For part I in our two-part series, click here.
After being told by the dean she had forfeited her right to apply for tenure, our intrepid junior scholar Hannah (a pseudonym) sought the advice of her union rep and her colleagues, and found that the dean was in error when he told her that 1) she had forfeited her right to apply for tenure, and 2) that he was going to recommend her dismissal at the end of the academic year. They supported her appeal to the Provost to secure a seventh year of employment, and her tenure application as well. Here’s what happened next:
The first weeks of the semester were spent waiting for my department to assess my tenure portfolio. They unanimously voted to support my application and noted my strengths in scholarship, teaching and service. While I had waived my right to see my external review letters, the letter written by my department’s personnel committee noted that all seven letters were positive and many came from senior scholars in my field. My book was published before the meeting of the college rank and tenure committee, and they also unanimously voted to support my tenure application in December.
The dean voted to deny my tenure application in January. His letter began by noting my strengths in teaching and service and then repeated his earlier statements about the insignificance of my scholarship. The letter also suggested that I showed no evidence of future productivity and that my department had deliberately misled my external reviewers about my teaching load so they would lower their expectations of my scholarship. Our contract allows professors to write response letters at every stage of the tenure review process. Mine placed my scholarship in context with the standards of my field by quoting from both the letter in my tenure portfolio written by a professor in my field and from essays on scholarship and the tenure review process published in a recent trade journal. I also highlighted the sections of my tenure portfolio discussing progress on my second book project and documented that my department had made no such efforts regarding my teaching load. The following month, the university rank and tenure committee voted 7 to 1 in favor of supporting my tenure application.
I then received a letter in early March saying that the chancellor and provost would not recommend me for tenure to the university trustees due to lack of productivity. I had the right to appeal this decision and attended the appeal accompanied by the senior most professor in my department and a union representative. The professor from my department asked permission to speak first and discussed the ways our field assesses scholarship while also noting the role my work as a scholar and teacher plays in our department. I reiterated the points made in my tenure portfolio about my scholarship, teaching and service. A week later, I received a letter reversing the initial tenure denial and the university trustees have now voted to approve my appointment as an associate professor.
Historiann often argues for the importance of reaching out to colleagues when you have questions or just need someone to listen. I would add that this is advice which is applicable no matter where you are in your life, whether grad student, hunting for a job, applying for tenure or thinking about just what it is you will do next. Begin by getting to know the people around you, whether at your college or university or in your particular field. My university had interdisciplinary writing groups when I began there six years ago and these groups introduced me to professors outside my department. I also attended both conferences and local gatherings of scholars in my field.
Creating networks like these will help to provide people around when you need them. And if everything is going well, then you have interesting people to talk to, which is just as important. The outpouring of support I received this past year was, and still is, the positive part of this process, particularly my department who fought with me until I was granted tenure. I remain deeply grateful to all these scholars, including Historiann who did not know me before the email I sent her last summer.
More than anything else, this past year has left me with equal parts anger and fear, and both remain strong enough to wake me from a deep sleep. Over time, the fear will fade but the anger will never entirely disappear. Over and over, I have been told that it’s all right, you got tenure, what difference does it make how it happened. And yet I firmly believe that it does matter how it happened. Earning the right to be a tenured professor through your scholarship and teaching also means that you have earned the right to a fair tenure review. The one does not, cannot, should not cancel the other.
I know it is easier to give advice than to take it. I am very familiar with the particular smile which accompanies a colleague’s advice to “worry about the things you can control,” because it acknowledges that both of us know that that the speaker does not always follow said advice, however excellent. But if something like this happens, here is my advice: dig in your heels, talk to the people around you and remember that you too are worth fighting for.
Thanks, Hannah–very well said. Her tenure year was a grind of fear, anger, extra work, and upsetting meetings with people bent on ending her career. I can’t imagine a more difficult year except for the one that ends with a final tenure denial after all.
But what about Hannah’s life and career now? She’s absolutely right that how the process worked is very important. Just because she got the decision she wanted in the end doesn’t mean that there are no consequences when administrators or colleagues go after a junior colleague like this. As Hannah says, “over time, the fear will fade but the anger will never entirely disappear.” This is an important point that more faculty and administrators need to understand.
Universities need to know that when they hire rogue administrators and do not corral them, they’re intentionally inflicting damage on their institutions that will be paid forward. Human beings are not robots or Vulcans. This kind of abuse bleeds away so much commitment, energy, and enthusiasm from the faculty treated to promotions like this. And guess what else, friends? People talk. I know where Hannah works. Believe me, I’ll be sharing this news far and wide with anyone I hear who might have a job interview or an offer from her institution. I’ll also make sure that graduate advisors of Ph.D. students know about this school, too.
It’s bad business as well as morally corrupt. It’s a waste that nearly guarantees they’re not going to get their money’s worth. It’s stupid. Knock it off.