Real Tenure Is Portable

February 06, 2009

Early on in my academic career, I became friends with "Dr. Bleakhouse," a senior faculty member at a local college, who offered me frequent career advice. One day I met him at his office, where he gestured for me to take a seat and closed the door behind us. In a half-whisper he told me a half-secret: Four years earlier, his college had almost shut down. It had changed his life, and he wanted it to change my life as well.

Bleakhouse had earned his doctorate from a top-20 program in our field and had published consistently high-quality scholarship, even as he taught a ridiculous load. Then he'd gotten lazy, as he termed it. He'd stopped writing, dabbled in administration, and just started putting in his time.

Then his college found itself in grave financial trouble. Persistent, well-placed rumors swirled that the spring semester very well might be its last. He realized, at age 55 or so, that he needed to generate a CV.

Bleakhouse went on to tell me that he could not relocate; his parents and his in-laws were in their 80s and required his help. He held the rank of full professor, but the openings at nearby universities were for assistant professors. He applied to area community colleges but was turned down. He wasn't certified, so the local high schools weren't interested. The only job offer he received came from a private high school, but at a 60-percent pay cut.

As he told me the story, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I like you. I was like you. I hope that you never know what I had to go through." The college had managed to stay afloat, and he had learned a hard lesson: "Don't get lazy." he warned. "Don't stop writing. Keep attending conferences. Don't let this happen to you."

Then he said something that has stayed with me: "Tenure is only worth as much as the institution that assigns it, and my tenure isn't worth the paper that it's printed on. Portability is real tenure."

Over the years, I've known colleagues who have learned that bitter lesson. The unholy trinity of bad administration, bad economics, and bad luck has cheated friends out of promising careers and converted them into the academic undead. I fear that many more colleagues will be joining that group, given the sobering economic news that continues to fill our in boxes.

Effective mentors will stress the importance of mobility for Ph.D.'s newly on the market. Rarely, though, do I hear mentors emphasize the importance of mobility after landing that first job. This past summer, however, Anthony Grafton and Robert B. Townsend touched on the topic in an article about the history job market (The Chronicle, July 11, 2008). "Mobility," they wrote, "or the possibility of it, matters even for those who have tenured positions."

Grafton and Townsend refer to the portability that Bleakhouse called "real tenure." I like to call it "professional tenure" — the unspoken tenure that we academics create by participating in the broader life of academe. It is, hands down, the most valuable kind of tenure, precisely because it transcends the narrow realm of any one institution.

When we talk about institution-based tenure as the great goal toward which professors strive, we presume that tenure itself is worth something. It does, of course, afford a level of academic freedom and of financial security through the predictability of a lifelong contract. But institutional tenure is, as Bleakhouse indicated, rooted in the quality and financial health of a particular college or university.

By contrast, "professional tenure" — the portable version you acquire by reputation — comes in at least two forms:

  • Portable tenure can be based on your research. It means that your peer-reviewed work or grantsmanship is respected enough to merit consideration for endowed chairs or senior fellowships at strong institutions. Occasionally, though, it can also mean producing enough high-quality work to be able to jump to a "better" institution, moving from a relatively poor small college to a midsized university just before achieving the rank of associate professor.

  • Another version is administrative, and arises from an ever-progressive set of skills and experiences that are built in preparation for the next level of administration. Committee leadership can result in a department chair's position. Experience as a chair can yield a dean's slot. Skillful work as a dean can produce a vice presidency. Better yet, parallel moves can be enjoyed at each of those levels, as you leave one campus for a peer institution that is more stable if any of the unholy trinity strikes.

Institution-based tenure has an unfortunate tendency, in some cases, to blunt professional output. The opposite is true of professional tenure. Research productivity is easy to measure; administrative productivity is a bit trickier but does translate into ample résumé material.

Networking, however, is the most important element of gaining portable tenure. Top scholars publish widely because they network widely. They go to conferences, serve on editorial boards, review grant proposals. Top administrators must engage in the same kinds of activities: They not only need to attend conferences but also to lead breakout sessions; not only to join e-mail discussion groups but also to make regular, thoughtful postings. They need to perform free consulting whenever the opportunity arises, including service to accreditors and other professional societies. Each of those activities engages the larger academic world in ways that earn respect and distinction.

Most senior faculty members and administration know which of their colleagues enjoy portable tenure. My observation has been that those academics are much more satisfied with their careers and, in fact, with their roles at their institutions. By contrast, an academic who is overworked, underpaid, and sour-faced is likely to be one whose tenure is only institution-based.

Committee service is a good means of gauging a scholar's status. I once heard a senior administrator say, "If you want a job to get done, find the busiest person around and give her more to do. There's a reason why she's that busy." The subtext there was that the "busiest person" was not portable and could not say no. I have rarely seen academics with professional tenure unwillingly bear the burden of heavy committee work for long.

Avoidance of committee service, however, can be the dark side of professional tenure, signaling an aloof temperament that can undermine a scholar's career. A further danger is the temptation to become a mercenary ladder-climber who misses out on the joy of investing in a single institution for the long haul. The job market has little patience for people who demonstrate arrogant ambition or off-putting belligerence. Portable tenure is most satisfying when it is viewed as an insurance policy, not simply as a meal ticket.

Recently a colleague at another institution called me for advice. He had an offer to move to a different college, with a significant raise in pay but without tenure for the first couple of years. He wanted my thoughts.

In his case, there were two good factors in his favor: He would make a remarkable leap from a bottom-tier institution to a first-tier one, and he would earn more money in the process. Further, I told him that he had been savvy enough to make sure his tenure was portable: He had published carefully and consistently, had a new book due out, and had gained administrative skills that made him even more attractive. He already had tenure, but it was the lesser, institution-based kind. And his new employer would very likely offer him that version in a few years, which would affirm the professional tenure he had earned for himself by working hard ever since graduate school. He has remained portable.

That unholy trinity of higher education — bad administration, bad economics, bad luck — forms a force that lies outside of our control. We can watch the effects unfold — almost daily, it seems — but we cannot prevent them. We can, however, control our own work by teaching innovatively, publishing widely, and establishing ourselves as valued administrators. By achieving real tenure, we can avoid the laziness and self-satisfaction that are endemic to our profession. In these difficult economic times, that's as close to real job security as you can get.


Gene C. Fant Jr. is dean of arts and sciences at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is a contributing blogger at The Chronicle's "On Hiring" blog: