What to do if you’re facing tenure denial


A nontrivial fraction of tenure-track faculty are denied tenure, well over the standard 5% threshold for Type I errors that we use in the sciences. Even though academia has a love for self-scrutiny, we overlook the consequences of tenure denial. Tenure denial is not rare, but thoughtful information about tenure denial is rare.

Since I wrote some things about tenure denial, I have been regularly contacted by others for advice and support. I realize that many more people must have looked online for support and advice and came up short-handed. I am reluctant to provide generalized advice — because everybody’s situation is unique — but here are at least things to consider.

Understand why denial is happening

The official reason for denial is probably unrelated to the actual reason. To move forward, you need to understand both of them. Here are some possibilities for the real reasons, which are not mutually exclusive:

  1. A huge variety of political or personal reasons, unrelated to research, teaching, or service (typically tied to a dysfunctional or delusional dynamic in the department).
  2. Poor grantsmanship or inadequate scholarship.
  3. The perception of poor teaching (though not possible at a research institution).
  4. Some people who want to get rid of a toxic person may simply straight-up invent fake reasons that somehow gain traction.
  5. The failure to build goodwill among people who would serve as advocates.

Immediate things to consider right after you find out

  • Stay calm. Do not talk to anybody on campus if you feel overly anxious, upset or mad. Setting the tone right after news hits can help to sway opinion in your favor. This is important regardless of the long-term outcome.
  • Do not tell students. Students rallying on your behalf might make you feel better, but can only drive the administration into an adversarial position. In general, student activism to reverse tenure decisions rarely ends well for the person denied tenure, and also creates a situation that will probably harm future job search efforts. If you have graduate students who will be adversely affected, then you need to make sure that their interests are met, but before you tell your grad students you need to be sure that any actions that they might take wouldn’t result in any negative repercussions for your own circumstance.
  • Document, document, document. Keep track of every relevant meeting and conversation, including the participants, date/time, and the summary of what was said. Before it becomes a blur, write down everything that you recall involving prior conversations. If you don’t hang onto all of your emails, be sure to track down everything you can.
  • If your chair supports your tenure case, have a long discussion with your chair. Unless your chair is part of your problem, then this is is the person who ideally should be leading the fight for you. If this situation arrived as a surprise, then your chair clearly lacks any political savvy, or secretly has it in for you.
  • Consult with trusted senior faculty members about your situation.
  • Contact your union representative. If you’re not unionized, contact your AAUP rep, which is slightly better than a useless course of action.
  • Get a copy of your faculty handbook or whatever the procedure manual is called. Be sure to gain access to all review materials to which you are entitled.
  • Remember that many people who do not merit tenure actually do get tenure. This only happens for people who are well-liked. Being well-liked is not enough, but is also very important. If you are on the cusp for whatever reason, personality and personal relationships are central to the process. People voting will ask, “Do I like this person enough to put my neck out?” Keep this in mind: stay well-liked throughout the process. Nobody wants to see you frown, even though it’s hard not to.

Things to consider after you’ve absorbed the first list

  • It’s still in your interest to keep taking the steps that would be required if you kept your job. A perception that you’re engaged on campus can serve in your interests as you are looking to moving on (or if you think your appeal has a realistic chance).
  • Identify what it was that made this problem happen, and who was behind the decision. (For example, if the major problem is your scholarship record, then certain people interpreted it as inadequate and others did not. Find out what is behind that interpretation and why, and this is what you need to address.)
  • Develop a strategy for the process on campus. A negative recommendation at one stage may be reversed at a higher level. You need to address official reason in writing, and you have to address the actual reason through your colleagues who can work the back channels on your behalf.
  • The whole time, collect materials for the appeal. Note that appeals generally fail, and that if they succeed it is often because of procedural violations.
  • Apply for faculty jobs. Look at academic jobs which you are qualified for but positions for which you are qualified but you hadn’t previously considered. Faculty members who land new faculty positions after tenure denial often end up at institutions very different from where they started out.
  • If you’re not single, develop a set of contingency plans with your partner. These plans need to be about finances, jobs, and the range of options available to you. The earlier you know about what is possible, the more quickly you can focus on new plans.
  • Ramp up scholarship. Block away the time and focus, you’ve got to maintain if not increase scholarly productivity. At this point, your teaching will be evaluated based on what you have already done. So teaching well now won’t help you. Get publications, and grants.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • Do not do anything related to burning bridges. Do not act on impulse. Do not assign any blame to others, even though it may be richly deserved.
  • Do not spend too much time teaching. Your time needs to be spent on other tasks, so only spend enough time prepping to keep your class from falling apart. If there is any time in your career for laying off on time-intensive assignments and exams, now is that time.
  • Don’t keep it all trapped inside you. This is an insane level of stress. You might consider talking to a counselor or doctor if you are having trouble sleeping.
  • Don’t bring a lawyer into the matter prematurely. This will put administration into an adversarial position. If you have real reason to believe that the threat of lawsuit will help your case before an official decision has been made, consult with others before taking this step. There are circumstances under which lawyering up may be a good decision, but weigh the possible outcomes carefully before taking this step.

About building your job application

You need to specifically address tenure denial in your application package for new faculty jobs. You can’t dwell on the past in your application materials, but you can’t overlook it. It is true that many search committees won’t seriously look at someone who was denied tenure. However, avoiding your situation in the application will only look evasive, because the timing and the facts on your CV clearly scream the fact of tenure denial. So you’ve got to work with your letter-writers to create a clear, and hopefully truthful, narrative that can explain what happened and how you’d be a catch as a seasoned Assistant Professor.

Your cover letter is really important. You can’t blame anybody, though your recommendation letters can assign blame if necessary. Of course, search committees won’t take everything you say at face value, which is why your cover letter needs to be crafted with specific knowledge about what is in your recommendation letters. You need to have highly credible recommendation letters that reflect very well on you and also explain why you were denied tenure. At the very least, your need someone from your institution – ideally your own department – to demonstrate as convincingly as possible that you’re not a toxic person and that there is a sensible reason that you were denied that isn’t predictive of your future performance. (In my own situation several years ago, my chair wrote one my letters. I discovered too late that it actually was a brief and crappy letter lacking any specific praise, but it did say that my performance was good, that my department supported my bid for tenure, and the dean overturned the case for reasons that were not understood by the chair. This letter — combined with two other letters that had lots of specific praise for my teaching, research and mentorship — was enough for some departments to give me the benefit of the doubt.)

If anybody else who also has been through this process has different or additional thoughts, please add them in the comments. Anonymous is fine.

4 thoughts on “What to do if you’re facing tenure denial

  1. Good or bad, it definitely seems to be true that personality is a major factor. I witnessed one person denied tenure despite a strong research record and very good teaching evaluations. Though he was well liked by most of us, the chair had it in for him and didn’t support his tenure bid. The official reason was lack of external funding. He was let go immediately. A few years later a person in the same situation (good pubs, decent teaching evals, but no funding) came up for review. He wasn’t given tenure initially, but the new dept. chair fought for him and granted him an extension. A year later he had his first grant and achieved tenure. What a difference that chair-prof relationship can make.

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