Going (Almost) Paperless

Bentley University uses course management system Blackboard to simplify the promotion and tenure process.
Going (Almost) Paperless

The promotion and tenure process determines who will serve on the faculty over the long term to implement a university’s mission in both scholarship and teaching. It’s no surprise, then, that universities expend considerable effort evaluating candidates for promotion and tenure, generating mountains of paperwork and creating overly complicated protocols for evaluators to follow.

But what if we could simplify that process? At Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, we have moved to electronic management of promotion and tenure applications. We’ve found that electronic processing not only saves time, but also generates a higher quality of information. Better yet, it can be done with tools a university may already have in place.

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Like many other colleges and universities, Bentley recognizes three different tracks for faculty contribution and evaluation: teaching, scholarship, and service. A faculty member’s track can strongly emphasize one of the three areas or represent a balance among them, but even those who are on scholarship or service tracks must exhibit good teaching to achieve tenure or promotion. And, regardless of their profiles, faculty members applying for tenure or promotion must submit applications that detail how they have performed in all three areas.

This means that a traditional paper-based application typically filled at least one large three-ring binder, with materials that included everything from copies of journal articles, book chapters, working papers, and other scholarly output in the scholarship section to syllabi, course materials, student evaluations, grade distributions, and classroom visit reports in the teaching section. Some faculty members included media components, such as original videos or computer models, in pockets within the binders. There also was an initial overview section with a CV, a personal statement, copies of annual reviews by the department chair, and other materials selected by the candidate. Books were submitted separately.

After the department completed its review of each application, it added its analysis and recommendation to the binder before sending a copy to the candidate and then passing the information on to university-level evaluators. The department also included confidential evaluation letters from external references as the application package moved on to the next levels of review. By the time the application reached university reviewers, there were seven copies for members of the Promotion and Tenure (P&T) Committee, as well as copies for the dean and the provost.

Managing these materials generated not only mountains of paper, but also a great deal of pressure. Their physical preparation and coordination, as well as the movement of the binders from home to work and back again during the review process, often made for a harried summer exercise. Add to that the fact that journal and book acceptances sometimes arrived at the last minute, meaning that pagination, section numbering, and duplication often took place in a final frantic push. Last but not least, some participants insisted on shredding all of the paper contained in their applications after the process was complete.

It’s not surprising that we sought to implement an electronic process for compiling and distributing these applications! We wanted to create a more streamlined system in which the applicants, reviewers, and administrators would have sufficient comfort and facility with the electronic platform.

EXPLORING TECH OPTIONS

Our administrators asked the Bentley Academic Technology Center (ATC) to recommend an electronic system that could replace our binder system. The new platform had to offer four primary benefits: easy access, customizable and changeable privileges for applicants and reviewers, security, and back-up capability. The ATC’s first recommendation was Blackboard, the learning management system the university already was using for its courses. ATC staff felt that Blackboard already offered many of the features we wanted, as well as one additional benefit—our faculty and staff already were familiar with Blackboard’s architecture, which would make our transition to an electronic process as seamless as possible.

However, Blackboard lacked one crucial feature—it didn’t allow reviewers to electronically mark up documents and share them with each other. So, we decided to explore other options. Because of the challenges of developing and maintaining an internal system, we limited our search to “out of the box” (OOTB) systems that we could readily implement.

We found other institutions that were using electronic review systems, both for promotion and tenure and other review purposes. One good source of information was the article “Tenure Applications Go Digital” by Audrey Williams June, which appeared August 10, 2009, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article describes Kent State University’s transition from paper-filled binders to e-portfolios, or “digital dossiers,” for faculty applying for tenure and promotion. We found that other organizations with review needs similar to ours were not using an OOTB electronic system. Rather, they either had designed a system in-house or modified a learning management or portfolio system for the task.

Next, we considered using a cloud-based file storage system like Dropbox, which allows multiple users to share files and collaborate on documents. But while such a system could facilitate exchanges of materials even more easily than Blackboard, we would lose the ability to customize and change user privileges, and we had concerns about storing the data in a third-party system. In addition, users who weren’t tech-savvy might find it difficult to access a new file structure.

Ultimately, no electronic review system won us over. We decided to take the ATC’s original recommendation and set up our new electronic promotion and tenure review process within Blackboard. As it turns out, the lack of a mark-up facility has not been problematic. Reviewers can either print out the pages they want to discuss or compile a list of such pages for everyone to reference during review meetings.

THE NEW PROCESS

Our processes for both tenure and promotion follow the general structure shown above in Figure 1. The stages at Step 4 and beyond are now handled within the electronic system.

At Step 4, a candidate submits a request to the ATC to establish a basic Blackboard course site. The ATC then creates the site, giving it a generic name to preserve the candidate’s confidentiality—someone browsing these sites cannot tell that Professor X is planning to apply for tenure or promotion.

Next, the ATC creates an application template in the Blackboard course site, and the professor can begin to modify the main menu, if desired, and add individual items to each category. A typical opening page might take the form shown in Figure 2 at right. During the preparation period, only the site owner and the ATC have access to the site. That said, the site owner can grant access to others, in the same way he or she can enroll students in a course site. A faculty member might do this to get feedback from colleagues on materials in the application.

The only other person who knows which professors are developing these sites is the chair of the P&T Committee, although he or she does not have access to the sites. With this knowledge, the chair keeps the process running smoothly. For example, in early August, the P&T chair contacts each department to confirm the names of those who will need read-only access to the site as part of the evaluation process. This information lets the ATC prepare to open the site for reviewers once the official application date has been reached and applicants have confirmed that they want to proceed to evaluation. Occasionally, an applicant might decide not to move forward in the current cycle, in which case the site remains entirely under his or her control for possible future use.

Applications move into the evaluation stage, or Step 5, within a day of the August 20 completion deadline. At that time, the ATC assigns appropriate status to different users:

Each applicant’s access is reduced to read-only—“student” access in Blackboard terminology.

The department evaluators are given student access.

The department chair, or the chair of the evaluation committee within the department, is given “instructor” status, which enables the chair to enter the department’s recommendation letter as well as any late-arriving relevant materials, such as late journal acceptances.

Finally, any individuals to whom the applicant had earlier granted access have their access removed.

Upon completion of the departmental review, the applicant can review the recommendation letter before the application moves on to the P&T Committee and the administration. This is the last opportunity for withdrawal from the process. This letter contains a detailed discussion of the case, but does not identify external evaluators. Finally, with the assent of the applicant, the process reaches Step 6, when the department chair informs the P&T chair that the application is ready for consideration. The ATC then assigns student access to the members of the P&T Committee, the provost, and the dean of the applicant’s department.

From this point on, no one can make any additions or changes to the site. In fact, the site is eventually archived in this form, in case of any long-term need for review, such as in a grievance or legal process. Individual packets containing hard copies of the external letters are delivered by the department to the P&T chair and administrators. Hard copies of books by applicants can be delivered, although PDF versions also have been used.

Because of the efficiency of the electronic system, we often reach this stage of the process one to two weeks earlier than the September 30 deadline. There is no last-minute flurry of assistants moving carts or delivering piles of binders to the P&T chair or administration.

FACULTY CONCERNS

As we developed the electronic system, we were committed to communicating early and often with all faculty and other stakeholders, so they would have frequent opportunities to provide input. Over ten months, members of the P&T Committee met multiple times with members of the Faculty Senate and academic department chairs, and once with the full-time faculty. We also kept the provost, deans, and university lawyer informed throughout the process.

Stakeholders raised two issues of particular concern:

Confidentiality. Some components of the P&T process are confidential, and many faculty were uncertain that the electronic system would protect their privacy. We explained that, because the electronic process enables the ATC to block access, it actually offers more security than a hard-copy system. A paper-based system presents more opportunities for unapproved access to applications. This explanation allayed concerns about confidentiality.

Attitudes toward technology. Not surprisingly, some people expressed discomfort with abandoning the familiarity of the three-ring binders. Perhaps even less surprising, even more people expressed strong preferences for technologies that were their personal favorites. At one point, it appeared that the change might be derailed or delayed as people advocated for CDs, iPads, or other software and Web-based solutions besides Blackboard. In the end, detailed descriptions of the advantages and possibilities of Blackboard convinced most people that they could operate this system.

With feedback from stakeholders in mind, we produced several drafts of the proposal describing the rationale for the change, as well as updates of the faculty manual, a mock-up of what the Blackboard sites for applicants would look like, and a calendar outlining when decision makers would have access to the sites.

As we approached the Faculty Senate’s vote, two alternatives to full implementation of the new system gained many adherents among faculty. First, some wanted to give applicants the option of submitting either hard-copy or electronic applications. Second, many wanted to begin with a pilot program. However, both options would have resulted in a mix of paper and paperless applications, which the P&T Committee feared would complicate the review process considerably. They convincingly addressed the spirit of these alternatives by agreeing to fully implement the new system, but only for a two-year trial period. The P&T Committee also agreed to give a report each year to the Senate about the system’s effectiveness.

SIMPLE AND STREAMLINED

At the end of each stage of the electronic review process, we conducted an anonymous online survey of the relevant participants. The applicants universally found it to be a convenient way to assemble their materials and had no trouble working within the Blackboard system. The ATC provided technical support to those who needed it. Another benefit: Special material, such as video content, was now accessible with only a click or two. In the past, CDs or DVDs included in hard-copy submissions often did not receive full attention, merely because of the extra effort it took to view them. The majority of reviewers noted that it was significantly easier to review the applications electronically.

We did make one significant change to the process. In the first year of the trial, we allowed applicants to work with the ATC to present their entire application as a single PDF file that mimicked the structure of the Blackboard site. We wanted to make it easier for reviewers to have a portable copy that they could access on their personal devices, even if they were not connected to the Internet. However, some were concerned that, because this was the only part of the application not under the full control of the applicant, it might not fully replicate the communication strategy that the applicant wanted. We monitored the use of PDF files in Blackboard and found that few people used this option. Therefore, we eliminated this feature the following year.

We have found that the electronic system represents a vast improvement over our paper application process. The information is easier to provide and evaluate, and moving the application through multiple evaluation levels is as simple as changing access levels to the sites. Even better is that we accomplished this with standard software that faculty and administrators in many disciplines routinely use. Our experience suggests that other universities could easily transition their paper-based evaluations to a simpler and more streamlined electronic alternative.

Charles Hadlock is trustee professor of technology, policy, and decision making, as well as professor of mathematical sciences, at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he was previously dean of the undergraduate college. Mary Jo Sanz is an instructional designer in Bentley’s Academic Technology Center, specializing in online programs and course management technology. Duncan Spelman is the chair of the department of management.