February
2nd 2009
Do not read unless you’re already on prozac/zoloft/valium

Posted under: jobs, unhappy endings

icanhastenureSeriously, don’t look beyond the jump unless you’re in a very happy place, surrounded by loved ones, and with a demijohn of pisco sours on hand.

New Kid on the Block reports that a friend of hers was denied tenure:

A friend of mine just found out zie was denied tenure. I’m not going to go into why, mostly because it’s not my story, but partly because I think the knee-jerk reaction to such a decision is to try to figure out why it happened, which too easily turns into trying to figure out what the person in question did “wrong.” Which, to me, is kind of like trying to figure out why a given person doesn’t succeed on the academic job market – it turns too easily into a kind of “blame the victim” game, which mostly serves to help other people feel like they have control over the process — that if they do everything “right,” unlike those poor unsuccessful folk, they will suceed/get the job/get tenure. That in fact, the system is rational.

I think New Kid’s analysis is very accurate.  Tenure-track and tenured people desperately need to believe that there is a good reason other people are denied tenure.  If they admitted that the system was frequently unfair, and that it’s better to be lucky than good, they couldn’t get out of bed most mornings and do what they need to do to get tenure.

I believed this once.  I took a tenure-track job that had recently been vacated by someone who was denied tenure.  I needed to believe what the hiring department told me:  that it was her fault.  Ze didn’t publish enough.  Hir teaching wasn’t very good.  Ze was a peculiar and volatile person.  When I asked about the circumstances of her firing, I was told, “but that won’t happen to you, Historiann!  You’ve already published more than ze did.  You’re not going to make hir mistakes.  This won’t happen to you, because you’re a good, friendly, deserving person, unlike the other bad, unfriendly, undeserving person who preceded you.”

I don’t hold this against them.  I think my former colleagues needed desperately to believe this, too.  It sure sounds better than, “well, you can read the tenure standards as well as anyone else, so do your best, and we’ll see what happens, because it’s really a crapshoot!”

I regret my credulousness, and my need to believe.

13 Comments »

13 Responses to “Do not read unless you’re already on prozac/zoloft/valium”

  1. Notorious Ph.D. on 02 Feb 2009 at 11:41 pm #

    You know, I’m reminded of conversations on dates (long ago) with recently-divorced men: “Oh, but my wife was [insert deep flaws here].” And so you go about, demonizing someone you’ve never met, because it’s more pleasant than believing that the person you’re with is actually the problem.

    Maybe that’s a bad analogy, because in that case, you actually have a choice. Truth be told, I’m a little incoherent on this issue right now, because my own tenure decision is due in a week or so.

  2. Susan on 03 Feb 2009 at 12:15 am #

    Indeed. There are situations where there are clear expectation — i.e. you must publish — that are not met. But more often, the expectations that are not met are fuzzy at best, non-existent at worst. THen this analysis is really true. THe question should be: what happened in the Department, and why did this person fall afoul of it?

    To be fair, I have seen the first case. But that’s relatively rare.

  3. Historiann on 03 Feb 2009 at 8:02 am #

    Notorious–yes, exactly, the ex-wife and the ex-colleague are frequently described in the same terms. Isn’t it remarkable how the language of romantic love (and intrigue) is the language we reach for in thinking and talking about the academic job search and tenure? In both cases, people are “on the market,” looking for employment/love. And, when I was “on the market” while in another tenure-track job, it was like I was concealing an extramarital affair–I didn’t tell people at work what was going on outside of a few trusted friends, and even then I didn’t make any announcements until I already had a commitment from another job/boyfriend.

    Susan, I think you’re right that the clear-cut cases are rare. Even when they’re as clear cut as they can be, though, they don’t necessarily feel that way.

  4. GayProf on 03 Feb 2009 at 8:47 am #

    Much like student evaluations, I think anonymity has a lot to blame for bad tenure scenes. As long as decisions can be made in secret, people have no accountability for their bad actions.

  5. squadratomagico on 03 Feb 2009 at 9:00 am #

    I’ve witnessed two cases of tenure denial in my time at OPU, and I think the decision was rational in both cases. The first was quite clear-cut: the candidate simply hadn’t published the required book, nor was the ms. in any shape to garner a contract soon. This person went on to get a great job offer elsewhere and is very happy in the new position, which has different publishing expectations. In the second case, the manuscript was complete, but not yet under final contract (though there was a press that was interested). As I recall, a serious issue in the discussion of this person centered on the paucity of other publications: I believe there was only one peer-reviewed journal piece, which is low for us. In this case, the department ultimately voted to promote the person (about 90% up, 10% dissenting votes), but the administrative higher-ups denied tenure. This colleague now is tenured elsewhere, and the book is out. I think if s/he had had more journal articles in print, there might have been some flexibility in terms of assessing the book’s timeline to publication.

    We recently had another case where I thought tenure would be denied, but it turned out happily in the end. If this had turned out to be a denial, then it would indeed have been a totally irrational decision, since the person had an ample publication record and the book was imminently forthcoming on a tippy-top press. The issue here was some very negative outside letters that nearly sank the tenure decision despite the candidate’s positive record.

  6. squadratomagico on 03 Feb 2009 at 9:17 am #

    Actually… I may post on the issue of outside letters, as I think this is the area where I see the most gatekeeping, pettiness, and downright weirdness come out in the tenure process. As GayProf says, anonymity emboldens people to say and do some peculiar things.

  7. Historiann on 03 Feb 2009 at 9:45 am #

    Right on, Sq. and GayProf. Sq. I would look forward to reading a post on this topic, because I’m with you about the outside letters. The odd thing is that although the candidate is unaware of who has written letters for hir, they’re not anonymous in our department and college. I don’t know how it works at your university, but The T & P committee reads them and sees the signatures on the letters. I’ve been amazed at how clearly angry and personal are some of the reactions I’ve read. In some cases, I’ve wondered if there’s any way that the tenure candidate can be warned not to trust some of these people in the future. In one case (not in my department), there was a letter from a person who was clearly embittered that he was at a 4-4 directional state school and the tenure candidate at Baa Ram U. was not. His whole letter was about making invidious comparisons between his record of publication and hir record. Very weird.

    So, long story short: don’t write tenure review letters that make you look like a competitive, bitter jerk, or like a defensive jerk.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, this is where I’ve seen the greatest deal of variation in the ways that men and women are reviewed. Even in cases where a person wrote a positive letter for a woman tenure candidate, the reviewer couldn’t refrain from offering specific criticisms or opinions to the contrary. In the case of male tenure candidates, letter writers went out of their way to excuse or explain discrepancies that would have been harped on in the case of a woman candidate. (Example: “Some might wonder why nearly all of Professor Man’s publications are co-authored with his advisor. But this is not a problem–in fact, he should get extra super-special credit for being thought of as a worthy co-author for his august and respected advisor.” Whereas, I’m goddamn sure a woman whose publications were all coauthored by her advisor would be regarded with suspicion and doubt.)

  8. The Meritocracy. « (Almost) Without Footnotes on 03 Feb 2009 at 11:33 am #

    [...] February 3, 2009 by servetus Testify. [...]

  9. New Kid on the Hallway on 03 Feb 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    Thanks for the link!

    There definitely are cases when tenure denial is merited – I knew one egregious one at a former job (egregious as in there was no way this person was going to get tenure). And squadrato’s examples seem to represent a system working when there are clear, well-communicated standards that someone doesn’t meet. I was going to make all sorts of generalizations about bigger/smaller etc. schools being better/worse about this, but I realize that actually, I just agree with GayProf – the greater the transparency, the better things work. My theory is that any time a tenure denial is a surprise, something has gone seriously wrong. (Admittedly, that something may be willful blindness on the part of the candidate, but usually not.)

    (wanna hear transparency? At one of my former jobs, everyone in the department, including the candidate in question and junior faculty, read and discussed tenure files – well, the candidate in question didn’t discuss hirsself and wasn’t present for that discussion! but I’m pretty sure they saw the outside letters, and certainly knew who at least some of the writers were, because the candidate submitted a list of potential writers and the department always asked people off the list. There were problems with this openness; it could be difficult to speak completely candidly, because it was a culture in which people valued niceness, and for the junior faculty, it sometimes felt like a waste of time, since we voted, but our vote was “advisory” – which I completely understand, but why then make us go through the rigamarole of voting?? But overall, it was actually superhumane, and I never heard of anyone being blindsided by tenure there. Alas, that was out there even for that very liberal school, and I think they’ve since changed the system.)

    Oh, and historiann, my friend was given all kinds of reasons for why hir predecessor left the position, too – I don’t think the predecessor was denied tenure, but I’m nonetheless quite suspicious of how the department explained why zie decided to split (because zie was a difficult person, of course! not because there was any good reason why someone wouldn’t want to work there!).

  10. Historiann on 03 Feb 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    Hi New Kid–amazing isn’t it how eager we are to believe that we are uniquely powerful and special? Oy.

    I hope you’ll write more on this, as you suggested in your post today. (If you feel it’s appropriate, that is.)

    I know what you mean about the openness, but ultimately, I think it’s healthier for people to hold back than for them to share obnoxious or unfounded opinions to the detriment of a colleague. This is also my rule when discussing job candidates: you never know but that the person you’ve just slagged might be your colleague for the next several years, so if you have any doubts about the grounds or wisdom of your thoughts, STFU. (I don’t know about the process of letting everyone vote on everyone–that seems kind of crazy. I certainly won’t argue that the senior faculty always behave with honor in every T & P meeting across the country, but I think there is a good reason for not permitting people of the same rank to vote on candidates’ tenure and promotion.)

  11. Professor Zero on 03 Feb 2009 at 11:18 pm #

    The obsession about diagnosing “what went wrong” is *definitely* an attempt to convince oneself that everything really is all right, the system itself works, etc.

    On outside letters: one of the times I came up for tenure I had to solicit my own outside letters. Yes – institutional practice. I couldn’t believe it (the language in the instructions was ambiguous, and who’d have thunk…), and it was pretty embarrassing.

  12. New Kid on the Hallway on 04 Feb 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    Oh, I agree that airing obnoxious or unfounded opinions is a problem. It’s also a problem, though, when there’s an elephant in the room that everyone is diligently dancing around (gee, colleague X’s courses are consistently underenrolled by about 50% at a small teaching school – but we won’t mention that!!), but I admit that usually everyone is well aware of the elephant, even if it’s never explicitly acknowledged, and it does its job (for instance, if the discussion for one candidate takes 10 minutes and the discussion for another takes 45, you know there are issues for the second candidate, even if people only comment nicely. At least at this institution, quick discussion = no problems to raise). I’m not advocating obnoxiousness, just candidness. (Anyway, “niceness” was a huge part of the local culture, where “nice” often = passive agressive!)

    In case I didn’t make clear, the junior faculty vote was purely advisory, meaning it didn’t bind anyone to anything – it just expressed the junior faculty opinion of someone’s case. (The school was crazy, but not THAT crazy.) After the jr. people voted, the sr. people secluded themselves to do the vote that actually counted. I know some jr. people who felt they weren’t in a position to vote negatively on anyone, even anonymously, but I also knew sr. faculty who swore that they had altered their votes based on jr. faculty input. Coming out of a situation in my last job (not the place with the open process), where the jr. faculty valued my contributions to the department much more highly than the sr. faculty did (and not just because they were my friends, but because they understood my pedagogical and research experiences better), I would have loved for jr. faculty to have had *some* input into the process. But then, the school that dreamed this up is uber-egalitarian.

    What I found most useful about the openness was getting a crystal-clear understanding of how the T&P process actually worked. You knew exactly what a T&P file should look like, because you’d seen a bunch of them, and seen how the division responded to them. It really did significantly reduce the anxiety that goes along with the whole stupid process.

    But then, I’m not all that sure I’m even a proponent of tenure at all by this point, so it figures I’d like the crazy system. (Which, again, was unique even within the college – the other divisions did not make their process open, and I don’t know how much of that openness still remains.)

  13. squadratomagico » Blog Archive » tenure letters on 04 Feb 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    [...] petty backbiting and character assassination are not uncommon during the tenure process (check here and here for recent references to irrational decisions). In this light, it is perhaps significant [...]

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