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And Here’s A Little Coal In Your Christmas Stocking: Tenure Denied

December 13, 2008, 6:32 pm

The tenure cases that were submitted early in the fall are starting to come through: mostly, there will be laughter and clinking glasses. Although rates of success differ across institutions, the majority of people who come up for tenure will get it. The vast majority. Which makes it ever more painful when you, or someone you have supported, is denied. This just in from a professor of history at Wuzzup College:*

I teach at a four-year college. Yesterday I found out that my only untenured colleague was turned down for tenure by the dean. I’m spending my morning trying to figure out what to do to see if we can get this overturned. I called the one colleague I know to whom the administration sometimes listens and left a frantic message on his answering machine.

I was afraid this was going to happen. I was on the Tenure and Promotion Committee, which has been weird the last couple of years. It’s like some of my colleagues all of a sudden want to raise the bar for tenure and promotion at what has always been a teaching school, thus punishing our newer colleagues who have come in during this transition. In one meeting over my colleague’s tenure case, a colleague who had seemed equally disgusted by this trend last year, abruptly reversed this position and raised a question about the slow publishing pace. Since when have we been a publish or perish institution? I replied, stating quite firmly that my colleague has done everything asked of her as far as teaching and service, and that I know she is working on her scholarship, but publishing a book, given our course load, takes more than the five years allotted before tenure review. The candidate for tenure was also asked to take overloads by our department head to help out another department. I concluded by saying that I couldn’t ask for a better colleague and that I was proud to have her as part of our department.

Plus, she has never received a bad annual evaluation. Plus, she is the best and smartest colleague in the world.

What should I do?

Yes, this is bad: when administrators, or a T & P, takes it into their heads to “raise standards” the first step is always to put a brake on promotions of those people who have met, but perhaps not exceeded, the old scholarly criteria, not because they were lazy but because they were doing institutional work. What is worse is that most tenured colleagues who have strenuously opposed arbitrary raising of standards capitulate to them shortly after the bar is raised (like the self-interested cowards many academics are.) They excuse this treachery by saying that either a) it was always that way; or, b) that they fear that the department as a whole will “lose credibility” because it will be perceived as not having high standards. Thus, screwing one person is articulated as in the best interests of other, unnamed people, who will follow. In my case, I was also told repeatedly that getting screwed by the new standards was good for me too, since I was being promoted to full professor and I would feel better about the delayed promotion and raise for having met a higher scholarly standard.

As usual when it comes to sending someone to the penalty box, it is women who seem to suffer disproportionately from a phenomenon we might call Horizon Creep. Women’s generous capacity for doing the institutional work no one else wants to do causes them to be treated like half-wits when they come up for tenure or promotion, and this is a particular hazard during institutional Horizon Creep. Meanwhile the men and one bitchy female in European glasses (all of whom left the room while scut work was being assigned, were instead asked to serve on journal boards and edit volumes with male colleagues, and took a semester or two of baby leave which causes them to be praised as truly engaged parents) are held up as exemplars for having lifted themselves up to the “new” publishing standard with ease.

Having experienced this bullshit first hand, I feel your pain, My Dear Correspondent. My encounter with Horizon Creep is, after all, how I was transformed from a person who merely bitched in the halls to the Tenured Radical with the Barbed Wire Soul that you know and love today. But enough about me — what should you do?

My first piece of advice is stop calling people on the phone and leaving crazed messages that you may regret and, as Joe Hill used to say, organize. You need a plan, and allies to plan with. What that plan is depends on several things.

What is your grievance procedure? And will the department join in the appeal? Any department that does not appeal denial of tenure in this economic climate is out of their minds, and I would get a copy of these regulations immediately and begin plotting this crucial step.

If you are actually serving on the T & P, you cannot be a part of this, either as a counselor or as a co-conspirator. In other words, if you have had access to confidential conversations or documents, you cannot give your friend advice based on that information, but you can point her to whoever that institution-savvy person is who would not be institutionally compromised by helping her. You are not prevented from urging your friends on, but watch out that something you are doing for your friend does not unintentionally make things worse because of advocacy on your part that breaks college regulations and/or established ethical practices about confidentiality.

Was there significant dissent at the level of the department? It sounds like there was some dissent, there and/or in the T &P, and that the Dean had something to work with in this denial. If there were a fair number of no votes at the level of the department, or in the T & P, the candidate may need to appeal individually because if you didn’t have a convincing consensus for the original case, you won’t have it for the appeal either.

What was said about expectations for tenure in the candidate’s letter of appointment, what was said in the reviews, what is on paper in the departmental handbook, and what is explicitly laid out in the faculty handbook? All of this is critical information. That said, if scholarly pace is the issue, I would build my appeal around whether pace was ever mentioned in any contract or review document; and what the language is, precisely, in the faculty handbook regarding scholarly expectations at the time of tenure. I would then take the candidate into a back room and slap her (metaphorically) for agreeing to those teaching overloads. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If, however, the overloads were something that she was expected to do by a supervisor, that is also a crucial part of your case, and don’t slap her. Point out in your appeal that she did more of what she was told she was expected to do, and now she is being held to account for something that she was not told to do, and that the college consistently undervalued in previous tenure cases. Whatever you do, do not make claims for the scholarly record that cannot be sustained under scrutiny or proven: like that she will write someday. Faculties around the country are full of people who were going to write someday, but never got around to it after tenure.

I would urge your colleague to join the AAUP and, if the appeals process does not result in overturning the case, I would grieve through the AAUP. If that doesn’t work start helping her pack. Whatever you do, do not advise her to sue. This is the mos
t destructive piece of advice a young person can receive, in my view, not because universities don’t deserve to be sued, but because it is emotionally wrenching, divisive, and can be financially ruinous to your friend. Civil suits against a university for wrongful dismissal almost never succeed: juries of ordinary people start to giggle when you explain your right to guaranteed lifetime employment to them. Even when successful lawsuits often rip apart the lives of people who file them. As an aside, said person also becomes virtually unemployable as an academic.

The other thing I would advise is this: try to separate your own, entirely justifiable, sense of outrage from the actions you take and the advice you give to someone else who is hurting. Efforts for redress need to be coupled with efforts to find this person another place to work, perhaps a post-doc somewhere that will allow her to write or a visiting post at another teaching college that will give her some time to think about her long-term future. You can also help by, instead of focusing on how terribly she has been wronged by others, reminding her of all the things she has done right that will help her succeed — if not at Wuzzup, then somewhere else. Your colleague, and you, may have to accept in the end that she was treated badly, that it can’t be fixed and she needs to move on. Lay the groundwork for this even as you appeal the decision and try to keep her thinking actively about her options for employment elsewhere so that the next disappointment, should it occur, does not compound her sense of being out of control. It is a priority to figure out how to make a life, with or without Wuzzup College, and not let this event do more damage over time.

And when you are done with this, gather a group of colleagues together, form an AAUP chapter, and reform your tenure and promotion procedures so that they conform with the best practices as articulated by that organization.

Good luck.

(Some of you may have noticed that there has been a blog redesign: the truth is that I just discovered the fonts and colors widget. If you think it is too loud, just say so.)

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* I have changed a number of details to protect the innocent, but I have not altered the basic elements of the story.

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