• November 29, 2014

When Tenure Fails

No one could have predicted when we hired him that James Dixon wouldn't get tenure.

During the search, he was far ahead of the pack, with several articles already in print, and had he not accepted our offer we would have been hard-pressed to find as strong an alternate. Dixon was brilliant, but also adamantly inner-directed. He alone knew where his research was going, and he was so focused on it that he ignored his colleagues' constant reminders here that brilliant research would not help him if he didn't get it in front of readers.

So far in this series on the tenure process, I've focused on how Allison Porchnik (not her real name), an assistant professor in my department at the University of Illinois, won tenure. There were some moments when Porchnik and I both feared that she might crash and burn. In the end, though, she was promoted because she worked steadily and productively throughout her probationary period, published high-quality research in the right places, and had that work validated by external reviewers.

But I've talked enough about how tenure works. In this column I will turn to what happens when tenure fails, and that brings me back to James Dixon (also an assumed name).

Dixon was not a rule follower, not by any means. Deadlines meant nothing to him, even the deadlines for filing employment forms so he could get paid. He would dream up fantastic courses, but wouldn't turn in the descriptions in time for them to be printed in the course guide, so students only found him by accident. They liked his classes all right, but Dixon would have no teaching prize to offset his slowness in publishing.

His service record was good, but not stellar. He always seemed preoccupied at committee meetings -- the ones he remembered to attend. But then he would suddenly ask the one question that put everything into focus, and we were suddenly reminded why we had hired him. Still, he was not one to do the kind of workhorse departmental service -- directing the writing program, serving as associate chairman -- that might turn the tide of an iffy promotion.

So like most of our tenure cases, Jim Dixon's depended primarily on his research record. In each of his annual reviews, Dixon was reminded that he couldn't be promoted on promise alone, that he needed to put out some product. While we certainly look for someone moving both the department and the field forward in ways that will have a long-term impact, in practical terms Dixon would need to publish consistently along the way, not just at the end of the probationary period.

When his publication pace stalled, we managed to secure for him extra time off from teaching. But he continued to work deliberately, deferring the book's completion from year to year as his focus changed and his scope grew ever larger. It wasn't until the fall of his sixth year that he finally finished his book, just as it was time to move him up or out.

The department rallied behind him in the tenure vote, but unfortunately that wasn't enough. The college executive committee countered the department's unanimous endorsement of Dixon with a unanimous "no." He had published virtually nothing, the committee members noted, between the time he was hired and the present. In addition, the letters about his work from external reviewers were mixed, partly because his book had not yet been accepted for publication and partly because his overall research record was so thin that he had built up no professional visibility.

A publisher finally accepted Dixon's book later that fall, just as the college was ready to meet on promotions. The college committee concluded from this late acceptance that Dixon could only produce when his job depended on it. In the committee's view, he had not shown the ability to navigate the profession either independently or successfully. And the weak and hesitant external reviews led the college to question the department's unwavering support for his promotion. It was one thing for the department to claim that Dixon was the best of the best, but he had not demonstrated that excellence convincingly to anyone else. And that was that.

The rejection rocked Dixon, who had thought that getting through the department would be his biggest hurdle. It rocked the department as well, although few people were surprised at the outcome, given the long wait for his book and the lack of articles on his publication record. And it sent a dark message to the assistant professors behind Dixon, who were already looking over their shoulders as the tenure clock ticked down.

A failed promotion brings with it a terminal contract: Dixon would have an additional year on the faculty to find another position. But he also had three appeal options to exercise. The first appeal is to the body that turned the candidate down. It's the hardest one to make, since the candidate must appeal to people who have already made up their minds. It usually takes some extraordinary powers of persuasion, the uncovering of some fatal procedural flaw, or some new substantive development, to change as many as four or five votes on the committee, and to get the dean to go along as well.

They can succeed. Margaret Peel (not her real name) managed to do just that some years ago. Support for her promotion was mixed both in her department (not English) and in the college committee, but Peel's persuasive letter -- a stunning defense of the impact of her scholarship across the profession -- managed to get a split negative vote reversed. And a week later, she got a Guggenheim. That, to put it mildly, was really sweet.

But Margaret Peel's triumph was an exception and Dixon felt such an appeal was bound to fail. He was right. About a month after Dixon filed his appeal, the College Executive Committee met -- I wasn't present -- and after substantial discussion, reaffirmed its unanimous negative decision. That left Dixon with two options: the college faculty appeals committee and the universitywide faculty advisory committee. But it also left him with a lot less emotional energy. The college appeals committee took about two months to look at Dixon's case and write him a terse denial. There were no procedural irregularities. Case closed.

The universitywide appeal, which Dixon filed at the same time, took a lot longer. That committee, which also concerns itself with procedure, is also the last resort, and because of this it can act more broadly. It appoints a subcommittee for each case that it accepts. That subcommittee reviews the written record and may interview the principals in the case to determine whether a complainant is being held to different standards than those for other cases. The universitywide panel may take a year or more to investigate and make its recommendations. I recall a case a dozen years ago, in which a faculty member was turned down for tenure, completed his terminal year at the university, and wound up taking a job at another institution in Illinois before the university panel recommended reinstatement. Then he came back with tenure.

Jim Dixon was not so lucky. The university panel finished its deliberations by year's end as well, and concluded that no intervention was called for.

All happy tenure cases may be alike insofar as they exhibit the same qualities of strong scholarship, teaching, and service, but each failed case fails after its own fashion. Dixon elected to play out his terminal year, teaching his classes but spending as little time in the department as possible. Sometimes a candidate denied tenure will seek legal redress. Not Jim. Instead, he went to law school, taking courses for free the first year since he was still a university employee. He's now practicing corporate law on the West Coast.

Another faculty member -- I'll call him Bertrand Welch -- didn't get tenure either. He had published a book, but nobody liked it, not the internal reviewers or the external reviewers, or the reviewers in the scholarly press. Since Welch had a reputation as a brilliant administrator, the department head crafted an academic professional position for him to move into. But the impact of leaving the tenure track sapped Welch's administrative energies as well, and he soon left to start over as an assistant professor at a seriously down-market institution.

I know of one faculty member who decided not to put himself through the pain of a tenure rejection. He left academe altogether and wound up, reportedly very happy, selling condo conversions in Southern California. I know of another who simply disappeared. And I know of a third who took a tenure-track job elsewhere, got tenure, made a splash in the profession, and was hired back years later.

But not getting tenure affects a lot more than your employment status. I mentioned in my first article in this series that I was turned down for tenure twice. The first time -- it was just before Thanksgiving -- I simply went into hiding. It was an early-tenure bid, so I wasn't exactly fired. But I felt fired, and when I resurfaced, at the start of the spring semester, I had trouble making eye contact with the friends whom I knew would no longer be my colleagues.

The second time -- it was just before Thanksgiving, again -- I was on a Fulbright in France. My colleagues there were sympathetic, but also mystified, since they didn't understand the American university system. Apparently neither did I. I wrote my appeal -- after seriously thinking about finding a job in a bookstore instead -- and it wound up buying me a rollback. Two years later I got promoted.

Adversity doesn't always build character. Going through tenure can be embittering, even for successful candidates. I certainly found it so. To this day I can quote verbatim the letter from the dean telling me I was thoroughly unsuited for academic life, and wishing me success in my future endeavors.

I guess that's why I was so amazed when a colleague told me this year that he wasn't worried about getting tenure, wasn't going to think about it at all, and wasn't particularly surprised when I called him to tell him he had gotten it. He doesn't know this, but his case did not simply sail through as he seems to imagine that it did. Perhaps, in the end, it's best not to know.

In my next and final article in this series on promotions, I'll get back to Allison Porchnik, comment on some of the feedback I've received from readers, and discuss life after tenure.

Dennis Baron is chairman of the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is writing a regular column this academic year on the tenure process. The names of faculty members mentioned here have been changed.

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