Dead Professor Walking

Brian Taylor

August 31, 2004

This year I have been able to experience what it would be like to attend my own funeral.

In a controversial decision, I've been denied tenure as an assistant professor of health at a research university in the Midwest. As a result, and in what is tantamount to a living eulogy, I have been visited by many, and besieged by e-mail messages, cards, and letters that speak with acrimony about the university's decision and of admiration for me and my teaching.

Notice of my denial came last spring. Come fall, I will remain on the faculty for a final year -- sort of a dead professor walking -- and be officially let go next summer.

Unlike those who describe a near-death experience as floating around in a foggy aura, I have been very much present for my own memorial. I am at once awestruck by the power of a few people to reroute my career, and dumbfounded by the depth of feelings my students and colleagues have toward me.

The trigger was pulled at the college level, after my department had forwarded my case. What happened? It is hard to say because, under strict policies of confidentiality, I have been unable to read, or hear, the comments of those who voted for and against me. Our university provides no formal appeals process so I have been forced to seek answers from an unbending administration.

What most likely happened? In a university that every year intensifies the chant of "research, research, research," I apparently spent too much time teaching, and made the mistake of going up for tenure on the combined strengths of my research and my classroom skills.

Since my university is a land-grant institution and since I teach future community-health practitioners, I felt the need -- and indeed was encouraged by the administration -- to excel in the classroom. For my efforts, I've won teaching awards at the departmental, college, and university level, and received university and national honors for work in advising students.

Those honors, along with my excellent teaching evaluations from students, have always been a source of pride, but nothing prepared me for the response I have received in the last few months as I have informed people about the university's decision.

Although I'd like to think that the outpouring of support is all about me, I also believe it is a sign of a malaise, a distant rumbling from the masses regarding their angst about the direction of higher education. Students complain about tuition increases that seem to be concomitant with larger classes and less interaction with faculty members. Where is the value, they ask? Why should I pay more for less?

This past spring, Harvard University released the first comprehensive report on its curriculum since 1978. A notable finding in the report was that undergraduates needed to have more direct contact with faculty members, especially in seminars and small classes.

But I live in the Midwest and change moves with glacial speed toward the heartland. It will be a long while before my university embraces the concept that undergraduates need to spend more time with professors. By that time, I will have long since been purged from the faculty roster.

There have been times, over the past semester, when I have felt the pull of the tractor beam of tradition. In a way, I have felt like I was in a modern-day portrayal of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery": My public stoning will occur in order to keep safe the time-honored ritual of the tenure process.

At other times, I have felt like I was experiencing the "last dance" before death. I am no longer included in plans for the future. I returned from a recent business trip to find a job description for my replacement already written and awaiting faculty approval. Last week I dreamt that I had discovered a faceless "new" professor in my office, busily measuring the room's dimensions.

I have endured the isolation that comes, no doubt, to those dying of a fatal and mysterious disease. Suddenly some people seem to view me as a pariah, a leper, a contagion. The untenured steer a wide berth lest the vapor touch them. The recently tenured avert their gaze, and hope no one points the finger of imposter at them. The full professors turn a callous eye toward this grieving process, having many years ago become inured to such losses.

There have been times, too, that I have felt that I have crossed the River Styx and await entrance to Hades. I have encountered Cerberus, and the faces on its three heads are those of my department head, the dean, and the provost. All three bark varying reasons for my tenure denial, all snarl differing commands. But, in the end, the body behaves with equanimity and the message is the same.

It is, of course, the fault of the untenured professor who failed to hit the roving and camouflaged bull's-eye that is tenure. I, they state, should have realized that some critics would count the number of pages I had published, and others would disagree with my line of research. It matters not that external reviewers liked what they saw; it isn't good enough for us.

The three-headed dog always protects its core and uses its serpentine tail to flick away those who are not frightened by its mighty jaws.

Am I cynical about academe? Well, yes. This experience has sated my taste for tweed, ivy-covered edifices, and unbridled bureaucracy. For family reasons, I'll more than likely stay through my seventh year, and use the time to stop, pause, and reflect (although it seems more like stop, drop, and roll) about where I'd like to take the second half of my career.

Will I leave for a government job or for one in private industry? Am I ready to work in a nonprofit agency? Should I bag the lot and become a small-business owner? It would seem, even to the most casual observer, that I have not yet achieved the acceptance phase of the Kubler-Ross continuum.

Maria Annunziata is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of health at a research university in the Midwest.