Trials and Tribulations of the Untenured

Most of what I know about getting tenure was gleaned from listening to the stories of professors who didn’t get it.

Flash-back to the early 1980s. John–being a sufficiently generic appellation, we’ll use his actual name–was monopolizing the Xerox machine.  I noticed a look of quiet desperation on his face while awaiting my turn, concealing my growing impatience.

I politely inquired how long he’d be. That prompted him to emote.

He’d been denied tenure.

Then as now, the protocol was to file an appeal.

The process he described sounded like a cross between a dissertation defense and a stay of execution. I was taken aback by his academic trials and tribulations. Some of the diatribe reminded me of holocaust survivor stories I’d heard from my grandparents.

The catechism “publish or perish” cropped-up for the first time in that conversation. I asked, “How much is enough?”

“Rumor has it there’s a scale in the dean’s office. No one outside our discipline understands what we write. Double-space and use a thick rag bond,” he replied.

A sympathetic colleague who happened upon us enjoined,

“If they like you, this is enough (small spread of thumb and index finger). If they don’t like you, this isn’t enough (wide spread of hands).

A week later, John knocked on my office door to gift his copy of Richard Mandell’s The Professor Game to me. I got the update on his summa apologia and listened intently, not having realized when I got into the business that this was the end-game for most academics.

PTR (Promotion, Tenure and Renewal) decisions are typically rendered at the end of the spring semester and arbitrated if necessary over summer break. John wasn’t around at the start of the fall term having either lost the game or decided not to play.

I read Mandell’s hysterical book, which alternates between practical advice and case study chapters that are based on the careers of actual professors.

I then took it upon myself to inquire of senior faculty, “What’s the secret to getting tenure at this place?” The answers were jarring.

“Hang your head low,” said one.

“Smile a lot,” said another.

“Be seen, be competent, be nice,” advised a third.

Like most junior faculty in the early phases of their careers, I was quite naive about PTR.

I’d heard of departmental chairmen and deans as an undergraduate, but never interacted with one. An adviser was the all-powerful authority figure in my narrow purview, who impersonally signed-off on registrations the three or four times we interacted in obligatory visits to his office. I saw the designation provost for the first time in the program accompanying my baccalaureate diploma.

Even as a doctoral student I had only a vague awareness of the academic hierarchy, yet alone the dynamics of scaling it.

In the 30+ years since, I’ve won promotion and tenure, served in faculty governance, been a faculty president and chaired a department. Having served on PTR committees, I’ve heard every story and read every script.

Nothing has changed. Junior faculty are as naive today as they were when I got into the business.

So, I recommend Mandell’s book to new faculty, which is still available on Amazon and apropos as ever. Only the first chapter has become dated.

In the spirit of Mandell, the eminent geographer Leon Yacher once said,

“Getting tenure is a game. “You have to know the rules in order to play.” He recommended making up a checklist of criteria, keeping score and setting goals. “The rules are in the faculty handbook.”

Surprisingly, many faculty have not read their institution’s faculty handbook prior to accepting an appointment. Moreover, many treat contractual documents as mana from heaven and sign on the dotted line without emendations.

I advise junior faculty to append a breakdown of their academic load calculation in terms of their goals for each year, expressed as a percent. At times I would handwrite this on my reappointment letter, using indelible ink, just below the signature line of the reappointment letter. Never once was it denied.

The reappointment letter serves as an explicit agreement, making clear what one intends to do, and serves as a contractual gage of what one has accomplished, no more nor less, by the time of the next round of review.

For the first-timer, beware there is a honeymoon period that starts when an offer is tendered, extending till about two weeks after you’ve shown up for work. Once an institution has tipped its hand in offering you an appointment, you have the opportunity to request a bump in rank, which costs them nothing if the salary is low, the services of a graduate assistant or two, furnishings for your office, a laptop, reimbursements for professional development, and if it’s icky, a fresh coat of paint on the walls of your assigned hovel. Ask and ye shall receive. Don’t be bashful.

There is a distinction made been Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools. Roughly, Tier 1 schools are producers of knowledge, whereas Tier 2 institutions are consumers of knowledge. Disseminating knowledge is what professors do, but at some places the balance between teaching and research is skewed. Thus, there is a bent at Tier 1s to favor grant-funded original research and a propensity at Tier 2s to do pragmatic self-funded studies.

In either case, gaps in one’s record of publication present as a checkered past to review committees. You generally don’t need to do anything ground breaking, but do something. There are plenty of third and fourth-rate conferences that will publish anything in their proceedings, and it is stupid not to put in for a panel or a poster session as a contingency if your proposal is rejected.

Visibility is also important. Volunteer to serve on your institution’s senate, and be a point-person or sub-committee member whenever the opportunity avails. Most of these service arms really don’t do much. Moreover, you’re low on the totem pole, so let the silverbacks speak their minds. One senior colleague remarked, “No one ever learned anything by speaking.” There is some truth to that. In concordance, another said, “Take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth.”

If you’re worried about tenure, you’re probably not going to get it.


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