Jeffrey H. Toney is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kean University and previously was dean of the College of Natural, Applied and Health Sciences at Kean University. He received a BS in chemistry from the University of Virginia and an MS and PhD in chemistry from Northwestern University. He served as a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School and in chemical biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has held the Herman and Margaret Sokol Professorship in Chemistry at Montclair State University and served as department chairperson of chemistry and biochemistry. His current scholarship is focused on drug discovery and bridging science and human rights. He has written 65 peer-reviewed scientific articles and holds six US patents. He has recently been published in Science, The New York Times, and The Star-Ledger, and he is a regular blogger on ScienceBlogs and on The Huffington Post.

Reviewing faculty applications for reappointment and tenure is like looking through a telescope. The viewer struggles to focus on distant planets amidst a vast universe; each beautiful planet represents future unexplored worlds, some rich in resources and potential, some barren. The evaluator struggles to predict the faculty member’s potential, whether over the next year or, in the case of tenure, for life.

Evaluating faculty potential is likely the most important step that an academic administrator takes for our students’ futures. Retaining dedicated faculty ensures that we provide our students with the education that they deserve, worthy of the trust and support that they bestow upon us.

But what if we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope? If you’re like most academic administrators, you’re looking inward, not outward. Traditionally, faculty submit a portfolio documenting how they have contributed to the university in the categories of teaching, research and service. The focus is on the individual’s accomplishments — look at what a superb professor I am (students love me)! Be impressed with my scholarship, how many peer-reviewed manuscripts on which I am first author, how many books I have written! There is nothing wrong with such a response. After all, this is what universities typically require for administrative and peer review. What drives the motivation of candidates for success in this process? Naturally, they expect a positive recommendation for their reappointment or tenure. But giving our students the best education possible depends upon faculty members who care more about their students’ successes than they do their own.

Notice a glaring omission in the traditional portfolio application: student success. Imagine a faculty application with the following sections:

  • A comprehensive list of courses taught, including assessment of each student learning outcome. How do the course outcomes relate to the student’s major and to the university’s mission for student success? Can any course or program outcomes be linked to employment related to students’ majors or to creating new opportunities in their lives? (Many universities already collect this data, in one form or another.)
  • A summary of student mentoring outcomes. This could cover a broad range of student successes. Examples include faculty advisement leading to improved retention (student A graduated in three years!), recommendation letters that contributed to admission into graduate or professional schools (student B was admitted to graduate school at Harvard!), awards and scholarships resulting from faculty mentoring, and student co-authors on peer-reviewed publications or books.
  • A summary of service to the university linked to student success. Perhaps the faculty member worked with students on community service projects, aiding the poor or organizing a team for disaster response; some of these students began careers in public service. Other examples could be serving on committees resulting in outcomes such as enhanced technology to support a digital library, creating new degree programs that open up new opportunities for students, or serving on a scholarship committee.

Successful applications will reveal faculty members’ pride and joy in how they made a difference in these students’ lives. They need not focus exclusively on successes. I would rather see examples of failures and lessons learned as well; a beautiful, imperfect mosaic trumps a rose-colored mirror. Sometimes failure to achieve student learning outcomes can lead to epiphanies in pedagogy.

What drives the motivation of candidates for success in this process? It is the desire to demonstrate to their university community the impact that they have had on guiding students and, along the way, their own pride and joy as a mentor. A successful recommendation for reappointment and tenure will come naturally: putting students first leads to student successes, and those inspire faculty fulfillment. Achieving tenure is an honor, a milestone, not the primary driver. Focusing on student success rather than faculty achievement will not change the outcome of these important decisions but could motivate faculty to put more energy and passion into educating students rather than trying to impress a reviewer or a committee. Isn’t that, after all, why we became educators in the first place?