Dr. Ruth Sanchez speaks on the process of tenure appointment

By Anna Mann

Often, students fail to understand the flurry of activity surrounding tenure track professors during Easter semester. How are professors selected? What happens if their review is denied? Who ultimately decides their status? Ruth Sanchez (C’86), president of Sewanee’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter and professor of Spanish, met with The Purple to explain some of these idiosyncrasies.

Ideally, tenure provides professors with more freedom to speak their minds without the fear of losing their job. As “unless something terrible goes wrong, they can’t fire you,” Sanchez pointed out laughingly.

“However, it doesn’t say you can’t be fired. You can always be fired for something. An extreme situation [for firing] would be economic problems, say if the University needs to start downsizing departments,” she said.

When applying to work at any university, the job listing will indicate if it has a tenure track, so professors know what they’re working toward. According to Sanchez, who has attained the highest level of tenure, that of full professor, the evaluation takes place their second, fourth, and sixth years.

Eventually, the above-mentioned evaluation will assess their teaching, service, and research in the time they’ve spent at the University. The information will be brought to a committee of professors from the department in which the professor works to see if the educator will receive the job for life.

“Usually when you apply [to a university], you are applying to a job that’s a tenure-track position. If everything goes right, at the end of six years if your evaluations have been good, you will get a letter from the dean of the college saying you’re granted tenure,” explained Sanchez.

Professors on the track move from assistant, to associate, to full professor should they choose. Nevertheless, Sanchez stated that the difference between associate and full professor is mostly in name at Sewanee.

“It’s good to have the title,” she explained. “But we tend not to go around saying ‘I’m a full professor.’ I don’t feel any different than my colleagues. I know people here that have been [at Sewanee] longer than I have that have decided not to be full professors.”

Sanchez stated that acceptance and denial rates depend on the department, as size of the branch and interest in living in Sewanee’s unique community vary from subject to subject. Additionally, some people may start the process and decide they don’t fit in with the department, or Sewanee at large, and choose to leave.

Still, if a professor is denied tenure and feels it was unfair, an appealing process allows the evaluation method to be appraised. “The appeal is not based on [the professor’s] merit,” she clarified. “It’s to make sure the process was fair and no one [on the committee] did anything strange.”

This denial could be based on a plethora of things. However, extreme cases would be if the professor has not conducted enough research or done enough service to the University. Yet, Sanchez clarified that typically, these problems would have surfaced in the second or fourth years of evaluation.

Once denied, a professor has the option to write an appeal and send it to the provost, who reviews it and either agrees with the dean of the college or asks them to reconsider. The dean may change their mind or not. If the provost disagrees with the dean’s decision again, a committee of faculty is assembled to look over the information and give the dean of the college a final recommendation.  

However, Sanchez states that this committee hardly meets, the last one taking place nearly eight years ago. At large universities, it may happen more frequently.

Sanchez stressed that the tenure approval process is very private one, so if a professor is denied, no one will know.

“It’s very personal, let’s say we have eight people going up for tenure and they get it, you do celebrate that. But say we have five people going for it and only three get it, it’s a bit of a sore topic. You guys comp. When your friends pass you celebrate. But if someone doesn’t pass, you don’t want to talk about comps in front of them. It’s the same idea,” stated Sanchez.