A Way Out of This Mess

November 28, 2006

It's awkward to go about your normal teaching-and-research business on a campus once you have been denied tenure. You still have a year left in your contract, but students don't know you are leaving, and it's the last topic you want to bring up in conversation with them or anyone else.

On the bright side, watching your soon-to-be former colleagues feign a casual demeanor can be hilarious. You have to paint a cheerful and carefree expression on your own face, too. Routine social interactions become as scripted and impersonal as Kabuki.

Although tenure denial is a painful rejection on both professional and personal levels, you need to avoid being a sourpuss. You will need the department's support in your attempt to land a new job, or in the off chance that your appeal is successful.

My department, which is in the sciences, has been on my side; most of my colleagues agree with me that the dean denied me tenure without any sensible justification. I don't know why, but he lied to me, my chairman, and the rank-and-tenure committee, and he violated procedural rules to boot. Somehow, however, he has managed to shine a veneer of impartiality on the entire muddle.

Nonetheless, I have tried to be chipper around the department. But I admit to being somewhat bitter. It's hard to participate as a regular faculty member when curricula, community affairs, and campus politics no longer have much personal bearing. Rather than mustering such courage on a daily basis, I have taken the chicken's way out. Most of the time, when I'm not teaching, I work out of an office at a nearby institution where I hold an unpaid research associateship.

As a onetime Eagle Scout and emergency medical technician, I've been indoctrinated to "Be Prepared" and respond with cold sharp action to emergencies. Maybe that's not the best strategy, but I have used it often during my present career crisis. Early on, even as my chairman and other colleagues were unwilling to pick up on the nonverbal cues that I was about to be denied tenure, I tried to stop the bleeding as best as I could. I applied for jobs, began seeking grants to extend my salary, packed up my office somewhat, and found a property-management company.

I have been focusing on boosting my CV. There's little more I can do to increase my teaching credentials, other than put together a portfolio of the many courses I have taught over the past seven years. My chairman and other colleagues have written letters to corroborate that my performance and collegiality merit tenure at a teaching-centered institution. I have worked off a manuscript backlog; I now have five solid manuscripts in review, and two more soon to go out. My proposals and research are proceeding at a good clip.

To complicate my situation further, I just received a grant to conduct an exciting international research project during my sabbatical this spring (approved by my university before I was denied tenure). But I'm not sure if I will be able to spend the semester overseas if I'm still in an active job search. How strange to have three modest grants supporting my work yet to be facing unemployment.

I haven't been as effective at dealing with the personal aspects of losing my tenure case. My wife and I have strong roots in town, with overlapping professional and personal circles outside of the university. Discussing my situation with friends could hurt my wife's job situation if her colleagues thought she was preparing to leave town.

So at times I have found myself living a lie. When I go to a job interview, most friends outside the university think I have merely been invited to give a seminar, which is true, after all.

It would be nice to have a career doctor give me a straight-up prognosis and a recommendation for the best treatment. Unfortunately, there are no data from clinical trials on tenure-track careers. All I have found are personal accounts: Some search committees and deans are wary of candidates who have been denied tenure, while others realize that tenure denial is not always an indicator of an applicant's job performance or collegiality. I have no way to measure the relative proportions of those two categories.

This year's crop of openings in my specialty is strong. I have focused on applying for faculty jobs along with a few other intriguing possibilities in nonprofit and government organizations. While I have applied for 70 positions, some of which are clear stretches, I have not adopted a shotgun approach. I have tailored my applications to each position, detailing how my experiences fit the stated mission and department. To extend the firearms analogy, I have taken a machine-gun approach.

Now I am waiting for the phone to ring, and for the most part, it has not been ringing. A number of jobs have closing dates yet to come, but I suspect my prospects are poor. Tenure denial is an effective scarlet letter, and institutions are looking for junior faculty members with fewer years under their belt.

An ugly alternative theory is that I am not a viable candidate on the basis of my teaching and research record. I'm trying not to think about that; instead I'm inclined to chalk my poor interview-yield rate up to factors outside my control.

I have had four calls for interviews over the past few months, and two still hold some promise.

First, I was invited to interview for a temporary research-administration job with a government agency. I bought a suit for the first time in my adult life. But when I arrived, the interviewers told me (in code) that I was at the bottom of the shortlist. I didn't manage to swim up to the top.

The second call came from the chairman of a faraway comprehensive state university. Having not yet requested my letters of recommendation, he was calling to find out if I had been denied tenure or if there was some other explanation behind my application. He left me with the impression that his dean would not green light an interview for a candidate who had been denied tenure, particularly if it would require an expensive plane ticket. I'm not desperate enough to offer to pay my own airfare -- at least not yet.

My third interview is at a public research institution, for a very attractive position in my specialty that is harder to come by than a tenure-track slot. The downsides? The job is located in a nice city but far away from any place of particular interest to us, and it pays significantly less than what I am earning now.

My wife has already landed an interview for a job in the same city. I'm summoning everything possible to rock during this interview, which will be a marathon three days on site. There is little doubt that by the end of it we will all know whether I would be a good fit for the institution.

My fourth interview is via telephone for a tenure-track job at a highly ranked liberal-arts college in the Northeast that I had just about given up on. It's one of the most attractive positions I applied for, and in many ways the college embodies everything that my current institution strives to be. The college is in a wonderfully liberal town where my wife and I already have two good friends.

That college's search committee was one of those that requested a list of references rather than actual letters of recommendation. The fact that I haven't gotten calls from any of the searches that requested letters leads me to suspect that something in those letters -- or something missing from them -- has been hurting my chances.

So I assume the search committee at this liberal-arts college does not yet know that I have been denied tenure, although a glance at my CV might suggest that possibility. Let's hope the topic doesn't come up during my interview, and the members of the search committee instead just ask me why I want their position. Fortunately, I have many reasons other than "I need a job."

I am facing a common dilemma in academe, or at least one frequently discussed in the The Chronicle. I desperately want to remain an academic in my field, but that isn't realistic if my wife and I stay in our city, and we really enjoy being here. I apparently have to choose between two unpleasant options: move or change careers.

My wife has been extraordinarily supportive and courageous, and acknowledges that we have to move -- if I actually manage to get a job offer. She has succeeded in convincing me that moving would be a fun adventure. Alternatively, if we stay, I could try to subsist off soft money, but it is a pitiful existence living anxiously from grant cycle to grant cycle. At least it would be for me.

At the moment, I'm right where my crisis mode has placed me: waiting to hear about a gazillion job applications, waiting to hear about the inevitable rejection of my tenure appeal, waiting for the phone to ring, and still daydreaming about a way out of this mess.

Peter Ellenbogen is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the sciences teaching his seventh and final year at a West Coast university. He will be chronicling his search for a new position in academe.