Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tenure Woes

This timely post from Tenured Radical exactly describes my current feelings and situation with regard to tenure:

I don't think it is going too far to say that it isn't just the intellectual energy we use in the tenure process now -- it's the spiritual energy. And getting tenure is less the celebration it used to be than a moment where people end up cynical and rightly self-absorbed because they have been put through too much. Or feeling like they got pulled off the embassy in Saigon while their peers waved their arms helplessly below.
There is no joy and celebration involved in getting tenure. I am emotionally and spiritually drained by the tenure process, and despite having resisted this all too common fate for decades, I have ended up more cynical and disaffected than I ever imagined possible.

The creation of this blog, in fact, is my own modest therapeutic response to the disenchantment and depression which are now occupying center stage during my seemingly immanent tenure triumph. The current artwork adorning the blog to the right struck me as an apt depiction of the tentacles of tenure dragging me down into the depths, even though I certainly don't style myself an academic whale -- perhaps more of a scholarly trout living in some smaller pond. The darkness and despair, however, has been deep and real.

My own case has been unusually stressful, if not for the levels of rancor and acrimony generated, then for its duration. I have been either on the job market, up for contract renewal, or up for tenure continuously for the past 15 years. In fact, I have managed to be up for tenure four times at my current institution, most recently for two years straight. This is not a tenure process I recommend. Now that there is light at the end of that very long tunnel, though, I am only now beginning to recognize the signs of the damage done and to feel the first pangs of the post traumatic stress that is lying in wait for me.

However, for all that, I recognize that I'm extraordinarily fortunate. I get to do something incredibly rare and wonderful. I get to be paid to teach, write, and think. Despite the very bad taste my own tenure process has left in my mouth, I am not tempted to do away with tenure. The abuses faced by non-tenure track faculty are at least equally stressful emotionally, and much more stressful materially. Right now, I'm hopeful that in the coming years I will regain some measure of the energy and optimism that was consumed in this hateful process. If some leftover bile occasionally spills out on the pages of this blog, perhaps that means less will spill out in the classroom or come home with me at night. We shall see.


  1. I hear you. My theory would actually be, make the whole process easier, not harder. Somehow. I would love to just hire people to tenure in the first place and have that be that. I realize this plan is not practical and needs refinement.

    However, I do not like what the tenure process does to people and I do not think it is productive. Do institutions realize that - do they intend it - I sometimes wonder.

  2. Thank you for your sympathetic comment. My current view is that the ratcheting up of tenure requirements, the lengthening of time, and the heightening of tensions are, in and of themselves, attacks on the tenure system. One way to get rid of something, after all, is to make it so unpalatable that no one wants it. Defending academic tenure, then, would also mean defending the process from constant escalations and defending people from the imposition of ever increasing workloads.

  3. Very perceptive on the ratcheting up itself as an attack. I will keep that in mind!

  4. Idea: would it improve matters if the clock could be shortened - shorten the pain - and if not making tenure did not automatically mean also losing the job?


    1. If at 3d year review committees could decide to tenure right then. So some people would escape the Horror sooner, but those who did not would still have the regular amount of time to tenure. This could help retain well liked people. It would also let people do things like have kids sooner. Etc.

    2. If at tenure time committees could vote no, but also vote to keep the person another 3 years and then decide. That takes care of people who have sudden family crises in the 5th year, etc.: they get an effective extension, built in.

    I can see this rolling schedule (to be refined, of course) having a lot of benefits. And everyone would have 3 built in chances. Less catastrophic.


  5. Shortening the tenure process certainly has a strong appeal. However, just about the only thing I can imagine worse than the current tenure process, would be going through that process two or three times -- or in my own case, four times. That's not a recipe for less stress. It also means you create a new group of disaffected faculty you haven't seen before -- tenured faculty who have also been turned down for tenure by their colleages, perhaps multiple times. Currently, those folks don't walk the halls with you on a daily basis. In my experience, it also created an unwelcome dynamic within the tenure committee, of "we don't really need to make this decision now, after all he can come up again next year." That was enormously frustrating, and tended to pre-empt any serious discussion of whether or not the standards for tenure had been met. That said, if there had been a policy where tenure in the third year was an institutionalized possibility, it might have made my own case less of an institutional puzzle and more likely to have been handled well the first time around.

  6. OK then, that seals it, this is my theory: ratchet down expectations a little, and do tenure at third year review, and have done with it. In my experience one usually has a pretty good idea of things by then anyway.

    I think 7 years is too long and one proposal that sounds *awful* to me is making it still longer for women, so they can do childcare.


  7. Thanks for the props LP -- your tenure process sounds sickening. I'm so sorry. Imagine if we were all paid to teach, read and write AND people didn't beat the shit out of us during all those reviews.

    Losing your illusions about the academy is a good start -- now you are ready to rock with the Radical.


  8. lol. Thanks TR. I'm about ready to rock right now. Although I really don't think I had many illusions about the academy left -- I've worked far too many adjunct gigs for that. The one thing I HAD thought, though, was that the academy wouldn't be able to turn me into a bitter and cynical senior faculty member. I see now that I'm not as safe from that fate as I had supposed, and that it's going to take some real vigilance on my part to prevent it. Thanks for your support. It truly helps.

  9. Prof Zero, let me know if you make headway on reforming your school's tenure process. Three years does sound more humane to me. I also agree with you that stopping the tenure clock for women to do childcare is not a solution. The need to extend the process in that way is simply more evidence that the expected workloads for junior faculty are too high.

  10. I have actually been thinking about this and I am more and more convinced, 3-4 years is long enough.

    I do not have any decision making power on this at all, however ... it is just nice, somehow, to at least think it through.

  11. ...and I am still obsessed with this, it being That Time and I am aware of various cases, not all here. One of my more trusted interlocutors says I am foolhardy with this scheme as 3-4 years is too early to tell. That person believes in making the time *longer* for all, because, they say, the bar is going irrevocably up and that is the only way to compensate for it.

    So, today I am sure of only two things: the whole way it is done nowadays is fraught with problems, but doing away with tenure is not the answer. No tenure = no permanent faculty. It's like doing away with the library.

  12. It's heartening to hear that you're trying to address this issue on your campus. I hope you'll resist the efforts to lengthen the process still further.

    Here's one suggestion for you that would have helped in may case, and I think would help in many cases. It's simple verbage from the AAUP:

    "The total period of full-time service prior to the acquisition of continuous tenure will not exceed 7 years, including all previous full-time service with the rank of instructor or higher in other institutions of higher learning."

    I think if an institution adopted this language into their promotion and tenure documents it would help a great deal. The probationary period now often includes years of teaching at multiple institutions, and seldom are these years counted towards tenure and promotion.

    I think it would even be appropriate to go further and also pro-rate part-time teaching as time towards tenure as well. 6 years of adjunct work is certainly worth at least 3 years of Assistant Professor experience in term of professional development, and it is experience from which the university directly benefits.

  13. Hey, I'm less powerful than that - I can't address the issue institution wide, just try to go for sanity in meetings and in terms of advice to people when hired. I will cite the AAUP. That adjuncting /instructor experience does help for teaching experience.

    One of my department chairs says I may be able to tell at 3d year review how people are doing and will do, but not everyone is.

    But I really think that making it less of a nightmare to get tenure would make people more productive, and less mean later.

    And the ratcheting up of requirements really *is* an attack on tenure itself

  14. I'll try to write more on ratcheting up tenure requirements as an attack on tenure. That seems a useful discussion for another post.

    I think the AAUP language should help persuade some committee members -- although it didn't move the head of AAUP on my campus who was actually on my tenure committee. Hopefully, you'll have better luck.

    Sometimes it seems that folks lose sight of the fact that probationary work implies that you hope the faculty member will do more and better work in the future. You're on the right track to think about how to make the tenure process something that doesn't derail that future good work.

  15. "...That seems a useful discussion for another post."

    And not just a post - an article in the Chronicle!

    Cheers -