Working Towards Tenure Together: Creating an Intersectional Peer Supported Cohort Model
By Halle Burns, Mayra Corn, Jennifer Culley, Stephanie Fell, Sarah Jones, Christina Miskey, Ruby Nugent, Rebecca Orozco, Brittani Sterling, & Aidy Weeks1
After observing the realities of the tenure-track process at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), a number of newly hired faculty librarians created an informal ongoing, peer-to-peer support network. This evolved to be UNLV Libraries’ informal cohort of tenure-track faculty made up of ten librarians, whose experiences represent a diverse and intersectional group of women, both personally and professionally. The safe and supportive environment that the cohort created demonstrates the value of a peer-to-peer cohort, where colleagues are able to share information and experiences, as well as collaborate on scholarly endeavors.
Navigating the tenure-track process can be a challenging and, at times, an isolating experience. Even for faculty who have experience with achieving tenure, a new institution and job description brings a fresh set of hurdles. At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), new tenure-track librarians go through the University Libraries’ onboarding process, which includes joining the libraries’ mentorship program and the campus First Year Faculty program as an orientation to promotion and tenure. However, it was not until five tenure-track librarians attended the UNLV Libraries’ annual mid-tenure proceeding in October 2019 that these faculty members began to understand the written and unwritten standards, metrics, and factors used to evaluate a candidate’s mid-tenure progress. After observing the mid-tenure proceedings, witnessing the collegial support of the group that underwent evaluation, and speaking with colleagues about previous informal cohort efforts, the new tenure-track librarians recognized they could benefit from an additional, ongoing, informal peer-to-peer support network.
This support network not only provided a foundation for walking through the tenure and promotion process together, but also in navigating the culture of the library/university and assisting with the retention of this group of new hires, each with their own unique identities and needs. It helped create a professional, but social setting which allowed for each member’s questions to be addressed, provided moral support that became a cherished resource while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and eventually, offered opportunities for group scholarship efforts.
For the purpose of this article, the authors use the framework of intersectionality coined by Kimberle Crenshaw which posits that individuals, in particular, women of color, can face discrimination/hardships based on multiple identities specifically (but not limited to) race and gender (1989). Ettarh (2014) situates intersectionality squarely within the field of librarianship, making this framing most apropos for our cohort. As a cohort of women, tenure-track librarians with varying intersectionalities, we have found that it is possible to create a microcosm of inclusion that honors allyship and the diverse lived experiences of group members. This is not to assume that such spaces would not also be possible in a group composed of multiple gender identities. It just so happened that this group of tenure track faculty became composed exclusively of women. This paper will outline how the cohort was created, what benefits have come from it, and provide more detail on the makeup of the members. Our hope is that others may use our experience to begin their own peer-support group.
UNLV Peer Cohort Creation and Background
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) is a public doctoral-granting institution founded in 1957. It supports a campus of over 31,000 total students and is one of the most diverse universities in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report (2021). As of this publication, UNLV Libraries has one executive faculty member, 58 FTE academic faculty members, 32 FTE professional staff, and 30 classified staff that support the Libraries’ mission to “foster innovation, knowledge creation and discovery, and academic achievement to enrich our UNLV and Southern Nevada communities” (UNLV University Libraries, 2020). Tenure-track academic faculty members are evaluated for progress towards tenure every year until tenure is achieved, with mid-tenure review occurring in roughly the third year of academic employment and the application for tenure and promotion occurring during the fifth year of academic employment.
Librarian faculty are evaluated in three main areas: librarianship, scholarly research, and service. Librarianship consists of the duties outlined in each librarian’s job description. Scholarly research and/or creative activity consists of scholarship efforts such as poster presentations, panel discussions, and other professional presentations, as well as written efforts like peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Other types of scholarly activities and outputs may also be considered. Service includes committee work and professional voluntarism and is classified into four main areas: to the library, to the university, to the profession, and to the community. There is an expectation that the librarian will grow in all of these areas with each year of employment leading up to applying for tenure and promotion.
The peer-to-peer support network that first began at the October 2019 mid-tenure meeting noted above, later evolved to be UNLV Libraries’ newest informal cohort of tenure-track faculty librarians, whose experiences represented a variety of library departments across multiple campuses, liaison roles, and professional experiences including technical services, special collections and archives, collection development, social sciences, research data management, scholarly communications, sciences, and health sciences. Initially, the group’s gathering model was centered on face-to-face meetings held when members across all campuses could attend. Two of these in-person meetings took place before the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a change in business as usual due to the closure of campuses and implementation of social distancing protocols.
In March 2020, a state stay-at-home mandate was issued by the University causing a shift to a remote work model. Not wanting this to impact the newly established support system, the cohort implemented a weekly virtual meeting format allowing for continued peer accountability and mentorship. The added strain of ever-evolving challenges associated with COVID-19 further demonstrated the beneficial nature of this arrangement. At the start of the pandemic, the cohort was made up of seven faculty librarians. As remote work continued and the pandemic ensued, the cohort grew and added three new tenure-track faculty members.
These virtual meetings began as a relatively unstructured, informal weekly check-in. The group discussed an array of topics ranging from personal to professional matters, including: pandemic coping mechanisms, scholarship efforts in progress, and ambiguous tenure and organizational policies, as well as clarifying workplace procedures, which resulted in shared knowledge of available resources. In July 2020, the group identified that there was an opportunity to practice distributed leadership (Goulding & Walton, 2014) in order to encourage service, collaboration, and governance. The cohort established a rotating moderator schedule where one member would lead the group for the month, paired with a backup moderator. As this leadership schedule began to take form, the cohort added recurring segments to its meetings to include: scheduling guest speakers, weekly check-ins, monthly accountability, scholarship collaborations, research agenda pairing, and planning of social events, such as virtual game nights or socially distant meet-ups. Since implementing this distributed leadership model, each moderator has added their own personality and leadership style with each meeting. The group has been able to observe and support one another’s leadership growth through this model.
Why do we consider this cohort structure to be unique? While other programs were available to tenure-track faculty, including the UNLV Libraries Mentorship Program and the UNLV First Year Faculty Program, the peer mentorship that this cohort provided was a necessary and standalone resource for its members. Some members were the only tenure-track faculty in their department or division, and while the mentorship tenured faculty provided was invaluable, there is no substitute for tenure-track faculty members who are navigating progress toward tenure at the same time.
The tenure process, in general, poses difficulties on a number of levels. Between inconsistent tenure requirements across institutions, lack of support, uncertainty, gatekeeping, and the uniqueness of library faculty roles, it is no wonder that Hirschkorn (2010) muses:
Perhaps my biggest fear is that I am going to arrive at the tenure deadline and be told that I have not been publishing enough or serving on enough committees to be granted tenure – a point at which it will be too late to do anything.
Hirschkorn is not alone in those fears. In addition to explicit requirements, pre-tenure faculty deal with a significant amount of pressure. They need to be concerned with scholarship and service but also have to consider the optics and university politics surrounding tenure processes. As Hirschkorn points out, “Do we need to do what we are told and not irritate anyone who potentially could review our promotion or tenure applications” and should therefore “…avoid contentious teaching, service, and research pursuits until their academic freedom has been ensured by tenure?” Furthermore, Palmer and Jones (2019) highlight the fact that many institutions implemented tenure “processes and expectations…when men achieved academic standing and women did not pursue professions, specifically while establishing families” and that the “lack of flexibility, institutional and peer support, and perceived life balance further inhibited women from achieving promotion and tenure.” They also point out that women faculty members can especially struggle during the tenure process, often facing “isolation, losses of other personal goals (e.g. marriage or children), and lack of personal serenity (Palmer & Jones, 2019),” all of these factors thus creating a severe inequality between women and men tenured faculty members.
Librarians of color, in particular, encounter additional barriers within academia, further complicating the tenure and promotion process. This is compounded by the fact that librarianship is consistently considered to be a feminized profession, thus creating additional obstacles specific to women of color (Eva et al., 2021; Palmer & Jones, 2019). Numerous articles spanning several decades cite similar evidence regarding the many burdens faculty of color face (Turner et al., 2008). This evidence includes toxic workplace culture, forced emotional labor, lack of representation in administration and among peers, and the expectation to “represent the voice of diversity on a number of committees across the campus in order to fulfill the institutional goal of inclusion” (Riley-Reid, 2017). To further that point, Damasco and Hodges (2012) suggest:
Faculty of color more frequently find themselves burdened with teaching loads and service responsibilities that may detract from their research activity, research that may already be undervalued by their colleagues. They are usually expected to assume institutional roles (such as that of the ‘diversity specialist’) that are often ignored in terms of tenure and promotion evaluations.
While much research has been conducted on the recruitment of faculty of color, only recently has the focus shifted towards retention. Toxic work culture and low morale have been proven by Heady et al. (2020) to greatly contribute to faculty turnover. Based on a series of interviews, Heady et al. (2020) documented personal accounts that “alluded to the bystander effect, leading to feelings of betrayal and isolation” and that there was “confusion and frustration regarding who to contact to address such issues and, when they did give voice to their concerns, felt they were overlooked.”
LGBTQ+ faculty also experience hurdles in academia that could hinder their progress towards tenure and promotion. Vaccaro’s 2012 ethnographic study of these potential barriers notes that attitudes towards LGBTQ+ faculty vary widely even within their own departments and institutions, thus affecting tenure and promotion decisions and overall climate. Some faculty in the study even noted that, despite policies against nondiscrimination, they “live in fear” due to the attitudes of their colleagues (Vaccaro, 2012). It is important to note that not all LGBTQ+ faculty are ‘out’ at their place of work and feel comfortable being so. ‘Out’ faculty may face “…loss of opportunities, exclusion from social networks and mentoring” as well as “heightened visibility and scrutiny, …tokenism, fetishization” and “career implications [that] can include lost jobs and promotions [along with] attempts to block tenure” (Beagan et al., 2020). To cope with these roadblocks, Beagan et al. (2020) suggest that “connecting with and mentoring new queer faculty” helps individuals feel less isolated.
Outside of mentoring, other support systems provide a valuable service for early-career librarians to settle into academia and the rigors of the tenure process, which librarians are generally unprepared for, even after obtaining a terminal degree in their respective fields (Goodsett & Walsh, 2015). As Miller and Benefiel (1998) point out, “many librarians…find themselves facing a ‘sink-or-swim’ mentality, wherein little help with fulfilling requirements or even assistance in interpreting the nature of the requirements is forthcoming (Wilkinson, 2012)”. This puts faculty librarians at a disadvantage.
Even in universities with thoroughly documented tenure processes, variability in tenure pathways can still remain, including within the library’s own ranks, as the demands for innovative research, publication, and professional involvement only continue to grow (Miller & Benefiel, 1998; vanDuinkerken et al., 2010). This is a well-researched issue, with multiple studies aiming to provide clarity on this matter both within academic libraries specifically and academia in general (Hirschkorn, 2010; Applegate, 2019; Wilkinson, 2012). With new faculty members spanning a variety of departments, divisions, and specialties, it is clear that what counts as “significance” (defined by vanDuinkerken et al., 2010 as the quality and importance work performed as it relates to its impact on the institution, discipline, etc.) in one area of academic librarianship does not apply to all. As Garner et al. (2009) asserts, there isn’t a clear difference between, for example, technical service and public service positions during the tenure and promotion process, thus making expectations difficult to understand for early-career library faculty. When pressing for clarity regarding tenure expectations, tenure-track professionals receive a variety of responses, similar to the situation Hirschkorn (2010) discusses:
…When I have pushed for specific details regarding tenure expectations, I get some variation of ‘depends, but do not worry about it, you seem to be doing enough’ as the response. In short, if each institution does have different expectations, and not just different perceived expectations, how do new faculty gain any sense of them?
So, the question remains, what can be done? Vilz and Poremski (2015) point out that there are some support systems vital to helping librarians in particular as they move through the tenure process. This includes feedback from senior (tenured) librarians and supervisors, time to dedicate to tenure requirements for service and scholarship, mentoring, and the availability of professional development funds (Vilz & Poremski, 2015). Palmer and Jones (2019) also discuss the importance of support systems for tenure-track faculty.
Academic libraries have frequently implemented both formal and informal mentoring programs using a variety of approaches and with varying degrees of success. Successful “mentoring relationships include professional components (e.g., coaching of and protection for the mentee) and psychological components (e.g., counseling and friendship) (Palmer & Jones, 2019).” The most common type of mentoring program is one-on-one mentoring, where a more senior, often tenured, faculty member is paired with a new tenure-track faculty member soon after starting in their position (Vilz & Poremski, 2015). Other mentoring models include group mentoring where a few senior librarians guide several new librarians (Miller & Benefiel, 1998), resource teams where a small group of senior librarians coach one new librarian (Bosch et al., 2010), and peer-mentor support groups where tenure-track faculty members at various levels in their careers work together to support each other through the tenure and promotion process (Lieberthal, 2009; Cirasella & Smale, 2011; Level & Mach, 2004; Miller & Benefiel, 1998).
Level and Mach (2004) note that, while mentoring itself is critical to retaining highly qualified faculty long-term, “despite its overwhelming use in academic institutions, traditional, one-on-one mentoring is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution” and that exploring other mentoring models, such as peer mentoring, can be fairly successful to “maximize the different types of support available to new tenure-track librarians.” Peer mentoring and relationships provide “a high level of information sharing and additional psychosocial functions such as emotional support (Lieberthal, 2009)” that isn’t necessarily present in more traditional mentoring relationships. Cirasella and Smale (2011) point out that “mentoring among peers can be much less formal, which may be more comfortable for librarians…. Also, peer mentoring is by nature a reciprocal relationship, which may make it easier to solicit advice and assistance” throughout the tenure process. So, while traditional mentoring is hierarchical in nature and can create an unintended power imbalance, peer mentoring “lends itself well to facilitating a learning culture in which librarians of all ranks and levels of experience can learn from each other (Lieberthal, 2009).” For women faculty especially, exploring alternatives to conventional mentoring methods can have positive results. “Relationships are paramount to women in academia feeling successful… [They] want to feel connected to their mentors personally, and want the relationship to include support of their sense of self-worth (Palmer & Jones, 2019),” which isn’t necessarily available in a traditional one-on-one relationship (Level & Mach, 2004).
To combat turnover and increase retention of librarians of color, Royster et al. (2015) notes, “Many types of retention efforts have been proposed, including salary inducements for librarians of color, or cultural sensitivity training programs for library faculty and staff, but one key strategy involves mentoring of librarians new to the library environment.” These relationships provide an opportunity for new librarians of color to gain familiarity with campus culture as well as develop strategies for navigating academic job responsibilities and expectations. Damasco and Hodges (2012) indicate that “several respondents [to their survey] discussed the importance and need for more informal mentoring relationships and peer support networks as a means for alleviating feelings of isolation, particularly in environments where they found themselves a racial minority.”
The Value of a Peer Cohort
What began as a tenure-track support system rapidly evolved and expanded after moving to a remote work environment during the pandemic. The collegial support that the cohort offers is best exemplified in three different ways. An example of the first is in the cohort’s shared scholarship efforts. Since the members are transparent and open about their professional activities and progress towards tenure, members have found collaborative partners as well as shared research interests. The group produced a poster presentation and a moderated panel discussion for two separate conferences. In preparation for these conferences, those who had a more established research agenda stepped aside to allow members who needed the experience or scholarship effort for tenure purposes to take the spotlight.
The second demonstration of value was the organic cultivation of an environment of respect and honesty which continues to allow members to speak openly about their personal and professional experiences. As the commitment to regular meeting attendance was solidified and the impact of each member’s contributions evolved, the group’s cohesion and comfort level continued to rise, allowing for trust building and an air of safety. The cohort meetings provided a platform for individuals to bravely share information about their lived experiences without wondering how that information would be received. While all members may not have shared the same experiences, the deep respect and care that grew out of weekly meetings created a trusted space for openly sharing.
The third demonstration of value has been strength in numbers, particularly in the effort to push for clarification and expanded documentation of tenure-track policies overall, but especially those that may be out of date and/or are not written down and are documented only in the minds of tenured faculty with long-standing institutional knowledge. This is an important aspect of the cohort system, as the nature of shared governance in academia requires documentation maintenance and continuously clarifying policies and procedures that tenure-track faculty are relying on to shepherd them through the tenure process. However, committee and faculty members’ time is valuable. By gathering and summarizing questions as a group, the cohort streamlined requests to the appropriate contacts and demonstrated that there were multiple faculty members who lacked clarity about specific concepts or procedures. Areas that the cohort has requested clarification of processes or policies include: annual review requirements, definitions used in annual evaluations and the tenure-track process, expectations (written and unwritten) of faculty, and COVID-19 tenure timeline extension policies.
Equity, Inclusion, and Retention
In general, institutions of higher education can experience a “revolving door” when it comes to scholars or librarians of color (Alabi, 2018). This in part is due to the lack of an inclusive environment and an emphasis on recruitment but not retention (Alabi, 2018). However, we as a cohort have found that by prioritizing each other’s holistic personhood, it is possible to influence our personal connections and professional support of each other (see Table 3). Interwoven throughout our peer mentorship model is respect, honor, and cognition of our diverse lived experiences. We recognize the unique perspectives, intersectionalities, and intricate lenses with which each group member is experiencing the tenure-track process.
The cohort is composed of a complex and nuanced range of identities, including different races and ethnicities (African American, Latinx, multi-ethnic, and white), as well as a variety of sexual orientations (Figure 1 & Figure 2). Over half of our cohort identifies as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), which contrasts with the professional profile of academic librarians in the United States. As of 2010 in the United States, 13.9% of credentialed librarians in higher education identify as BIPOC (ALA & Decision Demographics, 2012), while 54% of our cohort do so. Moreover, 50% of the cohort identifies as LGBTQ+. Despite the fact that there have been instances where some library associations collect sexual orientation data during membership surveys (Poinke, 2020), it appears that the American Library Association has yet to do so. Thus, we cannot compare our cohort data to the larger professional population. Finally, the cohort is made up of all women, some of whom are first generation and/or non-traditional college graduates. We hold a wide breadth of socioeconomic backgrounds and span an approximate 20 year age range. We found that embracing our diversity along with our similarities added to our sense of belonging within the cohort.
The diversity of our cohort is also reflected in our professional experiences. Cohort members have worked in public, medical, and academic libraries. Even though we all self-identify as early or mid-career librarians, many of whom are new to the tenure-track career path, collectively we possess 133 years of experience in library and information science and 29.5 years of working in managerial positions (Figure 3, Table 1, & Table 2). We bring expertise from cataloging, acquisitions, archives, discipline-specific librarianship including social sciences, health, medicine, and science, and supervising. This combination of professional experiences provided the cohort with not only a more comprehensive understanding of the UNLV Libraries, personnel situations, and navigating tenure processes but also of the LIS field.
|Tenure Track Experience||New||Experienced|
|Career Status||Early career||Mid-Career|
The reason it is important to specifically acknowledge various aspects of identity within this cohort is because of our commitment to creating a space of care that invites open communication and vulnerability for members, not despite our differences but because of them. The cohort does not espouse a perfect formula for guaranteed success, however this commitment to care for each other allowed room for accountability and responsibility for members’ actions even in the face of challenges or topics that were sensitive in nature.
An example of the way members created a space of care is through consensus decision-making for group scholarship opportunities. The cohort had multiple discussions about ensuring everyone was given opportunities to present and write scholarship. During an earlier discussion regarding a conference presentation, the group decided to center the voices of BIPOC colleagues as presenters. The group asked BIPOC members if they would like to present before offering the opportunity to white colleagues. This opened up a candid discussion around when and how to center the experiences and voices of colleagues who hold BIPOC or LGBTQ+ identities.
As part of encouraging mental wellness and personal health, the monthly moderator included a check-in at the beginning or end of meetings. This practice aided in the collective processing of the racial uprisings due to the killing of Black folks at the hands of law enforcement, racial disparities brought to the forefront of public discourse about the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we as individuals and our families were being affected by all of it.
These two examples illustrate our commitment to care, retention, and helping each other traverse the tenure-track process as new hires. However, it was not until we conducted an internal survey to formulate research efforts in relation to the cohort as a support system that we were able to articulate our thoughts and shared experiences throughout 2020 and 2021. Below are some quotes from the survey that support the notion of an environment where diversity and equity are the rule and not the exception (Table 3):
|“The nature of this group…inherently makes it unique and offers professional and personal support that is different than I can get elsewhere.”|
|“A safe, judgment-free space…genuine friendship/caring about colleagues’ success without competition.”|
|“Friendship, 100% support, a complete non judgment zone.”|
|“The cohort has been a great support network in terms of providing information regarding the tenure process (both verbally and, for example, where to find information on the staff website, how to use Folio, etc.); bouncing ideas off of one another; it’s been useful to hear different interpretations of various elements of the tenure process (folks have different supervisors, are in different departments and divisions and hear different information); working on and through our FAARs together was really helpful.”|
|“The cohort has not only held me accountable to a group of individuals, but also allowed me to openly talk of successes and failures without fear of judgment or impact on the view of me as a professional. In addition to this, hearing the stories from my peers has helped me establish my own research, scholarship, and service goals.”|
|“Invaluable! I honestly can say that I would be struggling a lot more than I did transitioning to remote work almost a year ago. In addition to the professional support, an opportunity to talk about things that are happening personally and how that not only affects our ability to navigate an academic tenure track experience, but how our everyday mental wellness is important to acknowledge. The ability to express our fears and anxiety in an empathetic and sympathetic space is something I have not experienced before and may not ever again.”|
The Impact of COVID-19
Three cohort members began their faculty experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, with their initial interactions with colleagues beginning entirely virtually, including regular communication within their respective departments. This lack of physical, in-person contact with co-workers made understanding and navigating the organizational culture of their workplace challenging. Cohort members were required to continue working on their daily tasks at similar pre-pandemic levels of productivity, while also being mindful of tenure requirements. Accurately forecasting the achievement of these requirements became even more challenging when professional conferences and major events were canceled, delayed, and/or moved to a virtual environment.
It also became evident to the entire cohort that their tenure-track trajectory was going to be impacted by the pandemic and the ever-changing opportunities available for scholarship and service. To combat this, group members began to regularly highlight professional calls for proposal (CFP) during meetings and via the group email list. This type of resource sharing provided individuals a chance to make up for scholarship they may have had to forfeit due to the unforeseen circumstances created by a global pandemic, while also contributing to the profession in unique ways they may have not considered before.
Other obstacles that arose during this remote work period were varied and complex for all involved. Outside of work, members of the cohort experienced significant personal life changes immediately before or during the pandemic. Seven moved to Nevada from out of state after being hired by UNLV, and three started their position with UNLV Libraries working from home during the pandemic. With several members of the cohort identifying as being high-risk for contracting COVID-19, and a significant percentage identifying as BIPOC and part of the LGBTQ+ community, conversations about personal physical health and safety became a regular topic. Current events around social injustice and racism became more prevalent, and taking time to support each other’s mental health in light of these events became an important area of discussion.
Coming together during such a pivotal time has created a unique personal and professional bond. As an all-female cohort, there is an added element of collegiality that may have made a difference in how we have been able to support one another in a number of capacities. The group developed a distinct connection built on trust and respect for one another. The cohort became a place to celebrate successes while also providing space to lift each other up during challenges.
Ways that We’ve Stayed Connected
As the pandemic evolved from a temporary, short-term event to an ongoing, long-term reality, the cohort began the challenge of navigating newly hybrid (virtual/in-person) communication channels and changing institutional norms. Information was disseminated by University and Library leadership via email, during staff and faculty meetings, and in departmental conversations. During this time, weekly cohort meetings dedicated time to discussing the updates around important announcements regarding budgets, the potential for furloughs, and timelines for returning to campus. Several cohort members began to return to campus just a few short months after stay-at-home mandates were implemented and experienced additional stressors and anxiety associated with being in library buildings with co-workers and students.
UNLV uses Google Workspace for its business communication and collaboration needs, and the cohort has used various Google Workspace applications to facilitate connecting with one another. Google Meet serves as a platform for weekly virtual meetings; a shared Google Drive is used to share documents such as meeting minutes, as well as collaborative documents for scholarship opportunities. Google Rooms has been helpful for short, work-related chats and questions that do not necessitate an email.
In addition to our work-related communication, the cohort also utilized other communication methods for more personal, non-work-related questions and support. The cohort uses group text messages to chat, and some members have had in-person socially distanced meet-ups including a park outing, outdoor lunches or coffees, and walks for those who returned to on-campus work. There have also been virtual game nights scheduled, where members played multiple cooperative games and connected over video chat.
Making these weekly connections has buoyed the cohort and provided immeasurable strength during a time of uncertainty, stress, and social isolation. Members have families, partners, children, and pets. Some live alone. All of these factors, and more, affect lives outside of the workplace. On-going connection and collaboration facilitated by weekly meetings, group chats, emails, and some socially distanced in-person meet-ups during the COVID-19 pandemic have bolstered our support for one another in ways that simply may not have been possible under other circumstances.
The benefits of implementing a peer-to-peer cohort model have developed exponentially since the cohort’s establishment. The group was created to build a support system for navigating the tenure process but has evolved into much more. The cohort has become an accountability group, a mental and emotional health support system, and a guidance network of colleagues who are genuine in their investment in supporting one another’s professional journeys. The cohort also benefits and draws strength from having a myriad of women who are from a diverse range of social identities, career paths, and lived experiences. The cohort attributes its success to its members’ backgrounds, a multitude of roles, mutual respect for each other’s talents, and dedication to creating a brave support system for all its members.
What makes this experience noteworthy? First, cohort members’ hire dates were in relatively close proximity to one another, very similar to a cluster-hire model where employees of a similar department or role are hired at the same time to encourage retention. Second, the cohort benefitted from the diversity of its members. Each member brought a unique background to the cohort including but not limited to: previous professional occupations, socioeconomic status, household status, sexual orientation, geographical diversity, and racial and ethnic identities. Each cohort member’s positionality brought a distinct variation in knowledge, skill, culture, and approach to the profession that encouraged open-mindedness, empathy, understanding, personal reflection, and growth. The heterogeneity of the cohort served to promote a variety of perspectives which later encouraged cross-disciplinary collaboration and other scholarly pursuits. Third, the catalyst for the creation of a peer-driven cohort came during a significant event in the early onset of academy indoctrination: observing the mid-tenure review process. That critical event highlighted that unwritten pressures existed in the tenure process beyond written tenure requirements. By coming together as a cohort, we were able to collectively learn about these pressures and better address them.
Shortly after forming the cohort as a means of mutual support, the COVID-19 pandemic brought on a further need for strengthening ties with members. The cohort’s connectedness and support while bearing witness to a global health crisis and worldwide inequities allowed the group to find solace during difficult times. The cohort’s efforts to come together over the course of a few years created a welcoming environment for new tenure-track colleagues; spaces for discussions, inquiries, and sounding boards; and a supportive rather than isolating experience towards achieving tenure.
As for how the cohort will stay connected post-pandemic, that remains to be seen. Some cohort members have been working on-site full time or part-time since the summer of 2020, and most have transitioned back to the office as of this writing. Inevitably the format or schedule of the meetings will change due to in-person and virtual commitments or a combination of both. Cohort members’ support needs will likely continue to change as well, as members’ work responsibilities naturally change and evolve and as the group shifts from being brand-new faculty members at UNLV to going through mid-tenure review and on towards tenure. However needs evolve, the cohort has proven itself essential for ongoing support, communication, and collaboration as members continue to navigate the tenure-track process and workplace and personal challenges, while also giving a space to celebrate successes. Whatever the future holds for how the cohort stays connected, members most assuredly will continue to work together to foster the established mutual benefits of support and retention.
The path to tenure in academia can vary from institution to institution. What is common knowledge at any institution however, is that there is an arduous road ahead for new tenure-track faculty to successfully navigate the rigorous process. As noted in the literature review, the more isolating the experience, the more difficult achieving this milestone is. We recognize that this case study is unique and that certain institutional factors and person-specific characteristics made this cohort possible. We also recognize that individual case studies may not necessarily be reproducible in other academic library settings or tenure-track cohorts. Discussion of future research is beyond the scope of this case study, however, we do want to encourage further exploration and dissemination of similar peer-to-peer models within academic library settings. Finally, we want to impart key lessons learned and takeaways that may aid those who are interested in forming a peer cohort of their own:
- Be attentive to the intersectionality and diversity of the group. Recognizing diverse identities, lived experiences and backgrounds will guide the group in practicing cultural humility, empathy, and positionality among cohort members which in turn helps to frame the practice of psychological safety within the group.
- Decide on healthy approaches for respectful discussion, feedback, and decision-making early on in the formation of the cohort. Adhering to positive communication techniques will aid in productive conversations and knowing how to address conflicts as they arise.
- Consider putting together a dedicated virtual space to make sure your group has quick access to annual review resources, promotion and tenure guidance, meeting documents, and relevant reading materials. This may take the form of a shared folder directory, group email, or chat platform.
- Consider establishing weekly standing meetings with rotating moderators so cohort members can keep each other accountable and informed of important promotion and tenure updates.
- Distribute leadership opportunities so that cohort members can gain experience in leading others. Examples include leading a scholarly work opportunity, a meeting, or other projects.
- Affirm cohort members’ season of change. Though each cohort member may have started with the same goal in mind –to achieve tenure– as time progresses, cohort members may decide that this level of peer support is no longer necessary based on shifts in career goals, job responsibilities, etc. Affirming this truth recognizes the importance of a growth mindset that is unique to each of us while encouraging continued success in the journey towards tenure and beyond.
A cohort, whether formal or informal, can offer strength, support, and shared understanding of the strenuous yet rewarding journey ahead. As this article demonstrates, cohorts can be formed by anyone and do not require formal recognition by an institution. Forming a cohort can be enlightening, foster relationships, and make the tenure process easier to undertake. Navigating tenure together not only brings success to those in the cohort but to the institution at large.
The authors thank the following peer reviewers and editors of In the Library with a Lead Pipe for their labor and contributions to help make this manuscript publication possible. We would like to provide a sincere thank you to peer reviewers, Ikumi Crocoll and Leanna Barcelona, and also to the Publishing Editor, Ian Beilin.
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Figure 2 as a Table
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Figure 3 as a Table
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- All authors are listed as first authors and equally contributed to this article. [↩]