Life After Tenure Denial

February 03, 2010

The Internet is a beautifully stocked library. All sorts of information can be found, albeit of varying quality: peer-reviewed publications, public records, images of cats with Hitleresque mustaches. If Google has its way, the contents of every book in the world will soon be found on its site. Nevertheless, for the intrepid researcher there remains one subject that is poorly represented in books and on the Internet: the fate of professors who are denied tenure.

Four years ago, that was a topic of great interest to me as I was in the process of being denied tenure. I wanted to find reports on outcomes, like the percentage of professors who found new positions after being denied tenure, broken down by institution type and discipline. Lacking such data, I at least wanted to read some personalized accounts to sort through my feelings. They were equally scant, and the ones I found were clearly a nonrandom subsample representing the most bitter former professors.

In a small gesture to rectify that situation, I wrote four columns during my search for a new position after my unexpected ouster. (To read them, see: "No Warning Signs," "A Way Out of This Mess," "Reviving My Career," and "A Fresh Start.") In brief, the series ended with my move from a private religious university in my wife's hometown to a state university in my hometown, with a shortened tenure clock.

Here, I'd like to report on life a few years beyond tenure denial, and how it has affected me personally and professionally.

I look on tenure denial as an unearned blessing that delivered me from a font of disappointment. I now realize that I was always capable of moving to a better academic position and even to a better city. But I had not seriously considered moving because I was so focused on doing well where I was rooted, and I wanted to maintain stability for my family, and especially for my wife's career.

It's still mostly a mystery to me why I was denied tenure. Hindsight has not blessed me with many new insights on that front. One certainty is that my dean adeptly choreographed the event, unbeknownst to me until the curtain had already fallen.

I didn't see it coming, nor did any of my departmental colleages—to my knowledge. Last year I learned some of the details at a wedding reception from an alcohol-addled former colleague who was preparing to retire. She was privy to some confidential deliberations about my file. I heard a bit more about how the dean shifted the decision on my case against the will of my department. I was outgunned and outmaneuvered.

Apparently he had plotted my demise in advance. The extent of his machinations seemed more personal than professional. My best guess is that, two years earlier, he was soured against me when I used a little-known campus policy to request paid family leave after the birth of my son. Or perhaps it was that time when the parent of a particularly petulant student from a philanthropic family complainted to the dean after I refused to alter the student's grade. Perhaps it was both. Who knows?

The most painful part of the tenure process was the lack of transparency. All kinds of information—and disinformation—were inserted into my file after I had prepared it. I wasn't even notified about the new content, much less allowed access to it. I only received hearsay.

After I was denied tenure, I didn't believe my friends and colleagues when they tried to reassure me that things would turn out fine. I could not imagine a scenario in which my professional and personal life would be improved. I am blessed to say that I was mistaken. For those of you who are staring into the prospect of tenure denial at this time, and are seeking some solace, please compare this column with the ones I wrote while I was being denied tenure.

At this moment, I am up for tenure again. I will receive notice in the next few months. My colleagues are as confident about a positive outcome as my former colleagues were last time. I can't control the decision, but I think this situation is different from my last attempt in a few important ways. Faculty members at my new institution are reviewed on an annual basis, and the tenure process is fairly transparent. Faculty members are represented by a union that robustly protects against procedural violations. My peers and supervisors have little choice but to be honest about my work from Day 1.

The funny business that happened when I was denied tenure does not seem like it could happen at my new university. People are denied tenure here, but those denials actually stand up to some level of reason. The funny stuff that went on with my case last time—starting with the dean and up to the president—would never be tolerated here.

It might sound like I'm still on the rebound after getting dumped. But now that I'm into my third year in this job, I am well acquainted with its drawbacks. Still, my new university is a much better fit for my values and priorities. The students I serve are mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, they are hungry to work and learn, and they possess not an iota of entitlement. I deeply enjoy teaching, and I would like to teach while pursuing an aggressive research agenda.

While many universities claim to value both teaching and research, I've decided that most of those places are either lying or fooling themselves. In my current job, my efforts to grow as a teacher have been as well supported as my research agenda. Both aspects are undersupported, on account of poor resources, but the environment is uniformly positive. I am glad to be away from colleagues who feel that genuine research distracts from teaching.

I didn't accept my current job because it was a peach. I ultimately had a couple choices, but I took this job because the university was willing to take a chance on me, and I wanted to stay in my favorite part of the country. A big reason I took it is because my wife—whose career is even less portable than that of a tenure-track scientist—got a great job here.

Let me compare my new job to my old job. I'm still a medium-sized fish in a small pond. But before I was a slimy hagfish, and now I'm a pretty koi.

I have slightly better pay, much better benefits, a lower teaching load, and more genial and truly supportive colleagues. I have increased the quality and quantity of my research program, thanks to administrators who have been actively encouraging me. That is a welcome shift from having colleagues who were falsely convinced that my research harmed my teaching.

I now work at a public university whose mission is to teach anybody who wishes to learn, and to serve the underserved. I'm teaching mostly the same way I have been for the last 10 years, but I've never felt so appreciated. I've never had so many students tell me that I've changed or made a difference in their lives. Their demeanor is refreshingly free of entitlement, compared with students at the expensive and nonselective private institution where I used to teach.

There is one downside to my move: a much longer commute. But it's been three years since we moved here, and I love it. The city has more to offer, there is much better access to nature, and I'm fitting into my community far better than I ever did at my old job. I made some lasting friendships in my old town, but I never felt as if I belonged. Now I belong.

When I was preparing for my first major review in my new job, I went to read my student evaluations and personnel records on file at the administrative building. My department clearly put more effort into evaluating my teaching as a job applicant than my old department did throughout the five years before I came up for tenure.

It was particularly touching to read a letter from the dean to the provost recommending my hire. I had no illusion that the administration would rubberstamp the decision to hire a faculty member who had been denied tenure by a university that rarely does so. I was acknowledged as a hiring risk, but the dean said, the potential benefits would be great given the strength of my teaching experience and research programs.

The upshot is that I am not more enlightened because I survived tenure denial. But a few years later, I happen to find myself happier, more satisfied with my research and my teaching, and more receptive to compassion.

Peter Ellenbogen is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the sciences at a state university in the West.