The Chronicle Review

A Professor and His Wife on Absorbing the Shock of Tenure Denial

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review

July 03, 2011

Daniel W. Drezner: 'The Loudest F One Can Earn'

Five years ago, my family packed up our possessions and moved from Chicago to Boston. This transition was not by choice. In its finite wisdom, the University of Chicago's department of political science had denied me tenure, forcing me to find employment elsewhere. At the time, I remember not being crazy about this sequence of events but not really having the time to process it. There were children to get into school, a house to find and furnish, a new commute to master, and so forth.

The arrival of this anniversary allows for some more substantial reflection. I've been asked the same questions repeatedly over the past half-decade: What happened? If I could go into the wayback machine, what would I do differently? Do I still think about it? What lessons would I impart to others? Am I still bitter?

I've been reluctant to answer those questions, in no small part because my experience was so idiosyncratic. I knew within a week of my tenure denial that I would receive a job offer from another college. As it turned out, that offer included a substantial raise from my salary at Chicago. As periods of uncertainty go, mine was mercifully brief, surprisingly lucrative, and far from typical.

In one important way, however, my particular arc does suggest some advice. Tenure denials come with a multiplicity of stresses. The emotional pain of rejection is married to the material anxiety of trying to find gainful employment elsewhere, the anxiety of reassuring friends and family, and the existential anxiety of questioning if academe is the right career. In my case, however, only the emotional pain was an issue.

So what have I learned? The most important thing is that I now know that many of the mysteries that come with tenure denial will never be satisfactorily solved. I was inundated with "What happened?" questions the moment my news went public. In retrospect, the very fact of my denial suggested that my sources of information were not reliable. Even though I was at the center of the storm, my understanding was partial at best. People who earn tenure tend to have strong allies who lobby fiercely on their behalf. I didn't have any of those. I received the formal description from my department chair, and a few colleagues who were inside my academic star chamber told me their versions of events. Each of those people told me what they believed to be true—but their interpretations were incomplete. The result was a true Rashomon-style set of narratives.

Some of my friends started spinning fantastical explanations, including my political views and simple jealousy. Indulging in "What happened?" musings is inevitable—indeed, most social scientists are trained to search for underlying causes. But a good social scientist must also be wary of overdetermined outcomes. There is always the element of chance to any outcome. Get 20 tenured academics in a room, and that stochastic element explodes. After five years, I've grown comfortable with the idea that there is a limit to how much I will ever know about what happened. But it took nearly all five of those years to reach this point.

My slow learning curve is due in part to the fact that getting denied tenure is not just one shock, but an earthquake followed by multiple aftershocks. Having to talk about it at every conference I attended for the next few years meant reliving the experience in a Groundhog Day manner. As interconnected as academics might be online, news of this kind spreads slowly. Even if colleagues know, some of them will play dumb in a face-to-face encounter, in the hope that my account will reveal some insidery detail.

With each successive explanation, everything becomes more rote. I soon had my humorous but reasonably forthcoming script at the ready, and it made these interactions increasingly anodyne. The only time I went off-script was when I was approached by a friend or acquaintance who had just been denied tenure—this happened on a surprisingly frequent basis. Over the next few years, junior international-relations professors sought me out to tell their tales and ask for advice and support. I had unwittingly become a patron saint of tenure denial.

In retrospect, these conversations were the most rewarding part of the entire experience. Academics are not a terribly empathetic lot, and those who have never been denied tenure lack the tacit knowledge necessary to understand the stages of grief that one endures after an outright rejection. Talking to my fellow rejectees permitted a candor that was not possible in other professional conversations. Discussing the many emotional roadblocks with those in a similar predicament allowed me to get a better handle on my own journey.

When does that journey end? I have mixed news to report: The pain of rejection is like a scar that never completely heals. Those who aspire to join the academy have spent their lives doing really, really well at school—and being denied tenure is about the loudest F one can earn. The sense of failure never goes away.

On the other hand, experiencing the ultimate rejection made the prospect of failure in other ventures less scary. I've taken greater risks in my research in the past half-decade than I ever did before—and the rewards have been very good. I've published four books, written or co-written 10 peer-reviewed articles and about 30 book chapters, essays, and book reviews. One of those books was about international relations and ... zombies. I'm a full professor at the oldest school of international affairs in the country.

Scars hurt, but they also build character—just ask Harrison Ford or Tina Fey. Being on the other side of the tenure divide, I've written letters for others and now have a better appreciation of the agonizing decisions and circumspect processes associated with the tenure vote. I don't know if the University of Chicago's department of political science would change its mind if it could go back in time. It has moved on and will no doubt soon reclaim its historical status as a great place for international relations. I have moved on as well.

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. His most recent book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, was published by Princeton University Press this year.


Erika Drezner: My Confident Husband, Suddenly Full of Self-Doubt

There are things in life I have worried about. Outcomes that made me sick to my stomach: A medical test brings bad news; a plane has engine trouble; my son wanders into the middle of a street. Things that seemed devastating, life-ending, unimaginable. My husband's tenure decision was not one of these things.

I had little reason to doubt that everything would go well. My husband is one of the most confident people I know. This is both attractive and exasperating. We once had a disagreement about the meaning of a word. When I read the dictionary definition to him, he said the dictionary was wrong. The rabbi who married us compared him to Jacob in her sermon, saying, "Jacob argued with God."

To be fair to Dan, in the months leading up to the tenure decision, he did say that he was uncertain how things would go, but he didn't seem concerned. Then, just days before the faculty were to meet about my husband's case, a close friend and colleague in the same department was denied tenure. At that point, Dan's tenure decision became a funny-looking mole that the dermatologist said needed to be removed and tested—something to dread.

My husband was out of town at a conference when he received the call from the department chair. Then he called me. For the first time in the 12 years I'd known him, he sounded full of self-doubt. He blamed himself. I was stunned, speechless. It was as if I was meeting the 16-year-old Dan Drezner for the first time—the awkward, retainer-wearing captain of the math team. I'd love to say that I was a strong and supportive spouse, but the truth is I panicked. I hung up the phone and called a friend—the same friend who had himself just been denied tenure—who came over to reassure me.

I was nervous. The family breadwinner was going to be out of a job in nine months, and my two master's degrees, in the lucrative fields of English literature and social work, weren't going to take us far. I was worried that my husband would return from his conference and spend weeks wandering around the house disheveled, crying, eating ice cream—or whatever men do when they're really upset. In fact, my husband spent only a few days moping. He got a new position, with tenure, and we moved. Five years later, I am happy to share what I, a nonacademic spouse of an academic, have learned. I hope it will help others, or at least make them feel less alone.

It's OK to talk about it. Well, at least I think so, but I am a pretty open person. In a small academic enclave, everyone is going to know anyway. Most of my husband's colleagues lived within three blocks of us, and I would see them when I was taking the kids to the park or wandering through a local bookstore. For those who live in one-industry communities (whether university or coal mine) it's probably safe to assume that the news is out.

Instead of waiting for other people to bring it up or not bring it up (instead looking meaningfully into your eyes and asking, "How are you?," as if your dog has just been hit by a UPS truck), just get it out. In our case, the tenure decision was covered in the press. It seemed a matter of public record, and there was no reason for me not to talk about it. Also, if you start the discussion, you can have more control over it.

If you are lucky enough to live among neighbors without university affiliations, you have the option of telling or not. The nice thing about telling nonacademic types is that you get some perspective on how bizarre the tenure process really is. After all, most people in most jobs don't get fired without really having messed up. Most people don't have their employment decisions made by a group that consists of the majority of their colleagues, so that everyone knows exactly what went down except for themselves and a few other people. And, of course, most people don't have employment decisions that come down to the two extremes of "Well, we're either going to can you or give you employment for life." Even lawyers going through the partnership process think tenure is nuts.

This has happened to other people. One of the bright spots about being open about the situation is that you will very likely be approached by others who have survived tenure denials. One of my friends, the wife of a superstar law professor, and herself the daughter of an academic, told me the story of her father's tenure denial. I actually heard from and about so many tenure deny-ees that it began to seem like it had happened to almost everyone. Tenure denial is not the land from which no man or woman returns. Deny-ees have gone on to publish more articles on obscure subjects in journals read by 12 or fewer people. More important, they have led lives that include things like marrying, raising children, vacationing with friends, owning pets, eating gourmet meals, listening to polka music, and whatever else makes them happy. Life does go on.

It's all right to mope (a little). My greatest regret is that I forced my husband to buck up a little too quickly. This was because I was busy freaking out myself. It's ironic, because as a social worker and a child of the Free to Be You and Me generation, I am usually adamant that people are entitled to their own feelings. But at that moment, I felt entitled to my own freakout. My husband was just going to have to man up. I was thrown by his insecure teenage alter ego. I wanted the grown-up Dan Drezner back. Plus, after a weekend of him moping around our apartment, I knew I wasn't going to be able to take care of our two young kids without his help. We had not yet told our son what had happened. "Daddy got fired and now we are going to have to move, but we don't know where" seemed like a bad thing to tell a 5-year-old. We needed certainty, and Dan needed to get back on the ball. But I think I should have given him a few more days.

You probably won't know why. People will want to know why this has happened, and they are going to ask you. This is primarily because they are afraid that they will upset your spouse/partner by asking him/her directly. I was asked the "why" question by just about everyone—neighbors, friends, my parents, his parents, our siblings. I didn't really know why and could only conjecture. My initial theory was something like "______ is an ass." Then people would say, "Do you think it was ______?" And I would say, "I don't know, but I kind of always thought he was an ass." Because I really didn't know a thing.

In our case, people had theories, from the possible to the outlandish. Three years earlier, Dan had started a blog that was apparently viewed by some colleagues as a distraction from serious reading and writing. (I found that it took away mainly from the time he could have spent picking up his socks from our bedroom floor.) So the blog was the primary suspect. Other people were sure it was my husband's lack of opposition to the war in Iraq. Even anti-Semitism was floated as a reason.

The truth is that a bunch of people went into a room and talked and came up with a decision. I know about groupthink and group dynamics, but I don't know what happened in that room. And I am enough of a believer in unconscious motivation to realize that some of the people who were there might not know, either. For all I know, one of them is right now sitting in his therapist's office wondering, "Why did I have it in for Dan Drezner? Is it because he has such great hair?"

So unless the academic you love did something really boneheaded, you will probably not know why the decision was made. And trying to figure it out won't make you feel better; in fact, it will just make you cranky. Just look at the two preceding paragraphs—and I've had five years to process this.

One of the most difficult aspects of tenure denial is that the decision is not made by some random, faceless, corporate bureaucracy. It's made by people you may know well. You've attended one another's weddings and baby showers. Your kids go to school together and share play dates. Even if you aren't close enough to consider one another friends, you'll still feel betrayed. It's impossible to feel any other way—after all, the person who plunged the knife in your spouse's back once sat at your dinner table and ate off your china.

Things turned out well for us. We were lucky—my husband found a job, with tenure, and we moved to Boston, which just happens to be my favorite city. Our kids were young enough to move without much difficulty. I know that other people have had it a lot harder. They've struggled to find work, relocated to less desirable places, and have painfully disrupted family life. This is particularly difficult for couples in which both are academics. Those of us in more "portable" careers should be grateful to have avoided the two-body problem.

By the time we left Chicago, almost nine months after my husband's tenure decision, I was ready to leave Hyde Park behind and never look back. Whatever love I had for the place and for the university was gone. I have no nostalgia for the time we lived there. I am glad I no longer live in Chicago. I am happier here in Boston. And because of that, I look at the tenure episode as a hard time we had to endure to get to a better place. And it may be the same for any spouse or partner. Once you have unpacked, settled in, found yourself a good book group, a gym, a place to get coffee, once the kids are back in school and have made friends, once the new place feels like home, you may think, "This is better." A lot of the hurt will have subsided.

But it will very likely not be the same for your spouses. The rejection is so much bigger for them, even if they can step back, reflect, and sound philosophical. For them it will always sting. The confident, grown-up Dan Drezner is back. But I know that insecure 16-year-old is still there, even if I hardly ever see him.

Erika Drezner is a social worker and coordinator of teen services at the Asperger’s Association of New England.