Coming out of the closet, tenure denial edition


With a bit of CV forensics, you can infer a lot about the career of an academic.

One potential indicator of tenure denial is employment as an Assistant Professor for seven years, not immediately followed by an Associate Professorship. An astute person mulling over my CV would notice this.

I don’t hide this fact, but I don’t advertise it either. It’s no secret, by any means.

Volunteering this fact comes with some serious baggage. It’s not like I was denied at Harvard, where denial is the default expectation. In my last job, tenure denial was a rarity. You had to really botch it to get denied. While I had some high-performing colleagues, I also had one colleague who was tenured despite not publishing anything after getting hired. Others moved successfully through the system even though they were notably ineffective in the classroom. Even though the bar was low, I didn’t make it over.

The standard of line of thought must be that I really sucked at my job, or I must have been a major jerk. It’s difficult to argue against that reasoning.

Tenure denial is a failure. Tenure denial can be caused by poor professional performance, poor navigation of politics, or by personal faults. I would bet that, if any of you called up my former colleagues who were involved in the process, that their explanation might be evenly split among the three possible causes, and maybe a trifecta of all three.

The experience of tenure denial is extraordinarily difficult. It’s painful and lonely. There is a mixture of grief and loss, often heavily salted with injustice. Take the angst involved in the path towards a tenure-track position, and mix in six more years of effort. Then, top that with your spouse’s career and bake in your personal finances. It’s hard to describe, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

How, exactly, did this happen? I actually have already explained it elsewhere. Throughout my terminal year, I shared the story over a series of four installments in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I wrote a follow-up column a few years later, as I was waiting to hear the tenure decision at my current institution. Here are the links:

Part 1, October 2006: No warning signs

Part 2: November 2006: A way out of this mess

Part 3: February 2007: Reviving my career

Part 4: May 2007: A fresh start

Part 5, February 2010: Life after tenure denial

[update, Part 6: January 2014: Tenure denial, seven years later]

I also have another installment in the works, which I’ll probably publish later on this site. I have learned some new lessons, and new facts, since the 2010 installment. [update: here is that installment]

These articles were published pseudonymously. Obviously, at the time it would have been unwise to discuss my job search process in real time under my real name, especially in my delicate position. (The only fact that I altered in the columns was that I switched the gender of a couple individuals.) Because I didn’t use my own name, the reach of those articles might have been limited. If I want to make a bigger difference by having written these articles, then connecting my real name to them might create a better understanding because I don’t have to obscure any details about myself.

There are pluses and minuses about coming out. I’ll have detractors who claim that I deserved what I got. Others might think that I fabricated or exaggerated details. Others might think that I’m oblivious to my ample flaws. Still others might think that this fact explains more than it does. I’ll have to deal with those things, because the benefits of coming out are great. There are plenty of people who are looking for a new tenure-track job after tenure denial, but there’s little information to be found from those who have gone through the process. I think those going through this process might benefit from some of the details about the things that worked and didn’t work out for me. (They also might see some hope in my happy ending, which at the outset I never could have foreseen.)

I am, admittedly, more fond of my current job than my last one. I don’t think this difference is caused by my nasty experience, but could reflect that I am genuinely a better fit for my current job. The sources of great pleasure in my current job were scarce in my old job, and the things that I dislike about my current job were in far greater supply at my old job.

So, have at it. If you wish to leave comments about this story, I do recommend that you read the five columns to which I have linked.

21 thoughts on “Coming out of the closet, tenure denial edition

  1. Terry: thanks for writing this and being open and transparent about the process. Tenure is such a highly unusual creature: a game with seemingly unwritten rules. Or, when they are written down, they are (sometimes) sufficiently vague so that surprises can still happen with some frequency. Many people leave their Academic jobs just in advance of going up for tenure (perhaps because they know [or have hints] that a committee may be tending toward negative, or perhaps because they want to change institutions and rather than prepare the package and be judged, they leave, or perhaps some other reason…); and, some people don’t get tenure. In both cases, there are highly qualified and competent PhDs out there on the job market, having to compete with those ‘fresh’ out of a post-doc (who will likely be ‘cheaper’ and perhaps considered ‘less risky’ by a hiring committee… I don’t really know.. I’m speculating); but I do know that the job market is highly competitive for recent PhDs, and an even more complex beast for those who have been denied tenure.

    Anyway – I’m rambling… and I have not read all the above-mentioned links. However, what I do know is that it seems you have found a very good fit in your current job, and were successful in making the transition. It also seems that ‘politics’ or (something else…) was a key factor in your tenure denial as it seems like you were doing your job well. From what I know about you (via this post and research papers), you are an outstanding Academic. And this post, with its honesty and transparency, further solidifies my opinion. Thanks, Terry.

  2. It’s awesome that you are (and have been) posting about this. And I’m glad you ended up somewhere that values the parts of the job you find most rewarding!

    The tenuring (or not tenuring) part of the process is an emotional one. The fairest thing is to make the criteria for tenure clear and provide clear feedback to the candidate on their progress part way through so the eventual decision doesn’t catch the person going through it by surprise. Sadly, I wonder how common that is. I *think* my department is pretty good on this, but then I got tenure, so of course I feel that way!

  3. The utterly irrelevant detail that jumped out at me after reading the full set of pieces: I didn’t know that you were (are?) an EMT!

    These pieces are really good. In general, I feel like at all academic stages from undergrad through senior tenured prof there is very limited advice on what to do, or explanations of what it might be like both at the time and down the road, if things go catastrophically poorly. There’s a lot about not being able to find a tenure-track job, but a lot less about flunking out of college, being cut loose by your graduate advisor, being denied tenure, and so on. Thanks for writing this.

  4. I read these columns when they were originally posted on the Chronicle, and remember thinking how glad I was this person landed on their feet in a better place for them after the roller-coaster ride. Thanks for sharing your experience, and for all you do as a member of our community.

  5. So that was *you*. Funny, I remember laughing at the pseudonym at the time. Given the irregular teaching reviews alone, I am surprised there were no lawyers involved from your end.

    So glad it worked out for you in the end.

  6. Thank you for sharing. I’ve recently gone through something similar, when I was denied promotion from assoc. to full. I am fortunate that I didn’t have to embark on a job search because of it, but at the same time, I am a career faculty member at an institution that doesn’t value what I do, and with many of the administrative/departmental issues you’ve experienced.

    So it’s good to see that you’ve landed on your feet in a place that is better for you. That gives me some hope.

  7. Great series of posts, Terry – these are the kinds of stories that up-and-coming academics need to read to learn all sides of the TT faculty story.

    I especially liked the line in part 4 of your story, where you said “it became clear that I was undervalued by my former colleagues” – mainly because it resonated with my own experience. I tend to give ppl the benefit of the doubt, and though I now realize I was in the same boat of being undervalued, I always thought it was something *I* was doing wrong, something *I* could fix.

    Sometimes you can’t fix it, and have to move on. It seems you’ve moved on to a position that suits you well and has allowed you to focus not only on teaching and interesting research, but also on that all-important family life.

    Congratulations. :)

  8. A few unsolicited words of support from a total stranger. Seriously, they don’t get any stranger.
    First, I can tell from how well you write that you are a more effective teacher than several I had in college and grad school, who were either tenure track or already arrived.
    In my opinion, tenure is like celibacy, an idea with a noble goal but completely broken almost everywhere it’s practiced. I was privileged to teach at a high school that “offered tenure”- in the worst possible sense of the word. All teachers were on one-year contracts, but there was an “understanding” that you were “morally tenured”- meaning, I guess, that if you didn’t sleep with a student or murder someone you would get another one next year. Seriously?
    Tenure seems to exist in order to a) reward a high-performing teacher (which in college, exclusively means someone who publishes a lot, nothing to do with teaching), or b) protect them from pressure or retaliation for expressing themselves freely, or c) provide them with security over the long-term, usually as a hybrid of reward or protection (and thus partaking of a and b). I would argue that in general we should dump the job security in return for higher pay based on performance (defined either by publication or classroom excellence)- and as for idea expression, ideally I’d like to see more faith in the First Amendment and less in what amounts to a pension plan for people who are sometimes only pretending to still be working.
    All the best.

  9. Spare a thought for those of us who are in non-traditional academic paths, at institutions where the concept of Tenure doesn’t even exist, at-will institutions without contracts or collective bargaining, where you can be fired at any time without explanation or notice. Denial of tenure is an awful thing, to be sure, but even having a shot at it is a better opportunity than lots of us ever get.

  10. Thanks to you all for affirmation and support. I was concerned that by making this fact public, that I’d be undermining my credibility. Perhaps the opposite effect might happen.

    • I have read through your posts and it felt like a journey. Respect! It makes me feel optimistic, the way you have managed to keep your goals aligned and found them to eventually work out. Inspirational, thanks for sharing!

  11. Terry, thanks for sharing this. I wish I would have come across these columns a year ago as I was suffering through a very similar situation. As with you, my former department largely supported me but was overturned higher up the food chain. Despite their positive recommendation, I never felt as if I had the full support of my colleagues. During the application process that followed, two colleagues including the chair offered to write letters on my behalf – one readily offered to share his letter with me and I asked if I could review the letter from the chair. This transparency certainly was helpful in my application and interview process. The whole process was extraordinarily stressful, primarily due to me being the sole provider for my young family but their support and understanding has been beyond words. This all turned out Ok for me as I landed at an institution that I consider to be a considerably better fit, certainly from the administrative and philosophical aspects. And to boot, we’re in an area with more opportunities for our family. I’m grateful that the administration here recognizes candidates’ potential fit despite former experiences, as jaded as they may be. In fact, I’m not the only recent hire in this boat. To sweeten the deal, we were hired as associate profs, recognizing our relatively extensive experience (though to be clear, there is no tenure system here for better or for worse). As I’m wrapping up my first semester here, I’m looking forward to eventually viewing everything here without the lens of my former position, though I do take solace that the vast majority of the comparisons are in the positive.

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