The Loss of Excellence, Part 1

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

January 20, 2011

In the fall of 2008, in rapid succession, I turned 40, lost my father, and was denied tenure.

By the time I was flying halfway around the world in a desperate bid to arrive at my father's deathbed in time to hold his hand and relay messages from family members who couldn't get there, I knew that tenure was unlikely. The department's positive vote had been close enough that the various committees and higher-ups wouldn't be under much pressure to keep me, given the scarcity of my publications. In the middle of my mad scramble to procure the requisite visa for travel, my department chair had come into my office, apprised me of the vote, and, ethically I thought, advised me to start looking for another job.

In retrospect, I might have earned tenure by the skin of my teeth if I had chopped up my book manuscript and published all of its chapters separately. I heard through the grapevine that a colleague in another department was awarded tenure with just one more essay published than I had. But I had gambled on getting a book contract in time. I really wanted the book contract, and was felled by a supportive letter asking me to revise and resubmit. The letter was encouraging but not what I needed.

I've never been a fast writer, needing to think for long periods before putting pen to paper. I'm built on the lines of tortoise rather than hare, and I suspect there is little room anymore for tortoises at desperately trying-to-compete-with-the-richer-flagship-just-down-the-road universities trying to up their research profiles without junior sabbaticals and additional money.

When I returned from a soul-numbing week of memorial service, cremation, and ash scattering (thankfully, I had made it in time to say goodbye), it was clear from the change in behavior of many of my colleagues that I was already considered the proverbial dead man walking, fresh from the scene of actual death. Double stench.

I continued to get up each day and drive myself to work. That was an effort. Exhausted, humiliated, angry, disappointed, and, above all, mourning, I didn't much feel like eating and lost a few pounds over the next few months. Quite a few colleagues would greet me with compliments. "How are you doing it?" asked one woman admiringly.

At the time, I responded with a blank face and a (possibly) rude stare. With time and perspective, I understand that any insensitivity was inadvertent. People are often awkward around real and metaphorical deaths (what to say, how to act?), and I compounded the confusion by cultivating a certain in-your-face stoicism in order to cope.

For example, one of my go-to survival strategies—employed to amp myself up for teaching—was to strut in heels and pencil skirts across the campus listening to anthemic music at eardrum-shattering levels, preferably either AC/DC's "Back in Black" or the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." I suppose I actually did look rather fabulous. And I continue to believe, although I never did read my evaluations from that year, that my teaching was the best it had ever been because I taught with a ferocious abandon. I taught without regard to pleasing the institution, but rather only to satisfying my own sense of mission.

Flashback to the previous spring, when I received a telephone call from the chancellor letting me know that I had won one of the university's two top awards for teaching excellence. As was tradition, I was asked to give the December 2008 commencement speech (yes, the speech). Quite an honor, especially for someone as yet untenured.

I had privately joked that the speech constituted a punishment rather than a reward. As the writing on the wall became clearer and more ominous about my tenure case, I wondered sincerely whether I could get through the speech without breaking down or blacking out.

I confess to many j'accusatory fantasies. I imagined a thousand different speeches ranging from devastating critique to scandalous exposé to asking audience members for a job. "Dear Graduates, much like many of you, I stand before you today with no job and few prospects." I never would have done it because those occasions should only ever be about the students; I have seen too many ceremonies hijacked by speaker narcissism.

I have often wondered what conversations might have taken place among administrators as the commencement date approached and word spread that my tenure case was doomed. Did they talk about disinviting me? What horrors might they have imagined? To the university's credit or indifference (it's more likely the latter), no one said anything to me about it.

That commencement was the first time I had ever worn doctoral regalia, having never attended my own ceremony. I had borrowed the robes and entered the preparation room feeling alone and awkward and a fraud—a sheep in wolf's clothing. Eventually, I approached two female senior professors, strangers to me, to ask for hood and tam instructions (what goes where, please explain) only to overhear the tail end of a sotto voce conversation that could only have been about me. Woman A, shaking her head, "So few publications in six years!" Woman B, shaking her head in shocked commiseration, "I know."

Later, as we lined up in order outside the arena, the provost, standing next to me, carried on a lengthy conversation with a security guard about staff concerns over coming layoffs.

I sat on the stage, still next to the provost (who must have had my tenure file in his office by then), feeling despondent. But just as I was being introduced by the new chancellor (both in that moment, and in the thank-you letter she sent to me afterward, she called me an "asset" to the university), I felt suffused by the presence of my father, and absolutely confident of his posthumous love and support. So I made my way to the podium.

I was in the zone, and my speech was just really, really good. That, I chose to believe, was confirmed by the head of the alumni association, who followed me at the podium saying something laudatory along the lines of, "Dr. Li, we think you rock," as well as by the sign-language interpreter who stopped me in the parking lot to assure me it had been the best commencement speech he had heard in recent years. The nadir, he further explained, had involved an extended metaphor about peeling back the layers of an onion.

The buildup to the ceremony had seen the publication of a number of perfunctory announcements in the local papers that I would be the speaker. I only knew that because, during one of my regular visits to the therapist I was seeing to help me through the traumas of the year, the receptionist congratulated me heartily and showed me the clip she had cut out from the paper. My therapist, by the way, who is the sister of an academic and who treated a number of colleagues, evinced no special surprise at what had been happening to me.

My commencement speech was followed by a small flurry of PR in which my picture appeared in the campus newsletter for faculty and staff members. Later in the semester, a campus group, obviously not clued in yet that I was on my way out, invited me to come to speak motivationally to first-year students and their parents about pursuing excellence, or something along those lines.

Still intent on being a good citizen and not wanting to appear churlish, I asked for the opinion of a wise senior colleague before I turned the group down. What message, other than an impossibly mixed one, would I have been able to deliver?

I had been deemed excellent yet untenurable—ceremoniously feted and terminated within the span of a year.

Madeleine Li is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the humanities at a small private university in the Midwest. She is writing a series of First Person articles about her experiences being denied tenure and restarting her career.