What It's Like to Be Denied Tenure

April 06, 2001

I had done everything an assistant professor was supposed to do. As a sociologist at New York University, I had performed lots of departmental service. I was a good graduate and undergraduate teacher. I had developed a range of new courses and even new programs. Most important, I was almost finished with my third book and had published 20 articles and book chapters. The books had been published by prestigious presses: Princeton, Chicago, and the Free Press. Other scholars had received tenure in N.Y.U.'s department of sociology on a lot less.

Most tenure cases fall into a vast gray area, in which serious arguments could be made either way. In sociology, tenure usually requires the publication of a book or a half-dozen articles, with some evidence of productivity beyond one's dissertation. History and physics no doubt have other outlets and standards, but most academics know at least roughly (and sometimes quite explicitly) what the minimal standards are in their own field.

I thought I had written my way out the other side of this gray area, so that my case might be incontrovertible. I was wrong. It took them two years, but N.Y.U.'s administration turned me down in 1995.

I had hoped to write my way beyond the gray area because I knew I had made a couple enemies among the senior ranks of my department. I was not a demure and deferential assistant professor, although I think I was always at least polite and meant well. This worked for most of my senior colleagues, who voted 9 to 2 in my favor, with 2 abstentions. But some people hold grudges.

A vote like that should have been sufficient for tenure. If the whole process were a rational one, the promotion and tenure committee for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences would have looked at the slim rationales given for the negative votes. A university grievance panel later found that my critics in the department had "possible personal conflicts of interest and should have recused themselves" from the case. In the end, the F.A.S. committee voted several times on my case and was almost evenly split each time.

We live in an era when tenure procedures are a bit of a charade, when deans and higher committees simply do not take what departments say at face value. Departments usually act as advocates, trying hard to send up unanimous votes. But when a few of the votes are negative, deans are likely to think that those votes really represent twice that number who are lukewarm about a candidate. Second-guessing is especially common at universities, like N.Y.U., that are striving to improve themselves.

Other evidence in tenure files is also unreliable. Outside letters are rarely as honest as they should be, because their writers don't want to risk alienating a colleague. (The same is true, alarmingly, of the annual performance reviews that assure junior faculty members that they are on the right track -- right up until they are denied tenure.) Many academics refuse to write evaluations unless they know in advance they can write positive ones. So deans in turn ask who was invited but declined to write. Clever department chairmen counter by asking people informally if they would write an evaluation before they turn to them formally, so that official turndowns are rare. Evaluators know their letters will be scanned by skeptical administrators for any minor qualifications, so they give none.

One of my outside letters disagreed with some aspects of my work. The writer -- with a national reputation for being one of the few sociologists to write precise and balanced letters -- said I should be tenured, and would be at his own university (a much better one than N.Y.U.). For the most part, I was told, he praised me strongly, but nonetheless mentioned some of my research and arguments he found problematic. Apparently, in the department and in the higher committee, my opponents insisted on trying to "read between the lines" to figure out what the man "really" meant. Because most people do not say what they mean, all are subject to this kind of hermeneutics -- even this extremely precise evaluator.

The dean rejected my tenure. When N.Y.U.'s president, in turn, received dozens of letters on my behalf from around the country, he sent the recommendation back to that dean, who returned it to the same committee that had first recommended, by a split vote, turning me down. The committee reviewed my case the following academic year, although its composition had remained almost identical. Again I was turned down. It mattered not at all that subsequently an arts-and-sciences panel and then a university-wide grievance committee both found strongly, even indignantly, in my favor. They were simply advisory.

It is very difficult not to feel ashamed when you are turned down for tenure. It is hard not to internalize the reasons, to blame yourself. If only you had written a little more, done more service, become more famous. If you expect to get tenure, it is even more of a shock when you are refused. It feels like more of a personal rejection if your department turns you down than if administrators do (in which case departmental colleagues may even rally behind you, as most of mine did), but you feel bad either way.

You are often not told the reasons for being turned down (although public universities are usually better than private ones at requiring a justification and a paper trail for the decision process). I was never offered a single reason that my record did not merit tenure -- for of course there really was none. At least none that could be defended. Such high-handed secrecy seems incompatible with the open debate and criticism so valued in academia. But the lack of any rationale for you to refute further encourages you to blame yourself.

It is a stigma that takes a long time to go away. You may get an even better job at another university, become famous, or leave academia altogether, but it stays with you. More people will know that you were denied tenure than know the (often exonerating) reasons why. You cannot escape.

Since the academy operates on an ideology of meritocracy; professors want to believe they deserve tenure, that the system works. They may not admit it when talking to an assistant professor who's just been denied tenure, but most believe that decisions are usually just. (I thought about this when trying to decide whether to write this column: Do I want strangers to think of me as the sociologist who was turned down for tenure and wrote about it?)

I think it is a healthy response to fight the decision, to search for unfair biases in your case. This allows you to feel indignant and angry rather than ashamed. With lawsuits and grievances you can turn the blame outward, whether or not such proceedings get your job back. If nothing else, you restore your sense of control, of being a person in charge, capable of acting in your own interests. For me, it was reassuring that two grievance committees agreed with me.

For no matter how well-intentioned everyone is (not to mention cases like mine when several were not so well-intentioned), there are structural and arbitrary factors that influence tenure outcomes with little connection to individual merit. Structural factors may be a university's decision to shrink its faculty or a department -- perhaps because of budget pressures from state legislatures. Or a department may bring several people up for tenure the same year, decreasing everyone's chances for reasons that have nothing to do with their own merit. Arbitrary factors may involve fads in a field that turn against your work. (The same years I was battling, several very capable people I had known in grad school at Berkeley were also denied tenure, possibly caught in the cutbacks at the time, possibly victims of a wave of suspicion against interpretive research in sociology.) It is crucial to remind yourself of these.

The downside of legal actions and grievances is that they keep your attention focused on your tenure battle for a long time, making it hard to do or think about much else. You won't exactly write your next book during that time. Lawsuits also cost money, something few assistant professors have to spare. Grievances at least are free, and require less of your time -- but as I discovered they can be altogether ineffectual even if they go your way.

Both processes will remain upsetting right up to the moment, if it comes, that you win. Even then it can be uncomfortable to stay at the same school, where the stigma of your original denial is most concentrated. It may feel better, if you can do it, to move on. This may be to a job at another university, or a path away from academia altogether.

I chose the latter route, when I realized that what I most wanted to do with my life was to write, not sit in meetings with the same colleagues year after year. Because career crises can be an opportunity to stop and assess what you're doing with your life, and why. These options will be the subject of a future column.

James M. Jasper's most recent book is "Restless Nation: Starting over in America" (University of Chicago Press).