David Duncan explains the route to Academic promotion.
This article was originally published in Forum 37: 10-11.
Like any university with aspirations to be in the top rank, York depends fundamentally on its academic staff. Our aim is to attract and retain staff of the very highest quality, and to sustain a really excellent working environment in which they can do their best possible work.
Maintaining fair and transparent academic promotions procedures is a crucial part of that. Over the past six years, I have been secretary to the committee which makes recommendations to Senate on all academic promotions. I welcome this opportunity to explain a little about the process, and to highlight some of the changes we are currently considering.
A number of myths circulate in the institution which it might be helpful to address. For example, there are concerns that the university operates a quota to limit the numbers that can be promoted in any one year; that it is impossible to secure promotion on the first application; that heads of departments sometimes give negative or lukewarm references for candidates to avoid pressure on their budgets; that it is much harder to secure promotion at York than at competitor universities; that the promotions process favours some disciplines over others; and that women are more diffident about applying for promotion (and less successful when they do apply) than their male counterparts.
In fact, my own experience, and the statistical evidence of the last five years, suggests that none of these concerns are justified. The system is designed to be as fair as it possibly can be. Importantly, all decisions about academic promotions are made by academics themselves. The process is overseen by a committee chaired by the Vice Chancellor (for promotions to professor), and by the Deputy Vice Chancellor for all other promotions. The rest of the membership comprises academic staff elected by Senate and drawn from across the disciplinary spectrum. The membership turns over regularly to ensure fresh thinking and new perspectives. In recent years, Senate has invariably accepted the recommendations of the Academic Promotions Committee, though it has the power to challenge the recommendations if it wishes to.
Decisions about promotion are based on six different pieces of information. First, the candidate submits their CV and  letter of application, setting out their case. The head of department is then asked to give (a) a factual report and (b) a confidential report on the candidate’s contribution and performance. Next, the application is considered by an advisory group for the academic cluster (or faculty from January 2015). The Academic Promotions Committee then meets in January and decides whether or not to go out to referees. After that, my personal assistant, Sara Bailey, undertakes the Herculean task of procuring references for each of the candidates (the higher the grade applied for, the greater the number of references). The Committee reconvenes in May to review the references and decide whether or not to promote. Finally, Senate is asked to approve the recommendations for promotion at its meeting in July.
The head of department has an important role in the process. In the course of their induction, we ask heads to make sure that all academic staff undergo a performance review, and that the opportunity is taken to consider the individual’s promotion prospects. They are asked to give particular attention to more modest members of staff who may be reluctant to come forward. The head is also asked to give careful attention to the distribution of key roles within the department, so that candidates can demonstrate appropriate contributions to leadership, administration and management (the same applies to research leave, opportunities to develop new courses, and so on). And finally, the head is required to consult with other senior members of staff in the department, so that their reports reflect the collective views of the senior team rather than just their own perspective.
More generally, we are strongly committed to demystifying the promotions process. This year, we held a number of open sessions for staff who might be interested in applying for promotion in the near future. Members of staff are always welcome to discuss the process with me or the Deputy Vice Chancellor in confidence – I promise that we will do our best to be helpful. Our overall approach is that we want staff to be promoted – it is a positive thing both for individuals and for the university as a whole. Consequently, where a candidate is unsuccessful, we try to provide them with advice which will help them to win promotion in the future. We encourage them to talk to their head of department about what he or she can do to support them, and we also offer meetings with me or the DVC (or another member of the committee if they prefer). It would be wrong to claim that everyone is always 100% content with the outcome, but we hope that the large majority find it a positive, affirming and supportive process.
Each year, the Academic Promotions Committee makes a number of amendments to the criteria and procedure, usually reflecting comments or advice received from those participating in the process. Recently, we decided that a more root and branch review was required. The motivation was three-fold – to ensure that the criteria fully reflect the range and diversity of contributions which academic staff are now asked to make; to ensure a more consistent approach across different grades and categories of academic post (including roles focused primarily on research or teaching); and to simplify the criteria so that they are easier to use. A draft document was developed by Jane Grenville and the Academic Promotions Committee and will now be subject to detailed scrutiny by a working group comprising the DVC, me, a representative from Human Resources and trade union colleagues. The document was circulated jointly to all staff by the UCU President and me, and is available on the university website. Your comments on it would be welcomed. We hope to have the revised criteria in place for the academic year 2015/16.
In the meantime, if you have any other comments or observations you would like to make about academic promotions at York, we would be delighted to hear from you.
David Duncan has been Registrar and Secretary at the University of York since 2009. After the Vice-Chancellor the Registrar and Secretary is the most senior, nonacademic officer of the University. The Registrar is responsible for managing the University’s professional support services, supporting the University Council (the governing body) and ensuring the good governance of the University.