Trinity’s new tenure-track system of appointments will not only benefit entry level academics but will also address the under-representation of women in higher academic grades. Its path to approval last month by University Council was a long one, with intensive debate across College.
Many have asked why we are making this change. After all, we already have a rich tradition of recruiting excellent academics who have consolidated Trinity’s international reputation in research and teaching. However, the objective of the new tenure-track is not to fix a broken system, but rather to enhance an already strong one by providing a more streamlined, consistent, robust and supportive framework.
Until now, both in Trinity and in the Irish university system more generally, tenure has usually been acquired through confirmation of permanent post after a successful probation. But periods of probation have tended to vary. Combined with the limitations on recruitment during the years of austerity, this has led to insecurity particularly among junior staff. The introduction of the tenure-track will address these concerns and will include significant further enhancements to the system.
In Trinity, new entry-level academics will be offered an initial five-year contract, with a view to permanency subject to performance.
Over the last year and a half, Trinity has engaged with UK, Australian, and US universities to get an insight into the best ways of implementing reforms within the Irish context. We have also conducted extensive comparative analysis of different systems and assessed their relative merits. This has shown that global approaches to implementing tenure vary significantly. In the US, for example, there is a long history of a tenure-track, with well-embedded processes for achieving tenure, with tenured positions offered at a higher level. Australian universities have more flexibility in terms of the nature of contracts, length of probation and benchmarks at various career-stages, thus using a range of different measures to create a structured track to permanency. Many European universities are now implementing tenure-track programmes, although the models vary significantly to align with national employment law. The approach that we have adopted bears little resemblance to the US system, and is more allied to models adopted by peer institutions such as Cambridge, St Andrew’s, Imperial College, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Melbourne.
In Trinity, new entry-level academics will be offered an initial five-year contract, with a view to permanency subject to performance. The new framework will include an enhanced professional development and mentoring strand, a three-stage review process, and a “confirmation-in-post” process that will incorporate and supersede the existing Merit Bar Review.
Mentoring will support early career academics to build their skills and knowledge in key areas, such as identifying research and teaching resources, managing expectations of performance and building relationships among colleagues and peers.
All academics on this track will have the support of a mentor, through the College’s Early Career Mentoring Programme. Mentoring will support early career academics to build their skills and knowledge in key areas, such as identifying research and teaching resources, managing expectations of performance and building relationships among colleagues and peers. The resources of U-LEAD (the university’s Leadership and Academic Development Academy) will be available to provide professional development in new technologies and pedagogies, curriculum design and development, training for research leadership, including grant writing, developing and managing research teams, building partnerships, and articulating impact.
As the discussion on the introduction of the tenure-track policy developed, some academics expressed concern that this change may undermine the progression of women. In particular, the example of the US system of tenure-track was cited as giving cause for concern. As a result we paused our discussion to engage in further analysis and review.
It is certainly the case that women continue to be under-represented at the higher academic grades in universities in most OECD countries, including Ireland. However, it has been difficult to establish whether or not the fact that certain universities have a performance-based track to tenure is a factor in the under-representation of women at higher grades across universities world-wide. In fact, Trinity’s experience via the Ussher I scheme suggests that women fare equally well when they present for performance review. Moreover, the Ussher I programme seems to confirm the findings of a report from the League of European Research Universities that the creation of structured and projectable career paths for early-career academics enhance the success and progression of women and other under-represented groups, and that tenure-track is a key tool in this. Indeed, the research seems to conclude that what really makes the difference between success and failure for women and under-represented candidates is a strong culture of support that includes strategies to guarantee equal treatment, alongside mentoring to help navigate the process.
We took on board all of these concerns. The policy that was ultimately approved by the University Council and College Board included a number of specific measures to ensure that the introduction of the tenure-track will enhance the career prospects of women and other under-represented groups. These additional measures include the broadening of the commitments entered into under the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) plan and the expansion of the remit of WiSER (Women in Science and Engineering Research) to all faculties in the College, the roll-out of an enhanced Early Career Mentoring Programme, rating of the benchmarks for review in relation to any leave taken, and the expansion to all faculties of the pilot scheme currently running in the Faculty of Engineering, Maths and Sciences, that covers the cost of teaching “buy-out” for six-months in order to enable those returning from leave to focus on research. In addition, we will conduct an annual Equality Analysis of the Tenure Review process and report the findings to Board annually on the completion of each round, and will address any concerns that may arise.
The competitive nature of international recruitment means that Trinity must position itself to continue to attract the best early-career academics globally. The rolling-out of the tenure track is a key element in this task, and one that I am confident will support and encourage entry-level academics to achieve their potential. It will provide a rigorous, consistent and fair process for the achievement of tenure.