What I’ve Learned about Navigating an Institution

For new faculty members who are fresh out of Ph.D. programs, navigating an entirely new institutional culture can be mystifying and frustrating. The tenure pathway may not be clearly laid out and the “word on the street” about how to achieve tenure differs from colleague to colleague.

New faculty may have had lots of contact with a chairperson or dean during the hiring process. Upon arriving on campus, however, they find themselves left alone, encountering an unspoken but well-established social structure with unwritten rules and very little clarity. The need to navigate this new environment while pursuing the not-too-well-defined requirements for tenure and keeping up with a busy teaching schedule is terribly anxiety-inducing.

Welcome to your career!

Here’s what I’ve learned about navigating an institution:

  • Get to know your dean as a person. Very often deans in seminaries and divinity schools are in that spot because they showed some administrative skill in one way or another and they’ve been drafted into that role but would much rather be teaching and doing research. In short, your dean may be a frustrated academic. Or, your dean may be an excellent administrator but there are aspects of the job that they don’t like. Get to know your dean and find out how they see things institutionally and gain an appreciation for the pressures they deal with. This will help you understand how you can “manage” your dean. Now, I realize that sounds terrible, but when I was doing my Ph.D., I read the book How to Get a Ph.D. and it had a chapter on how to manage your supervisor. It contained very practical counsel on taking responsibility for your program and understanding how one’s supervisor worked best in order to make the relationship most fruitful. In the same way, take responsibility for your career and assume that your dean wants the relationship to go well and the institution to thrive. Try to understand how they work best, in what ways you can help them out, and how you can arrange that relationship so that they can help you further your career.
  • The single most helpful piece of advice I heard at last year’s meeting was to sit down with your dean (or chairperson) and get all your career advancement information down in writing. I did this as soon as I returned from the meeting, nailing down the specific steps and dates of the tenure process, the criteria on which I’d be evaluated, when I would be eligible for promotion, and when I could apply for sabbatical. We’re supremely blessed at GRTS with an excellent dean, so after we talked it all through, he wrote it up in an email to me so that I’d have it in writing. I’ve talked with several colleagues at other institutions where the requirements are unclear or simply unknown. Your career is at stake, so don’t wait until you’re a few years in to begin thinking about what you should be doing to put together a portfolio for tenure.
  • Along this line, update your curriculum vitae regularly. Your CV should be a document that is on your desktop or somewhere accessible so that you can easily add a publication, speaking engagement, book review, or steps you’re taking to grow professionally. This is typically part of your regular review process. If you don’t update it regularly, you’ll forget about all that you’re doing and the record of your regular progress as a faculty member will be incomplete.
  • Let your dean know what you’re doing, what you’re publishing, where you’re speaking, and what conferences you’re attending. This may feel like self-promotion and you may be hesitant to do this, but it’s important to let your dean know what you’re doing to add value to the institution. Not only that, but you’re providing some good fodder for when your dean reports to the institution’s administration about the many good things the seminary faculty is doing these days to bless the church and the wider community. You’re an asset for the institution and you need to let your dean know that you’re a valuable one.
  • This is my rule regarding committee work and participation in administrative tasks: say “yes” when you can so that you can say “no” when you can’t. Because of the crisis facing higher education in general and theological institutions in particular, we don’t have the luxury of insisting on being unencumbered by administrative duties. Volunteer for tasks that need to be done when you can and you’ll make an administrator’s day! Be a team player and carry your load so that when you absolutely can’t do it, you can say “no.”
  • Sit down with older faculty and learn about the institution’s history. Who are the legendary professors who left a major mark? What are the critical conflicts that still simmer under the surface? Why does the room grow quiet when the dean mentions this or that issue in a faculty meeting? Your institution is the current product of a potentially long and complicated history. Learn it so that you can avoid stepping on landmines and doing serious damage to your career.
  • Get to know your colleagues. Some of our institutions have an intentionally communal dynamic, but many of us teach at schools where we seldom see our colleagues. For introverts like me, this is wonderful—I can be left alone! But I have some new colleagues and they’re wonderful people, so I’ve scheduled some regular lunches for casual conversation. Some practical advice: One aspect of tenure is collegiality. In the past month I’ve heard of two situations in which a person met the formal requirements but was denied tenure because of being a difficult person and a poor colleague. Taking simple and basic steps to cultivate relationships among your colleagues goes a long way toward building good will and furthering your career.

There’s obviously so much more to be said on this. I’d love to hear from others about what they’ve learned.


4 responses to “What I’ve Learned about Navigating an Institution

  • Andrew

    … very little clarity” oh, CLARITY, not CHARITY!

    I wasn’t sure I read that correctly …

  • Patrick

    Very insightful, helpful advice.

  • Rick Wadholm Jr.

    Would you readjust any of your advice for those of us at institutions where there are NO tenure tracks (and my understanding is that this is a growing trend and not a shrinking one)?

    • timgombis

      Good question, Rick. Many people will be in different arrangements with their institutions and if tenure isn’t involved, the expectations and “rules for engagement” would indeed change. But I’d have to know more to be able to answer more effectively. I would just get down in writing what was expected of me given my contractual arrangement with the school and work from there.

      And this is part of the difficulty for theological (and all educational) institutions these days. Faculty are less secure than ever, even as the futures of institutions are less secure than ever.

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