Hannah’s tenure year, part I

Today’s post is the first in a two-part series written by a junior scholar I’ll call Hannah who endured a rocky tenure review.  Hannah was lucky in that she works on a unionized campus, and she had supportive departmental colleagues.  She wrote to me late last summer when things started to go bad, seeking my advice as Historiann.  I encouraged her to reach out to as many people as she could on her campus and in her discipline, and to tell other people what was happening to her because abusive colleagues and administrators thrive on the silence and shame they hope to instill in junior faculty facing the threat of failure.

Hannah prefers to publish this post pseudonymously, because as she put it in an email to me recently, “I’d like to go up for full professor some day.”  But in the spirit of telling her story and refusing to be slienced or shamed, she has agreed to share her story here.

Tenure review is one of the final rites of passage in the academic world. Professors fortunate enough to have tenure track jobs dread its arrival, and tenured professors (or so I am told) try not to think about it. At its best, the tenure process provides both assessment and affirmation for the years of work leading to the review itself, at worst, it can become the stuff of nightmares. My experiences fell into the second category, and it is both Historiann’s and my hope that they may prove helpful to anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation.

I am a professor in the humanities at a regional state university. Both my department and my dean’s office had positively evaluated my scholarship, teaching and service during the five years before my tenure review. I’m also in a book-intensive discipline.  My book was not yet in print but was under contract to be published in the fall of my tenure review, and the last two professors in my department both received tenure with books published during the tenure review process. I also had published articles in peer reviewed journals and begun work on a second book, including an article under review and two planned conference presentations.

A few weeks before the start of my tenure review year, I was summoned to a meeting with the dean of my college, whose academic discipline is in the social sciences. I asked for an agenda for the meeting and was told that it could not be disclosed to me. I asked multiple colleagues whether I should bring a union representative with me and all of them assured me that they did not think the meeting was anything to be concerned about. During the meeting, my dean  informed me that since my book was not yet in print and and my published articles both had no citations and were published in journals without indexes, he planned to recommend that my contract not be renewed past that academic year. In addition, I had forfeited the right to apply for tenure. I asked if the decision had been made in consultation with my department and was told that my department chair had agreed to it.

My memories of the first twenty-four hours after the meeting are blurred but I primarily remember a bleak sense of resignation that my academic career was ending even before I had applied for tenure. Once the shock wore off and I had begun talking with colleagues at my university, I decided to ask what options were available to me. I continued my conversations with scholars across my academic field and contacted my union. My department chair said she was given no choice but to agree with the dean’s recommendation, while my department’s personnel committee chair was unaware of the situation until I contacted him. My union said it was a contract violation for the dean to have told me that I had forfeited the right to apply for tenure but that deans could recommend that a professor’s contract not be renewed past the sixth year. I had the right to appeal to the university provost for my contract to be renewed for a seventh year so that if I did not receive tenure, I would, at least, have a terminal year.

My appeal was written in consultation with professors from multiple universities and focused on the methods used in my field to assess scholarship. The provost agreed to renew my contract for my seventh year and I submitted my tenure portfolio at this time, which included a letter from a professor outside my university verifying the use of peer review when assessing scholarship in our field rather than indexing and citation metrics. My union ruled that my tenure review would occur with the decisions made by the customary rota of the candidate’s department, college rank and tenure committee, dean, university rank and tenure committee, provost and chancellor, and, finally, university trustees, as well as external review letters from scholars in the candidate’s field. I raised concerns about my dean’s ability to be objective when assessing my tenure portfolio and was told that there were enough other votes in the process to maintain a fair tenure review.

Tune in tomorrow to find out how Hannah’s tenure review went, and to read her advice for those facing similar situations.  If you have any ideas or advice based on your own sad–or happy!–experiences, please share them in the comments below.

Part II is now published–find out how it all turned out by clicking here.

14 thoughts on “Hannah’s tenure year, part I

  1. As someone who did NOT get tenure, in a sloppy process, who won an appeal with the campus committee that was turned over by the President, I’m so sorry. Tenure is, at its best, difficult. But to have the dean tell you the outcome — on bizarre grounds — beforehand is just awful.

    Apologies on behalf of senior faculty everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. P.S. But I’m glad you found support in your department, external colleagues, and your union. I am a member of the AAUP forever in thanks for the help they gave me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I look forward to hearing the results of this troubling story. I will be one of those increasing number of people out there who will publish a monograph before entering a tenure-track job, assuming that happens at all. While I have a small amount of job security and benefits, I cannot help but look with a bit of envy and frustration at those in my field who have become associate professors, and in some cases, even full professors, without a monograph (they have articles and are at schools that are primarily “teaching” in nature). In any case, in regards to this story…a few questions as I don’t know much about the tenure system beyond hearing stories. Why do deans do this kind of thing? Do they encounter pressure from above, economic or otherwise, who put high demands on candidates to receive tenure? Has this pressure grown in recent years given the uber competitive academic system we inhabit? If the dean was to deny tenure, does it mean the dean would prefer a new job search to find a new assistant professor more suitable to his liking (or manipulation?) I’d also like to know more about the gendered component of this situation. It seems I’ve heard a lot of stories about primarily male deans denying tenure to primarily female assistant profs. When exactly does a denial of tenure in this circumstance turn from a fair decision to one that is discriminatory, and if it is the latter, how specifically do you hone in on evidence to show this?


    • I have no idea why deans do this. It was done unto me, after a fashion. Deans are human beings–they aren’t infallible. I don’t know why some decide to mess with people: sometimes they come in with an agenda. Sometimes I imagine they’re told that they can’t tenure everyone in their college, so they pick some vulnerable targets. I’ve seen the kind of thinking Hannah describes above coming from both social scientists and natural scientists–people in fields that like metrics and county-things, which doesn’t work really well in terms of evaluating humanities scholarship.

      The hilarious thing is that in nearly every story like this I’ve heard, the deans/administrators would have gotten away with their schemes if they were smart and read the freakin’ faculty manual. But time after time, these jerks are bumblers, not capable Machiavellians. It would almost be funny, if I didn’t hear the stories of the damage they inflict on junior faculty from the faculty themselves. Even the dumbest-dumber-than-dirt dean is still a dean, and overturning hir decisions takes a metric tonne of paperwork and meetings.

      I’ve heard more stories about this kind of thing happening to women than to men. I’ve seen it happen disproportionately to women than to men in both institutions where I’ve had tenure-track appointments. But it’s happened with women deans and chairs doing assy things to junior women–it’s not just male administrators, although they’re probably the majority of admins. I think they pick junior women who are unmarried, because they expect those folks to be extra vulnerable and scared. (I have no quantifiable evidence for this; it’s just a hunch. In my case, I think people knowing I was a married woman with a husband who earned an income meant that people knew I had other choices or options that a single or sole-earner may not have.

      While I can’t speak for Hannah, my sense of her attitude is that, yes, the dean was motivated by some sexist bias (given her identity and the subject she works on), but that her main concern was saving her career. Like most of us, she was disturbed by the gist of it all, but she was most concerned about saving her bacon. As you’ll see in tomorrow’s post, she was embroiled in irritating meetings and in writing endless memos and justifications for tenuring her–all kinds of extra work that was very anxiety-producing and had to be done on top of all of the demands of her day job. Ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Weighing in with a few answers, but not many!

        I don’t know why some administrators do things like this, and I should also mention that I have talked with people who are, or have been, deans in the course of their careers who also were horrified by my experiences. As has been pointed out, higher education is changing rapidly and my university has changed more in the past five years than it probably did in the twenty years preceding them and that certainly played a role in my tenure review.

        I wondered if gender was a factor in the dean’s actions and the consultant from our state wide teachers union raised the question but my union chose not to pursue the issue, probably in part because it is a hard one to find evidence for.

        As Ann has said, I was motivated by the desire to save my career, but I also was concerned about the professors after me as my situation had/has the potential to create some profoundly dangerous precedents for future tenure applicants at my university. Denying somebody tenure is one thing, refusing to even read their application is another matter altogether.


      • Thanks for the lengthy response, Ann. Indeed, most of the stories I’ve heard of this nature are male deans denying tenure to female assistant professors. A college with which I’m familiar–I won’t go any further than that but I’ve taught at many places–had a very poor record of denying tenure to practically all of the female candidates; something like 7 or 8 of them if I recall the story correctly. I only heard this from one source, a former graduate student in this department, and it was not a history department. But it had gotten so bad, according to her, that the department was under review by an external source for repeated discrimination. I also feel like I’ve heard stories like this in other venues, perhaps Vitae or CHE. I am glad to hear Hannah was able to find help from outside her university.


      • “But time after time, these jerks are bumblers, not capable Machiavellians.”

        Yep. One saving grace. I’ve seen these kind of third-rate Iagos, too. (In upper admin especially, “running a university like a business” often means “I was a crappy B-school student and can’t hack it in the real business world, so I’m bringing my half-remembered, improperly applied theories to an industry where those models are even less applicable.”)

        Liked by 1 person

      • In my observations (admittedly from the margins), the metric-madness/emphasis on county-things is strong — especially, yes, among the B-school types (and engineers turned business/administrative types; I generally get along well with engineers, but there seems to be a subset that goes into management/administration that are just as bad as the pure business types — just as I’m sure there are some practically-minded, hands-on businesspeople, but they don’t tend to become buzzword/metric-obsessed administrators and/or edupreneurs, so we don’t tend to encounter them). I’m not sure whether it’s affecting the tenure system (yet), but there’s certainly plenty of unhappiness at my institution at how research and “research success” are defined, because both seem to have a lot more to do with bringing money into the university budget (even if even more money has to go out to get that money than comes in; apparently the size of the budget is that thing that presidents, provosts, deans, et al. get to brag about/put on their c.v.s), And there’s also increasing emphasis on number of publications (the result of an increasing proportion of faculty in article-focused fields). Finally, there’s a tendency to treat Carnegie classifications, and the numbers underlying them, as metrics/goals rather than as descriptive (which I’m pretty sure was their original purpose).

        For those of us in teaching-only positions, the main effect of the numbers-fixation is overemphasis on student evaluations as a measure of teaching quality (and management-by-spreadsheet means that one can be congratulated in one letter from the dean and flagged as a faculty member of concern to one’s chair in another, because two sections of the same course had very different outcomes, without anybody noticing the disparity). The answer to that problem, as to the ones with tenure, is undoubtedly more holistic review (which we have) and trusting the local unit to have the most accurate understanding of how to measure local achievement, but that goes against the grain of people invested in creating large, uniform systems.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hannah, I am so sorry you went through this. Your story has all the elements of every tenure nightmare I’ve heard about: female faculty member, supported by her department for tenure, turned down by a dean who not only overruled the departmental vote but was somehow unaware of or willfully ignored the scholarly expectations of a field other than hir own.


    • That about sums it up, Ellie! Stay tuned tomorrow for . . . the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.

      IMHO, I think Hannah’s department also let her down. Why would the chair “agree” to the dean’s insistence that Hannah couldn’t even apply for tenure? I think the department (or key people in it) should have been more protective of her interests.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree strongly with this point, particularly with regard to the Department Chair. The Chair’s job should be to support his or her faculty to achieve to their full potential, not to be a stooge for the bosses. That said, an attitude like this earned me some enemies in a past employment situation and I know nothing of the context at Hannah’s institution–it might not be very nice for that Chair.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: Hannah’s tenure year, part II: “the anger and fear [are] strong enough to wake me from a deep sleep.” | Historiann

  6. Pingback: Two tales of tenure denial | Memoirs of a SLACer

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