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

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.

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

  1. Pingback: Hannah’s tenure year, part I | Historiann

  2. Hannah,

    Here’s an interesting coincidence: I saw this article on resilience in The Conversation right after I read your story:


    I’m very sensitive to responses that blame the victim, and I don’t mean to suggest that to you at all. I just hope you find some peace after your horrible experience.


  3. “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.” I think that point is so important – along with Historiann’s observations at the end about the institutional implications. I’m so glad you got a just outcome (and hooray for the allies who fought for and with you for that), but it should not have been so difficult or demoralizing. I’m working through my own promotion case right now, and while the stakes are lower b/c I already have tenure, for me too, whatever the final outcome, there have already been significant consequences in terms of how I feel about my institution, and for my morale, productivity, and general well-being.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I so feel you on this, Rohan! I’m up for promotion this year too, and I’m having flashbacks to my tenure & promotion to Associate more than a decade ago. (I’ve written about that experience here.)

      I don’t think institutions fully grok the pointless waste of energy and good will that results from experiences like mine and Hannah’s.


  4. This is an amazing story, and kudos.

    I would argue with only one part– the conclusion. Sometimes knowing you are worth fighting for means that it is worthwhile leaving the crappy institution and in some cases even academia in general. Not in this case, since Hannah is happy with her choices and other than a few bad actors enjoys her job etc.

    Fighting a tenure denial in some cases is just not worth it, especially when there are better outside options. (Ex. https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/ask-the-grumpies-what-to-do-after-tenure-denial/ — knowing more of the details of the situation in the letter it was absolutely the right decision for the writer to not appeal and to take a VAP at an R1 instead) In those cases it is the institution’s loss.

    Sometimes, as in Hannah’s case, it is worth it. Each case will have different costs and benefits. Bad academic jobs are still just jobs, and there are plenty of better jobs out there.


    • Good points–although I don’t think it’s the case that “there are plenty of better jobs out there” for humanities scholars who want to stay in the academy. A lot of us are in the situation Hannah is in, having to make her peace with an institution that has treated her badly.

      Thanks for reminding us to take the big picture/long view into account. Sometimes it’s just not worth it to live with an abusive employer. I think Hannah has decided that she’s OK with staying, at least for now, because the people closest to her were supportive and helpful in getting her through the process this year. Maybe she will weigh in on this question later today.


      • “for humanities scholars who want to stay in the academy”
        is a big condition though– if the job is abusive enough, leaving the academy and getting a “real job” that only indirectly uses PhD level skills (and, presumably pays a lot better) can still be a much better choice.

        There is life outside of academia! Even outside the rare Alt-ac kinds of positions. And if humanities research is truly a vocation, then it can still be done as a hobby.

        Like the other half of my blog said when she left academia, she could end up with a job she hated just as much but at least she would get paid more!


      • Thank you to all of you for your thoughtful comments.

        Whether or not to fight to remain at an institution willing to abuse its faculty is an important decision and not one to be made lightly. I did think about discussing my decision along with my actions in my original piece but it was already pretty long so I wound up leaving it out.

        As someone who didn’t start a PhD until I was thirty, I thought seriously about returning to my earlier career, which was also in the humanities. But I love being a professor in ways I never loved those jobs and if I remain deeply concerned about my administration, I value my colleagues and our students are great to work with. Another important factor was my husband who was promoted at a job in his field this year and has already moved twice in support of my academic career and uprooting him a third time was not something I wanted to do. I also live in the region where I grew up and which is home to me. Without these things, I wouldn’t have fought to stay but for me, it was the right decision. That said, I know professors at my university who have left in the past few years and I was equally supportive of their decisions.


  5. As someone who went through this 30 years ago without the happy outcome, I’m so glad it worked for Hannah. (I stayed employed, but at an institution without tenure; when I came to my current institution, I went from a one year contract to full professor.) The problem at any institution when these things happen is that you discover things about people, some good, some bad. (Like the craven department chair at the beginning of this process.) And it’s important not to forget them.

    Going forward, one of the things that Hannah can do is become an advocate for other faculty as they go through the process; for at least 5 or 6 years after I got denied tenure, friends from my former institution gave my phone number to others in tricky cases. Over time, she might figure out what she can do to make it less likely that others will have her experience in the future. (THis is tricky, because so many of our policies become cumbersome when we try to work around some idiot who has messed things up in the past.) I know one result of my experience is that I’m very careful in tenure cases, and when I’m thinking about potential troubles, I try to make sure I’m being absolutely fair.

    Congratulations, Hannah! My advice to you is to give yourself an easy year. These battles take a lot out of you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan.

      This is the first summer in years in which I have gone weeks without doing anything involving classes, my current book project or anything else work related, and if it took a little getting used to after, I know how much I’ve needed this time.

      Historiann, please feel free to give my email address to any junior faculty who would like to talk about their own tenure applications. And, as noted, I am working with assistant professors at my own institution as they go forward with their careers.


      • Will do–thanks for hopping into the discussion, Hannah. As you can see, it’s only supportive friends here!


  6. That Dean is evil. What were they thinking? I too am pleased at the final outcome, and particularly about the support of departmental colleagues. As a newbie chair I will be overseeing four promotion cases this year. The weight of that responsibility is scaring me a bit. And yes, the promotion to full process is also fraught because the criteria is so much more murky. Sure a second book, but what else?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The fact that you’re “scared” of the responsibility of overseeing four promotions this year suggests that you’ll be a good chair, Widgeon. It IS a big responsibility, and although you’re not the only person responsible, you are kind of the crew chief who needs to make sure everyone else is doing their jobs on time and correctly (the outside reviewers, your T&P chair & committee, your Dean, etc.)


  7. Unbelievable. As someone at a regional state university where the tenure process has (to my knowledge) worked pretty well, I wanted to say I am so sorry to see it go radically awry elsewhere, and so glad that the fight succeeded.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jesus. This isn’t the first such case I’ve heard of — I have several friends who were denied tenure for what were more or less bogus reasons — and I know others who were put through hell even with a case that succeeded, and they similarly suffer from low morale and a kind of PTSD when their junior colleagues are put through the wringer. But I’m still shocked with each new case.

    So I echo Susan in saying that Hannah should be kind to herself for a while, and that I hope she finds a place of security and comfort within her current job–surrounded by allies and making the place better for others–for as long as she’s there.

    (And yep: you better believe that I dish on all the toxic departments/institutions that I know when I have the chance. And sometimes I think that matters: once I wrote a letter of support that–among other things–suggested to the relevant administrator that he really fucking did not want the publicity that would come if the appeal was denied. This was a candidate with exemplary scholarship who, like Hannah, was also extremely well-connected; I understand the administrator received dozens upon dozens of letters that, in addition to testifying to the candidate’s many strengths, also made clear just how widely the story had already spread.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • THIS: “This was a candidate with exemplary scholarship who, like Hannah, was also extremely well-connected; I understand the administrator received dozens upon dozens of letters that, in addition to testifying to the candidate’s many strengths, also made clear just how widely the story had already spread.”

      Is why my message is always to YELL AND SCREAM ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING, and make sure as many people as possible know!!! Because bad administrators who want to make you an object lesson or who want to punish your department need to know that you’re not as dumb, poor, scared, and isolated as they’d like to think you are!

      Thank you, Flavia, for writing that letter and furnishing yet another great example of whose interests are served by silence. (PRO TIP: IT’S NOT YOURS.)


      • I have for the last few years been in a leadership position that requires a lot of listening and sifting, in order to report on and make recommendations to our senior leadership on issues regarding campus climate. I only know what I know and isolated data is hard to work with. From my perspective, yelling and screaming is important not only for the individual but for the system as a whole.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Having heard — and witnessed — more than a few situations such the one that Hannah was subjected to regarding tenure, I have to admit that as screwed up and arcane — to say nothing of often being fortunate in your choice of branch or specialty or source of commission (USMA, ROTC or — heaven forbid! — OCS) or year group (when you are commissioned plays a significant role in your not just your being promotion but whether or not you are retained in many cases) — as the promotion system might be for officers in the Army, the entire tenure process often clearly seems to insane, haphazard, and a form of lunacy. As someone with several graduate degrees from different eras (the 1970s, 1980s, and just last year), with experience as a member of a history department faculty (as an assistant professor) on “loan” from the Army, along with extensive work in the academic and research worlds (computer science, models and simulations, with time at DARPA and other such agencies — as both an officer and a historian with advanced degrees one tends to need to be very flexible) as part of my military duties, as an outsider I can only marvel at the level of possible abuse and turmoil that knuckleheads posing as department chairs or deans can inflict upon faculty members.

    We often use the term “Perfumed Princes” to describe those general officers who seem to be related to the deans of the sort that gave Hannah such grief. I speak as the former executive officer to a general who who could have easily been the dean that Hannah dealt with — it was the longest five years of my life, even if it was for only a “mere” 15 months…

    I now realize that my decision to not pursue an academic career was probably a very wise one.

    Good for Hannah.


  10. This really caught my eye: “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 crap goes on in business, too, where undeservedly bad annual reviews and other crap can damage careers for years. There’s someone in my field who has injured a number of people at my company, and plenty of talk about what the person has done, yet the person has not been removed. Instead, because the person’s manager is supportive, the person has been promoted to a powerful level. It’s damaging our whole profession at our company because the person’s position limits interest in cross-department discussions, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed–it happens everywhere, but I’m getting sick of seeing it happen in my workplaces.

      The reason that higher-ups will rarely, if ever, intervene and mitigate/remove a bad dean or department chair is that they’re the doofuses who promoted the bad actors to their current jobs, so removing them from said jobs would be an admission that they had made a mistake. That almost never happens, because they know for the most part that (as the expression goes) “$hit rolls downhill,” so they never have to pay the price directly for their poor decisions.


  11. Congratulations to Hannah on her successful fight. I hope she has a lot of support going forward.
    Her story made my head explode in many different directions. Something really, really needs to be done about the dean.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It really makes me wonder whose agenda he’s pursuing–his own, or on behalf of higher-ups?

    Seems like the provost having to go back-and-forth should be on high alert for irregularities in the tenure and promotion processes.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Unions help a whole heck of a lot, I know. Sometimes my union feels as if it is focused solely on petty grievances and trivia but other times it’s been vital in preserving the rights of faculty in just such situations.

    I am glad that Hannah reached out to colleagues and that they were supportive. I received several recommendations against when i applied for promotion to full, including from the dean, but it was nothing along the line of the railroad that Hannah’s dean attempted to shove her out along. What a power-mad putz!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Congratulations to Hannah on her tenure and promotion. Historiann and the commenters here are right. Process matters. I am appalled by the process and the bad behavior of the dean. I am even more appalled by the provost and chancellor. It is terrifying when they put more value in the opinion of a Dean who does not work with the faculty member on a day to day basis than they do in the arguments of her colleagues, who work with her every day and who have first hand evidence of her scholarship, teaching and advising. Even worse they ignored the letters written by outside reviewers in the same field as the person seeking promotion. Not only was the dean negligent (or malicious), but the big wig admins did not read the file, they just signed off on the recommendation of their fellow administrator, contrary to the spirit and letter of the review. Thank goodness for your union and the appeals process.

    You are right to be angry Hannah and to be wary. But also remember that the average tenure of an academic administrator is five years. They either get promoted or go on to wreak havoc at another university. I hope your Dean is headed out the door in the next five years and that you get a chance to sit on the search committee for their replacement.


    • Great point about the generally short-lived careers of the administrators in any one job. CCPhysicist makes that point too, downthread.


  15. So one stranger is tasked with evaluating another. Evaluating-stranger chooses a set of specific (albeit non-universal) benchmarks and finds Evaluated-stranger lacking. When presented with a specially prepared propaganda package the Evaluating-stranger decides against clearly biased sources and chooses to stick with initial methodology. Evaluating-stranger’s recommendation then is preferred by the bosses, because they have an established working relationship and trust their subordinate. Finally, though, Evaluated-stranger wins through personal appeal and use of rhetoric. After completing the task Evaluating-stranger is anonymously maligned. Justice! Or have I incorrectly applied the point of liberal education and critical thinking by interpreting this from another perspective?


  16. Don’t let that justifiable anger eat at you, but do put it to use. Be an advocate for junior faculty, so they know what protections are provided by college policies and the union contract.

    But also keep in mind that a dean, provost, or chancellor typically has a much shorter career than faculty do. Was that even the same dean who hired you? There will be new ones soon enough.


  17. I’m so glad that this worked out for you, Hannah. But your point that the original bad decision was overturned doesn’t undo all the psychological and personal harm of the screwed up process is SO important. A critical reminder to all of us, whether we’ve experienced it ourselves or have friends and colleagues who’ve been put through the hell of a bad tenure process, regardless of the outcome.


  18. Hello Hannah,
    I’m at a public university and I just had an experience similar to yours, but even more drawn out. I was granted tenure after several years of attempts to fire me. Each year, one of two administrators tried to deny promotion, and then in the last year the unanimous support of my department turned suspiciously into mixed votes with several voting against me. Ultimately, the university review committee determined I deserved tenure and I am now an Associate Professor. I couldn’t begin to explain the terrible politics behind those years of abuse, and it’s clear my decision to stay (for now) saved my career. But I’m no longer naive and I intend to address this situation head on and am working to make a case for the removal of those administrators. – a female professor in the sciences


  19. What good timing to read this series! I haven’t commented in a while, but I’m still a steady reader. I’m involved in my own unexpected, damaging, and rage-inducing tenure f&*kery, outcome unclear. My big take away is never believe anything anyone tells you in advance, no matter how well-intentioned they are. F&*kery can strike from anywhere. I wish I had a union rep! We’re doing hiring next year of an assistant prof and I don’t know what to say, because my impulse is to start screaming “Everybody lies!” [“unless you’re a white man in which case you’re probably fine!”]


    • Oh, Perpetua: it’s good to hear from you, but terrible news you report. I hope you’re in touch with a strong community of supporters and others who can help you.

      I’m so sorry.


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

  21. Pingback: Fear of Failing » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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