Terminal Associate Professors, Past and Present

Why do some academics stall at midcareer?


March 26, 2014

One took long coffee breaks twice a day. Another loved to travel, and a third was often ill. There were others who worked hard, but not as researchers. Two became administrators, and their only writing took the form of memoranda.

Those colleagues were what we in academe call "terminal associate professors." They were the semi-scholars, found at every institution, who made it over the hurdle of tenure and then their careers simply stalled.

I recall yet another terminal associate professor, a talented teacher, who earned tenure and then looked outside the university for challenges, selling 18th-century furniture. A less-talented colleague focused on his real-estate holdings, occasionally telling the assistant professors they were in the wrong business as he held up a roll of $100 bills.

That was the state of the terminal associate professors at my university 30 years ago. In the College of Education, we had seven of them. It was clear that something was missing in each one. Their work ethic was modest, or they directed their energy away from scholarship. Most of them had been hired at a time when jobs abounded for rookies without ambitious research agendas.

As those faculty members retired, and as the standards for tenure rose and the job market worsened, we have had fewer and fewer terminal associates. But when we do have them now, a new type has emerged: He (and they are usually male) is undeniably smart, and is also diligent. He has no desire to channel his time and talent into administration. He works long hours, even on weekends. He cares about research, and published in good journals as an assistant professor. The case for promotion and tenure had been solid.

And then …

Without the pressure of an up-or-out tenure decision, his projects rarely come to fruition. There is always something in the works, but getting it from "in progress" to "in print" is almost impossible. The important book needs just one more revision, or the journal requested sooooooo many changes, or the data collection stopped for any number of reasons. All of the excuses are plausible—for a year or two. But what is the real issue over the long haul?

From what I’ve seen, the heart of the matter is an inability to separate the trivial from the essential. For the terminal associate professor, everything tends to get equal weight. Each aspect of research (and teaching and service) evokes long and often fretful hours of deliberation.

Consider two symptoms of this disposition: office clutter and compulsive talking. The terminal associates usually have messy offices. Bookshelves overflow, journals accumulate on the floor, and stacks on the desk give the impression of immense industry. One former colleague of mine, an honors graduate of Harvard University who stalled at the associate rank, could not fully open his office door thanks to the treasure within. Another terminal associate I know likes to keep old computer terminals (piled outside his office because there’s no room left inside).

An unwillingness to let go can be useful for antique collectors, but it is fatal to the completion of any piece of work. As the French poet Paul Valery once said, a work is never truly finished, merely abandoned. We have to be willing to part with it. A hoarder is not.

Terminal associates have another trait in common: They tend to talk and talk and talk. Compulsive talking is "overdetermined," as psychologists say—it has many causes. When a colleague follows you into the bathroom to continue a monologue, one does wonder what gave rise to the logorrhea.

While the causes of excessive chattiness are best explored by professional therapists, I can comment on the effects. And one of them is that these professors often spend a tremendous amount of time talking with students. As with the office debris, the essential and the trivial jumble together in long disquisitions with endless tangents. And if students don’t come to office hours, the talkers send very long emails or even wander through office suites in search of a tolerant secretarial ear.

Have these terminal associates abused tenure?

I would argue that tenure abused them—that is, they are on their own too much for their own good.

The terminals would be more productive if they were members of teams. They performed in graduate school under the direction of their advisers, and the structure imposed by promotion and tenure requirements also helped. But when the clock is no longer ticking, when no one is waiting for the next chapter, they drift. And as they drift, the potential allies and mentors who could make a difference step back.

In other words, autonomy is an effect as well as a cause. As their thrashing becomes apparent, more and more colleagues leave them alone. But that is the problem, not the answer, which lies in reducing the posttenure isolation that pervades American colleges and universities.

Neal Dow is the pseudonym of a faculty member in education who teaches at a research university on the East Coast.