Withdrawing Your Tenure Case

May 05, 2009

I have written before in this series about your many positive options after being denied tenure (see "You Didn't Get Tenure: What Now?," Part 1 and Part 2). There is, however, another alternative to just waiting for the bad news: You could freeze or withdraw your tenure bid. Let me make the case here as to why to do that, should the circumstance arise.

First, a philosophical aside: P&T Confidential is not an advocacy column. Some of the problems with the current promotion-and-tenure process in higher education have been noted here in the past, but I don't pretend to have solutions to any or all of them. That said, I will advocate this: Faculty members should be told if their tenure bid is in jeopardy. It shouldn't be a surprise that arrives in a thin white envelope.

At most institutions, ill-fated candidates are made aware through a variety of channels that their tenure bids are on shaky ground. You will certainly learn, for example, if the departmental vote went against you, or if your chair opposes your bid; you hope you will know if your outside letters are tepid. Your chair may simply tell you that your case will not be "sent up."

But as I mentioned in last month's column, you might also become aware of problems during the "checkback," when members of the university tenure committee or senior administrators request more information about your case. The checkback can be a late-in-the-game vehicle for either delivering or reinforcing the message that your case is in trouble. If the information request seems to be challenging your basic qualifications, danger looms.

At that point you have to make a tough choice. You can go through with the process and probably lose, or you can withdraw your tenure bid.

Why would you want to withdraw? Although I have argued that being denied tenure is not the end of your academic career, it is a tremendous psychological blow and a bureaucratic burden to those who suffer it. The emotional impact of tenure denial has been much discussed in these pages and on The Chronicle's online discussion forums, so I need not dwell on it here. But the external political complications are worth exploring if you are to appreciate that it is better to sidestep tenure denial.

At some universities and departments, and even in entire disciplines, tenure denial is a permanent black mark against your future hiring. I know of a number of instances in the humanities, arts, and sciences in which candidates were considered good prospects until the hiring committee learned that they had been denied tenure elsewhere. A young assistant professor of English at a research university was the top candidate for a new job until the department discovered that he had just been denied tenure. Note that in his case, as in others, he probably would have gotten the job if he had frozen the tenure process and never received an official rejection.

Tenure denial is never a positive addition to a CV, but there are instances in which it is minimally damaging; for example, being denied tenure by an institution that is viewed as superior, and highly choosy. A well-known stream of people who did not achieve tenure at Ivy League universities have found great, prestigious jobs at major state institutions. Likewise, someone may be denied tenure at a department with a reputation as a snake pit of infighting, so people discount the candidate's "failure" as stemming from a dysfunctional environment.

Still, there is no need to actually go through tenure denial to the bitter end, if you are afforded the opportunity to withdraw.

Let's say your chair tells you, "Word has come from the provost's office that you're probably not going to get tenure." In the year you go up for tenure, it's smart to apply for other positions, so that if the worst happens you have a backup opportunity. If you do, it is even more imperative that you withdraw your tenure bid before the denial becomes official. You can simply take another job and your record will be completely clean.

If, however, you are denied tenure and have no other prospects, you can appeal through the university or the courts. In both cases, you risk wasting time and money on lawyers and getting nothing in return. Whatever the merits of your appeal or complaint, by making trouble, you will get a reputation in academe for being trouble, and nobody likes to hire trouble.

So another argument for withdrawing your tenure bid if it seems doomed is that doing so may buy you some goodwill. An assistant professor I know at a small liberal-arts college told me how he had stopped his tenure bid after he got the message that the administration was going to side with a faction of professors that opposed his candidacy.

Once he withdrew, he was surprised to find that "everybody started being nice." His enemies were relieved that their worst-case scenario — he would put up a fight — was not going to happen, and they were smart enough to realize that it was in their interest to help him exit with dignity. He was then able to go on the job market with supportive internal advocates and references. He did get another job, in a happier environment, and he credits not making a stink and not getting tainted by a tenure denial as among the reasons for his hiring.

The terms of your exit in such circumstances are a powerful bargaining chip, but you may not have to haggle at all. Self-interest dictates that you now focus on getting another job while your department chair is eager to help.

If an escape clause will leave your record intact, why is it, then, that people don't take advantage of it more often?

One reason is that there is a winnowing process before people actually go up for tenure. Conscientious department chairs and senior professors use the third-year review (or annual reviews) to hint (or state outright) that a faculty member should try to find another job.

Another factor is that some people whose tenure cases are dicey stick it out anyway, and win. If you have strong departmental support, or can document serious procedural errors, victory and vindication are certainly possible. I have seen, and heard of, many people who overcame internal opposition to win tenure. The awarding of tenure is not analogous to winning the lottery or becoming an NBA star. There is always a chance and a hope in the tenure process that is up to human volition.

But what if all the odds are against you? Human nature also dictates the reason why people fight on, even when every sign and portent indicates that they will be denied tenure. In a word, it is pride. Over the years I have heard many variations of the following statement: "I just knew I was going to be turned down. There was no way that anybody in upper administration would stick up for me. But I couldn't believe it would really happen. I had to finish it."

The shock and dismay of all one's hard work seemingly being for nothing is too much for people of both strong and weak will. As one put it, "I'd rather die with my boots on."

If that's your attitude — that promotion and tenure is a metaphysical statement of your worth — practical career advice becomes inconsequential. But if you are thinking about your next move, the option to withdraw your promotion-and-tenure bid is still a viable one. Before you ride off to martyred glory, consider the good sense of living to fight another day.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. Starting June 30, he will become director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa.