The email starts this way:
I am writing to let you know your tenure decision was negative. I am very sorry to have to let you know this unpleasant outcome.*
Fortunately I’d been told on the phone that morning that results were due out in the afternoon, so I have time to flee campus and head downtown before getting the message. I’d done some work to brace myself for the possibility, but it didn’t seem to do a lot of good. Texting reveals that half the decisions were negative this year. What a mess.
The shame is overwhelming. What will my adviser think? How do I tell my mother? (Yes, in that order.)
I go to the office that night to prep for a class. Some senior colleagues are around. They’ve heard, and they’re being supportive and consoling. Sort of a weird dynamic because I don’t know what their formal assessments were like, but still, appreciated.** The provost is apparently sitting by his computer– we exchange some emails and schedule a meeting for the next morning.
The first night is not so good.
The next morning I get a summary of the committee’s reasoning. Scholarship is the issue, basically. We talk about the appeal procedure. (It’s made to the same committee that makes the original decision, and historically about 10% of appeals are successful.) The provost is as nice and as supportive as possible given the situation. Polite, sympathetic, but not writing any checks his office can’t cash.
I then get to read the internal letters. (That is, the recommendations from the tenured members of my department. External reviews of scholarship will be available when names and identifying information is redacted.) Support, support, support…do not support. There’s always someone, isn’t there? I read the text. Most of it is critical but fair. I think the author misunderstands some of the scholarship in a fairly obvious way, but whatever, that happens. There are also some unnecessary low blows.
I am sitting in a conference room giving the middle finger to a piece of paper.
The second night isn’t so hot either. I take a mental health day. It’s extremely pleasant. The day after, I detect the whiff of pity from other faculty and some students. The department secretary is crying when she hugs me. I hear that another unsuccessful candidate told his classes about all the results, not just his. We’re all suffering and this is a time for interpretive charity, but this strikes me as dickish. I hate being pitied.
I am now a memento mori.
I’m amused by who’s nice and who isn’t, once it looks like I’m a lost cause. Some interesting surprises in both directions. My newfound power to spread gloom by my very presence pleases me.
A few days later I’m able to see the external letters. I had been dreading this. (Over the summer I assembled a list of people in my area who are competent to assess my work. I was then in the grips of despair and didn’t put a whole lot of thought into things, so I’d worried that I’d be screwed by my own carelessness.) My chair has seen the letters and describes them as “more positive than I expected, given the outcome.” They are indeed positive. It’s a genre rife with inflated claims, but still, these are good. “Really top-notch” and “no reservations at all about recommending tenure” and “strongly support” and things like that. My supportive colleagues intend to be more supportive after reading them. They have another letter in the works.
There’s a first glimmer of hope.
I get to work on the appeal document. The more I write, the more I think I have a case. (I do this with referee reports and comments too– my first thought is that I’m screwed, and then I think about things and realize it’s not as bad as I thought.) I circulate things to colleagues in and out of the department, collect feedback, revise. I meet with faculty who won on appeal. I keep my ear to the ground for rumors. I am deeply grateful to the people who are watching out for me, both here and elsewhere. I get advice from old mentors, but I also get a call, just to make sure I’m doing all right. “These things can mess with your head, and I just wanted you to know that all of us here think really highly of you.” He pretends not to notice that I’m choking up a bit.
In the meantime I have to give a talk. My hosts are gracious and seem willing to forgive the fact that my head is lodged deeply up my own ass.
I’m mainly sticking to my vow to be decent about this. No raging, no childish stuff in public. (Except for liveblogging!) The high road is free, and I’m aware that this is my own damn fault. I should have made it easy for the committee, and I didn’t, so I’ve done it to myself.
My plan is to think mostly about the appeal until it’s over, then turn in earnest to the task of finding another job. I have a rough outline of a strategy: try the academic market in the fall. It’s going to be a brutal year, but I have some nice publications and a “record of teaching success.” If nothing happens there, look for applied-ethics possibilities– maybe medical ethics sorts of things. If not, more distantly related work in other fields. A friend says that I’d find something in Big Pharma. I keep reminding myself that I’m a white man with a lot of degrees. I will not starve. I will lose my house, I will have to move, but I will not starve. Of course I don’t believe it, but I do my best to pretend.
The appeal document is polished and buffed to a high gloss. I have the feeling that I’ve done the best I can for myself. I hand the thing in to the Provost’s office. Meanwhile, the stack of grading has grown to soul-crushing proportions. On the other hand– whatcha gonna do, fire me? I enjoy the liberation of the damned.
Next up: I meet with the committee.
*It was sent months ago, and rereading it now still feels like a punch in the gut.
** Here the P&T decisions are made by a committee constituted by faculty outside the candidate’s department; senior colleagues from the dept individually recommend a result but do not vote as a body. In cases of negative decisions the candidate is entitled to read internal letters and redacted copies of external reviews of scholarship.