Grateful for Tenure, but ...

June 15, 2004

Last year I wrote a diary of my job search for The Chronicle. As those of you who read my columns know, I was an assistant professor of history at a regional state university. Tired of the low salary, large class sizes, and heavy teaching load, I had hoped to land a new position but came up dry. Ultimately I decided was happy enough in my current position to apply for promotion and tenure.

This year, I applied for only a couple of jobs and -- as is apparently the custom in my field -- my application wasn't even acknowledged. I think it's safe to say I'm out of the running.

Things went better for me on the tenure front. A few weeks ago, I learned that I had received tenure and promotion to associate professor. Although my colleagues told me my case wasn't going to be a problem, I couldn't help worrying about it. It's nice to see they were right.

Now, having reached academe's promised land, my reaction to the news has been interesting, to say the least. I was distracted enough on the day I received the news that I backed one of my cars into the other in the driveway -- but that, as they say, is another story.

My wife and kids are ecstatic, and my friends have all been very enthusiastic as well. Many have shaken my hand and said some version of "You're on easy street now, buddy! Congratulations!"

This is really great news, right? What in the world is left to worry about? Why am I not blissfully happy?

Well, I will heartily enjoy exercising one of the major perks that come with tenure: the ability to speak my mind freely. While I'm not likely to become one of those pessimists among my older colleagues who see dark designs behind everything our administration does, it will be nice to be able to honestly tell administrators what I think. There have been a couple of times in the past few years when I wanted to, but held back because I feared that speaking up would jeopardize my future.

For example, when our administrators (who often claim publicly that we have a "bottom up" governance procedure) announce a major initiative that no one on the campus has ever heard about until the hastily called news conference, I'll actually be able to criticize them publicly for not following through on their own principles of consensus building and inclusion. And I won't have to worry about losing my job over it. I'll definitely appreciate that.

And I'll obviously enjoy the salary increase that comes with the promotion. Still, I find myself dwelling on the negative implications of this moment. I'm sure part of that is the skeptical and cynical nature of the academic mind. But I can't ignore those feelings.

The big question is this: Can I keep my sanity while teaching four classes and having nearly 200 students a semester for the next 30 years? That reality is now staring me squarely in the face. Do I really want to do this job until I retire?

That little quandary has even affected my day-to-day work. In the last couple of weeks, I have had a very difficult time grading student papers. Every course I taught, every article I published, everything in my life in the last few years, has been about bringing me one step closer to tenure and promotion. Having achieved it, I sat facing that pile of papers thinking, Why grade them? What's the big deal? I eventually completed the pile and returned them to my class on time, but it was a struggle.

I know such complaints are irritating (and should be) to someone who doesn't have a tenure-track job or, worse, who has just been denied tenure (as is the case for a couple of my faculty colleagues in other departments here). However, if I am to be honest with myself, I have to think about these things.

It's really a rather perverse process that makes you strive hard for years and then announces, "OK. You've made it. Now, if you want, keep working hard for the next promotion." I can't help but feel a little disappointed that I could stop doing much in the way of scholarship now and be quite secure in my current position.

I also can't help but dwell on the fact that so many potential opportunities are now closed to me because of my tenure. For example, a few weeks ago, I spotted a good job opening that I felt well qualified for at a major university in a neighboring state. I contacted the person leading the search to inquire about the job and ask if the position could be at the associate-professor level and if there would be a possibility of advancing the tenure clock once I arrived. I quickly was told that neither of those things was possible. It was an entry-level hire and that was that. I'm afraid that is going to be the case for nearly all of the good jobs now.

I honestly had convinced myself that tenure would make me feel a greater sense of freedom and security but, since I've received the news, I haven't felt that way at all. Why didn't I foresee this reaction? Is it the result of my seemingly unfulfilled ambition? Why do I feel like I'm "settling" for this job and this life? Why am I beginning to feel that tenure has trapped me here?

Surely my reaction isn't that unusual, is it? I'll just close this column by asking for some assistance from my colleagues out there in academe. Here are my two questions: Did any of you feel this way after learning of your promotion and tenure? How, ultimately, did you deal with it?

Lewis Harper is a pseudonym for an associate professor of history at a regional state university. In 2002-03, he chronicled his search for another tenure-track job.