments? Does it use any of the methods listed above to encourage interdisciplinary research? What fraction of the faculty engages in interdisciplinary research?

Lastly, while tenure is a very important goal for young faculty, it should not be the one and only goal. The probationary period is the beginning of a career that will span several decades. A faculty member should spend the probation time best preparing for this long career. While achieving tenure in the current department will often be an essential step toward achieving career goals, it may sometimes be preferable to focus on a research direction that is not appreciated by the department, and seek a more appreciative environment for such research, if need be.

Martha Pollack is Dean and Professor of the School of Information, and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, at the University of Michigan.

Marc Snir is Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Both are current CRA Board Members.

Best Practices in Promotion and Tenure of Interdisciplinary Faculty