Skip to content Skip to navigation

Mentoring the “Terminal Associate Professor”

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 

NOTE to our 55,000 subscribers world-wide. This is the last posting prior to our annual December holiday break.  The next posting will appear on Friday, January 2, 2015. Also, while I am of course responsible for any typographical errors in these postings, I want to give a special thank you to Christine Lupton, Deborah Jessop, and Elaine Hawley for all their proofreading help this past year. Season's greetings to everyone! Rick Reis

There are few carrots to becoming a full professor and no sticks. 



The posting below looks at a phenomenon not often discussed, that of the associate professor who for whatever reasons is not likely to be promoted to full professor. It is by Jeffrey L. Buller,* dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS consulting. It is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Fall, 2014, Vol. 25, No. 2. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 (, or see:


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Psychology of Feedback and Assessment



Tomorrow's Academic Career

---------- 2,030 words ----------

Mentoring the "Terminal Associate Professor"


Not all transitions to a new academic rank are alike. Being hired as or promoted to the rank of assistant professor usually means being placed on a tenure track, the holy grail of the potential faculty member in the market for a job. Being promoted to the rank of associate professor is typically accompanied by the granting of tenure, the culmination of the faculty member's efforts during the probationary period and complete acceptance by the academy that one has "made it." If you fail to attain a position as an assistant professor, the result is often an insecure future, a series of temporary or adjunct appointments, and less than full membership in the higher education community. If you fail to be promoted to the rank of associate professor, your career is limited: it's back to square one at the next institution, if indeed you can find a college or university willing to grant you that opportunity.

But reaching the level of full professor is different. If you don't succeed, in the vast majority of cases, you still have a job, tenure, and unlimited possibilities to try again the following year. Are there any incentives to becoming a full professor? The promotion usually comes with a salary increase and, in the highly stratified pecking order of higher education, professors are accorded (or, more accurately, accord themselves) significantly higher status than faculty at other ranks. There is something inherently satisfying about removing the word "associate" from the signature box on your emails. Usually, however, that's about it. There are few carrots to becoming a full professor and no sticks. You have to be self-motivated to pursue this rank and, at many institutions, the promotion processinvolves a good deal of work.

As a result, some people simply don't get around to it. In most cases, there's no particular timetable when one has to go up for full professor, and institutions run the gamut in terms of their traditions. The challenge for the department chair comes when a faculty member is eligible to apply for promotion in terms of years served but simply does not or cannot due to a lack of either motivation or sufficient achievement (usually in the area of research). The questions then become a matter of whether a faculty member's promotion is merely individual choice or a concern for the program as a whole, or whether the department is disadvantaged by the presence of what is sometimes called a "terminal associate professor," and if so, what the chair should do about it. Because these issues will vary depending on the chair's discipline, institution, and administrative philosophy, let's look at them all individually.

Promotion: A Personal or a Public Good?

Because promotion to the rank of full professor is different from attaining the other two ranks, there is one way in which its influence is different. If a department doesn't receive permission to make a tenure-track hire of an assistant professor, its work is clearly hampered. Tenure-track faculty usually have far higher research expectations than do instructors or adjuncts. Even at schools with a mission wholly devoted to teaching, assistant professors are often expected to demonstrate a greater commitment to the institution, serving on more committees, putting in longer office hours, and acting as advisors and mentors to students in the program. Without a corps of associate professors, a department doesn't have the level of stability, continuity, and seniority that comes from people remaining in their positions for an extended period of time. Associate professors carry institutional history with them. Adjuncts, instructors, and even assistant professors may come and go, but associate professors are able to see more of the big picture because they've been affiliated with the school longer, often working for several deans, provosts, and presidents, and thus understanding where the mission of the school ends and the visions of individual administrators begin.

From this perspective, promotion to the rank of full professor is mostly a personal good. It's the faculty member who receives the salary increase and the added prestige. The department receives little tangible benefit. At certain schools, there are limits on the percentage of faculty in any one program who can be tenured or act as full professors. In these cases, there can be a disincentive for departments to encourage faculty members to apply for tenure or promotion: each successful application reduces that department's flexibility; it starts to become more "top heavy" and may limit opportunities for even more deserving candidates down the road. A department with mostly full professors in its ranks can even lose prestige among its peers, particularly if most of those professors are still fairly young. It makes it seem as though the discipline has set the bar too low and that anyone who sticks around for the minimum number of years is assured a promotion.

Should the department be concerned?

Notice that I wrote promotion to the rank of full professor is mostly a personal good. While the benefits to the department may be less direct, they are nonetheless important. The prestige of having several full professors on the faculty cuts both ways: if you have too many, as we've seen, it can make the program's standards seem trivial; on the other hand, if you don't have enough, the department may lack a certain amount of gravitas, appearing "junior" and less mature than its well-seasoned peers. What the "Goldilocks percentage" of full professors in your department will be-not too many, not too few-really depends on the institution. At a prestigious research university, more full professors is probably better. Everyone expects the standards to be stringent at such schools, and people are likely to conclude that the program has been very successful at winning grants and placing publications in top-tier journals. At colleges that focus on teaching or have open admissions policies, it may be preferable to keep the number of full professors in your program low. That approach sends a message both inside and outside the institution that becoming a full professor is a high achievement that isn't granted to just everyone. It requires an extensive career of superb teaching and stellar service before being recognized by one's colleagues as deserving this signal honor.

Moreover, there are tangible problems that can result for a department with an insufficient number of full professors. certain committees (such as university-wide promotion committees or faculty senates) may require that their members be professors. If you don't have enough professors to fill these slots, your program may lose critical representation or over-burden the few department members who are eligible to serve. You may also find that your program is penalized in terms of its salary pool. Merit and inequity increases are often assigned as a percentage of a program's personnel budget: the higher the department's salaries, the larger the raise pool. Unless you ignore actual merit and inequity by simply assigning everyone the same percentage, those higher amounts you receive for your full professors can be used to help truly deserving members of the lower ranks. Finally, when the faculty member retires, you will have a larger salary to reallocate if your institution allows you to retain that person's funding. Full professor salaries can often be split into two salaries for new assistant professors, one replacement position along with an increase in your travel or research budget, or other arrangements that benefit the program. That's far more difficult to do if the person who retires is still an associate professor whose salary does not give you as many options with which to work.

What should the chair do?

Because chairs are in the best position to determine whether a "terminal associate professor" is actually harming their departments, they should be the ones who decide how to mentor those who fall into this category. If there truly is no detriment to the program, and the faculty member, for whatever reason, simply does not wish to pursue a promotion to the rank of full professor, mentoring becomes a matter of finding the right career path for that person. Perhaps you can work with the dean to adjust the individual's assignment, increasing his or her teaching and service load while reducing the expectation for research. If the faculty member is a highly successful teacher, you're doing your students a favor by giving them more exposure to someone who could well become your pedagogical star. If it's a matter of increasing the person's service load, you're assisting the other department members by freeing them from the number of committees they must be involved with and giving them more time for their own teaching and research.

If, however, you believe that the department is being hampered by the faculty member's lack of initiative to pursue pro- motion, mentoring becomes a matter of determining what the obstacle is and then developing a plan to remove it. The following are common reasons why some remain too long at the rank of associate professor.

Insufficient research. Lack of research is far more frequently a barrier to becoming a full professor than is poor teaching. Inadequate teachers tend to be weeded out in the tenure process, and higher research expectations are often the key distinction between associate and full professor ranks. In these cases, the mentor should try to determine constructive ways of shifting the faculty member's research focus, pairing the individual with one or more colleagues in a research team, assigning additional graduate research assistants, allocating an increased travel budget to conferences, securing editorial assistance for articles, or taking others steps to remove what is causing the lack of research.

A fear of failure. When faculty seem paralyzed by the thought of failure, the chair's mentoring task becomes quite different. In these cases, it is usually best to engage in a bit of metaphorical "hand holding," assuring the faculty member that no one will think less of him or her if the application is not successful, being turned down one year has absolutely no impact on one's chances the following year, and the department will continue to recommend the faculty member for as long as necessary for the application to be successful. It is then often useful to shift the conversation from "What if I fail?" to "What if i succeed?" This emphasizes the personal and professional benefits that will result from the promotion while minimizing the risks.

Workload paralysis. Sometimes people just become immobilized by the sheer amount of work involved in applying for a promotion. Institutions don't help themselves by requiring multiple binders packed with documentation that often require faculty members to divert their attention from more important duties to assembling a cumbersome application. Providing administrative assistance in gathering and formatting materials may make the faculty member more willing to begin the process. Except in situations where the material involved must remain confidential, it is helpful to assign a graduate assistant with an interest in a higher education career to this task: putting the application together thus becomes both a service to the faculty member and a learning experience for the student.

Inertia. There are also faculty members whose sole obstacle to promotion is that they never quite got around to it. With no mandatory timetable for when one must apply to become a full professor, some associate professors become comfortable where they are and see little reason to change. In these instances, the mentor's task often becomes one of "gentle nagging" and repeated encouragement. These are usually the easiest faculty members to mentor because their answer to the question "Why haven't you applied for promotion?" is often "no one ever asked me to."

There is, therefore, no single way to mentor the "terminal associate professor." how you approach this situation depends on the needs of your department, the personality of the individual, and the career trajectory of the particular faculty member. 


* Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS consulting; his latest book is Positive Academic Leadership (Jossey- Bass 2013). Email: