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Policy on Tenure and Promotion Standards and Procedures

The award of tenure is, of course, an immensely important decision -- both for the faculty member in question and for the long-term academic quality of the University. The Provost has the responsibility to review recommendations from the schools for promotion and/or tenure from a University-wide (rather than school-specific) perspective.  

In considering the award of tenure, Northwestern seeks to apply the highest standards with respect to professional achievement in the areas of scholarship/creative work and teaching. Each case is evaluated on its own merits. Northwestern aims at the superlative in both teaching and research; and, when making a recommendation for tenure, a department and school must feel able to affirm that the candidate in question constitutes as good a permanent appointment in his or her area as we are capable of making, now or in the foreseeable future, given both the candidate's accomplishments to date and reasonable expectations as to future accomplishments.

In evaluating the scholarly or creative work, attention should be paid to the quantity, but above all, the quality, importance, and creativity of such work; it is important to consider not merely what has been accomplished but also the promise for future achievement. A positive recommendation to confer tenure should offer strong evidence supporting claims about the high quality of a candidate's work, the distinctiveness of his or her voice, and the degree of influence on the field.

Time in rank or length of service are not criteria for promotion or tenure at Northwestern University. The pre-tenure period, often in the rank of assistant professor, has different prescribed nominal lengths in different schools/colleges at Northwestern. Variations to this nominal period are not uncommon. Indeed, faculty may have received one or more extensions to the tenure clock due to personal, family, health, or other disruptions. Faculty from time to time may also request a review for tenure and/or promotion early. While this request may or may not be granted by a school, irrespective of the time in rank, tenure or promotion reviews are based on the quality and impact of scholarship and teaching along with volume and quality of service. Departmental letters should focus solely on the quality of the work and the candidate’s impact on the field and promise thereof.

The quality of a candidate's teaching and future potential as a teacher are also major factors affecting the decision to grant tenure to a faculty member. Information regarding a candidate's teaching must be included in any such recommendation. As with scholarly or creative work, the nature of the teaching enterprise may differ among the schools. Nonetheless, given the University's dual commitment to excellence in teaching as well as research, it is important that the quality of teaching be fully considered in these decisions.

In considering promotion to the rank of professor, departments and schools will pay particular attention to the candidate's accomplishments since the award of tenure. Promotion to this rank is appropriate when the faculty member has achieved a high level of distinction in his or her field and has attained a level of excellence as a teacher. Time served in the rank of associate professor is neither sufficient cause for, nor a metric in the consideration of, promotion. Rather, the standard should be fulfillment to a large degree of the promise forecast at the earlier time of awarding tenure.

Tenure and Promotion Procedures and Materials for Continuing Faculty

It is expected that the dossier for every candidate for promotion and/or tenure will include the following materials when submitted to the Provost's office.

  • A complete, updated vita.
  • A reflective statement by the candidate summarizing the candidate's past accomplishments and future plans in the areas of a) teaching, b) research or artistic accomplishments, and c) University and professional service. The dossier transmitted to the Provost's office should include the supporting documentation used in the departmental and school level review process.
  • A detailed letter addressed to the Dean, and/or Promotions and Tenure Committee as appropriate, from the candidate's department or program. This letter should include a thorough discussion of the candidate's performance as a teacher and as a scholar or artist/performer. Discussion of the candidate's University service and citizenship also should be included. This letter should discuss both the candidate's strengths and weaknesses. Comparisons between the candidate and an identified benchmark cohort of other scholars of similar rank is not required. In cases where a benchmark cohort is used by the department or the Dean, tthese benchmark persons should be identified with programs ranking among the very best in the discipline. The department or the Dean, whomever utilizes a benchmark cohort, will include an explanation justifying the choice of each person included in the cohort. Information on teaching should compare the candidate to the overall teaching performance in the department.
  • A minimum of five, but generally eight or more, substantive letters from outside the University assessing the candidate should be included in the tenure package. These letters should come from knowledgeable full professors or at least tenured faculty members at institutions whose program in the discipline ranks among the very best. The external letters or a list of names will be obtained by the candidate's department or program. In some schools letters are obtained in confidence either by a committee beyond the department whose function is to advise the Dean, or directly by the Dean. Whomever is soliciting external letters should use the standard paragraph about time in rank and comparison cohorts when inviting outside referees. Solicitors of outside letters also assume the responsibility of creating a document with short biographies of each letter writer and a clear explanation of their appropriateness as referees.
  • Guidelines should be given to these external referees with explicit reference to standards for tenure to be applied at Northwestern, as summarized above, including the fact that time in rank and length of service are not criteria for promotion or tenure at Northwestern. The referees should address specific strengths and weaknesses of the candidate. The referees are not required, but could choose to, make useful comparisons between the candidate and a benchmark cohort of scholars/artists/performers of similar rank from the very best programs. Academic rank could be used to determine the benchmark cohort. However, the year of the candidate’s terminal degree, time in rank, or length of service should not be used as criteria in forming the benchmark cohort.  If a benchmark cohort is used, the referee will include a statement justifying the inclusion of each person in the cohort.
  • There should be a short summary of the discussion of the Promotions and Tenure Committee that provides an explanation for its vote.
  • The Dean should provide a transmittal letter when the materials are submitted to the Provost's office. This letter should summarize the Dean's recommendation and rationale for each case being submitted for review. Reference should be made to the candidate's accomplishments and future promise measured against Northwestern University standards.

All recommendations for tenure and/or promotion of continuing faculty should be presented to the Provost’s Office no later than the month of April. The earlier these cases are presented, the better the opportunity for a decision from the Provost by the end of the spring academic term. 

Tenure Procedures in Making Outside Appointments

Procedures are intended to ensure that the same high standards employed in promotion and tenure decisions for continuing faculty are utilized when making decisions about hiring new faculty in tenured positions. To that end, a thorough review must precede all requests forwarded to the Provost for approval. As a part of the review process, each proposed outside appointment should be considered by either the Promotion and Tenure Committee of the school or by a special confidential ad hoc committee (appointed by the Dean) composed of senior faculty outside of the department or program from which the appointment has been initiated.

No offer of employment may be made before the Provost has had an opportunity to review the candidate's dossier. The case presented to the Provost should include the same elements as described above for decisions regarding internal candidates for tenure and/or promotion, with one exception; a reflective statement from the candidate summarizing his or her past accomplishments and future plans in the areas of teaching, research, and service while always useful, may not easily be obtained, particularly with more distinguished candidates. It is not required to include such a statement in a dossier for a candidate we are seeking to recruit to Northwestern.

Responsible Office: Office of the Provost

Who Needs to Know This Policy: All Northwestern faculty members


If you have any questions on this Policy, contact  

Dated: July 6, 2023