You Didn't Get Tenure: Part 2

September 24, 2007

Just because you have been denied tenure doesn't mean you have to exit academe. Sure, you may always suffer some taint from the denial, but it need not be the stench of death. You can be reborn elsewhere.

In my first column in this series on tenure and promotion, I discussed whether a candidate who had been denied tenure should appeal or sue. I would like to focus here on another decision that is equally crucial: how to get a new job in higher education.

First, some good news: Context matters. I know of one Ivy League department that regularly denies tenure to its assistant professors, who promptly go on to get top jobs at big-12 universities. A colleague in another field who was denied tenure described being eagerly recruited afterward: "They knew about my old [department's] snake-pit reputation. They didn't care if I was rejected by that system." Also, if you earned your Ph.D. from a highly rated program, it will be valued by hiring committees, especially at smaller liberal-arts colleges or regional state universities.

Begin your comeback by conducting an honest assessment of your curriculum vitae. Administrators and search committees evaluating your application honor past achievements, but they value career trajectory even more. The CV of a person who has been denied tenure requires a key ingredient to make it palatable, even respectable: evidence of forthcoming work or grants or any major confirmation that you are on the upswing.

Now consider how to brand yourself to others as a positive colleague. As in any other business, depression, indignation, and bitterness embedded in letters of inquiry or application, or expressed in face-to-face interviews, do not add luster to your employment profile.

I have an acquaintance who once, long ago, was denied tenure, and brings up the subject again and again. His unhealthy obsession has hurt his career more than did the original setback. If you can't get over your pain, learn to mask it well: Your career depends on it.

Being upbeat is not just for show, though. Bookstore shelves are full of self-help volumes that catalog successful generals, CEO's, inventors, and explorers who endured early failure before eventual triumph. If you can't stomach Oprah-esque literature, watch the "Homer & Delilah" episode of The Simpsons in which Homer, emboldened by a new full head of hair, becomes a motivational manager and lectures a crowd on the importance of getting beyond early stumbles.

Your initial project should be writing letters of inquiry and application for open positions. Detail your achievements and describe how you would fit into the department and the job. Do not dwell on your tenure denial but do not try to cover it up, either. Explain in a sentence or two that you fell short of your goals in your previous job.

The key follow-up step is to mobilize partisans in your favor. Presumably, someone encouraged your tenure bid. Nothing would help your candidacy more than a letter of support from a senior professor assuring your prospective department that you would be just right for the job. (Even if a job announcement asks only for references, have your champions send letters anyway.)

Perhaps the letter could say, "Bob was working on a big project that did not yield as many publications as we had hoped, but will likely do so in the future." Or it could say that you had put so much effort into teaching that you didn't publish enough, but that you had since learned to balance your time and your research productivity was improving.

Better yet, your advocate could point out how your perceived weaknesses at your old department might be strengths in your new one. A small liberal-arts college, for example, might welcome someone who was terrific in the classroom but did not have as many research publications as a top research university demanded.

The need for internal champions is another reason you should control your level of anger and vindictiveness, or at least the expression of them. It may seem paradoxical, but even people who voted against you may want to help you leave without fuss and rancor. It is in the interests of the administration to have as tranquil an aftermath of tenure denial as possible.

It is reasonable, and will also heighten people's estimation of you, if you tell them forthrightly, "I accept that things didn't work out; I could use your help to find another job." Don't threaten; you'd be surprised how eager people will be to offer their assistance.

Deciding where to apply is another crucial decision. Do you want to try for someplace that approximates the institution you plan to leave? Do you want to switch tracks altogether?

It is hard to move horizontally after a tenure denial. But even if you are, say, at a top research university and want to end up at another one, you might consider finding a way station in your career. Take a good job at a regional state university that might let you regroup, earn tenure, and establish a reputation. Then, if you wish, move on and up. That is preferable to a wall of rejection from your present-day peers.

If you want to stay at the same level, look particularly for lower-ranked departments with new leadership that are trying to scale up their profiles, or older programs that have gone through many retirements and are rebuilding. A newly hired dean, director, or chair may be more willing to take a risk and more open to hiring you.

In your cover letter and during your interview, all the standard rules of the academic search apply. Neither imperiousness nor insecurity makes you a better prospect. Try to specify how you would fit into a particular program. Seek out connections -- friends who have friends on the faculty. And, of course, enumerate what you are doing now and what you are planning to do, offering a glass that is half full and bubbling up.

Finally, lessen the risks of hiring you. Ask for a shortened tenure-review process: a three-year clock, for example. If you don't work out, campus administrators know they can cut their losses quickly, and if you do prove to be a success, they can just as rapidly absorb you as a tenured (and grateful) professor.

In short, the perfect profile of a candidate, post-tenure denial, includes the following:

  • A positive attitude, displaying neither "I was too good for those fools" arrogance nor "poor, poor pitiful me" despondency.

  • A sense that while the tenure denial was regrettable, you have put it behind you.

  • Evidence that you are already planning and producing for the future.

  • A list of internal champions who can make the case that you will prosper at the new institution.

Life is unpredictable, and sometimes unfair, but the tipping factor is in your favor if you can show employers that the tenure denial was a blip in your career, not an ending in itself.

You are not a loser for being shot down once, as many a downed fighter pilot can attest. You want to project the air of someone who has undergone a traumatic episode but who has climbed back in the cockpit and is ready to soar -- given the chance.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.