You Didn't Get Tenure: What Now?

January 14, 2008

Everyone on the tenure track should get tenure. I think so not because I'm either an academic socialist or a delusional optimist. Rather, I hold that if you have the brains, skills, guts, initiative, and self-awareness to survive a serious, accredited doctoral program at a research university (sorry, mail-order Ph.D.'s don't count) then you should be able to get tenure -- somewhere.

I add that final caveat because, of course, not everybody can get tenure everywhere. In fact, one of the main reasons people fail to get tenure is that they are fighting the wrong war on the wrong battlefield, at an institution where their talents, methods, psychology, and, yes, abilities don't fit.

The guiding ethic of this new column is that you can get tenure but only if you are realistic in your ambitions, aptitudes, attitudes, and choice of venue.

Perhaps it is fitting to begin a series on tenure-track philosophies, strategies, and tactics with the ultimate worst case scenario, the most devastating blow in an academic career -- the "perish" part of the "publish or perish" dictum. In this first column I will explore the options available, both legally and in the campus appeals process, to any of you who have failed to win tenure and promotion, and talk about why you might decide against exercising those alternatives. In my next column, I will lay out how you go about getting another job.

But first things first: If you have been denied tenure, you need to allow yourself a brief period for mourning, self-pity, anger, vengeance fantasizing, blame-gaming, and recrimination. All of those reactions are justified at this time; None are useful or practical. Spend a weekend stewing, away from friends and family. Smash a cheap dish. Watch the entire run of HBO's The Sopranos. And return clearheaded, with a plan.

Why bother? Haven't you indeed perished? Don't the walking dead have the right to give up on a career that has hit its greatest roadblock after at least a decade of blood, sweat, and fears?

Before you abandon academe to take up the livery trade, a clerkship at a used-book store, or some industry job, consider your alternatives and your real strengths and weaknesses.

To begin, assess what happened -- but try to remove your ego from the investigation. Was the denial of tenure a surprise to you? Were you under the impression that you had fulfilled the requirements, and then some, of your department and university? Objectivity, always elusive in self-inspection, is even more difficult here, but your livelihood depends on it, so some trusted outside friends may be of help in that analysis as well.

I once talked to a job applicant who, denied tenure by his institution, offered the equivalent of a baseball fan's "We wuz robbed" lament. But when I looked up the tenure standards of his university and compared them to his CV, it was clear that he had, on paper -- which is all that should really count -- underperformed markedly.

So although he may have been denied tenure for a host of other reasons, including the intervention of nefarious enemies, surely his lack of publications and low teaching evaluations left him vulnerable. And I told him just that.

His reaction was revealing: "But I deserved tenure."

It was clear that his definition of an inalienable right to tenure was different from mine and that of his fellow faculty members. More important, his bitterness was dysfunctional: His record was sufficient to get tenure at other kinds of colleges, but he was not applying to those.

In short, do you honestly think you "wuz robbed" by a conspiracy or incompetence (other than your own)? Or did you fail to cross the finish line because of your own demerits?

Your diagnosis leads to another crucial decision. All colleges and universities have internal appeals processes. Now is the time to read those protocols, procedures, and rules carefully and even consult with trusted mentors.

The choice as to whether you should appeal your tenure denial depends on too many variables to render a universal verdict here, but certainly the number and rank of people supporting your appeal matter. Since many faculty votes are secret -- and only revealed by a lawsuit -- figuring out how much support you have is more difficult than it sounds.

A friend who did get tenure noted that the vote was many to one in favor but that every faculty member he asked assured him, "You got my vote." He still doesn't know which colleague thought so little of him; wisely, he no longer cares.

But if you do have access to the vote distribution, what is the pattern? Did you lose an internal vote or an external one? Was your denial due to the intervention of top administrators? Beyond the actual votes, what is the tone of the participants? Do you have many angry partisans who claim that you came close but had your prize stolen? Or are even those who claim to have been your supporters cool to the idea of an appeal?

Power is another issue. Losing an internal vote may be less important than lacking the support of university administrators. A unanimous vote against you is hard to overcome; a close one may be less so. Do you have (candid) friends in high places who think you have a chance?

The same questions apply to the nuclear option: a lawsuit. Nowadays, tenure litigation is so common at some universities that it is considered part of the normal tenure process. If you feel wrongdoing and unfairness were at play, consulting a lawyer experienced in academic case law is a sensible course of action.

The merits of your case, however, are not the only factors you should weigh before you appeal, sue, or both.

First, consider the possibility that you might fail again. A friend of mine was denied tenure, appealed, and was then denied again. He recalls it as a double injury. In his situation, he felt the appeal was warranted and had some probability of success. But ask yourself, Do you want to be turned down twice?

As for a lawsuit, consider not only the issues of lost time and a further bruised ego, but also money. Legal bills do not enhance your chances of better employment. Also, as you while away the hours on your case, what is happening to your career? A lawsuit can take several years to pursue. What will you do to sustain yourself financially in the meantime?

Legal payouts can be deceiving. I recall reading the story of a woman who had sued her university and won about $500,000 in compensation for being denied tenure. The case indeed sounded like an outrage, and she deserved the victory and vindication. But I also noted that her settlement came some six years after the original denial of tenure. Furthermore, the winnings would no doubt go in part to her lawyer. Did the woman actually profit from her lawsuit?

A final issue is reputation. Say you win your campus appeal or your lawsuit. What then? Again, depending on the circumstances, many of your colleagues will permanently look upon you as the person who sucked up their time and dragged their university's name through the mud.

One academic I know who won his tenure lawsuit told me that he ended up finding another job elsewhere anyway because he made too many enemies from the litigation. He was fortunate: Being known as someone who sues, whatever the merits or outcome of the legal action, brightens no one's CV.

You may, of course, take whatever lawful action you think necessary to win back what was taken from you, but for the sake of your sanity, your bank account, and your family's welfare, you might consider all the counterarguments to drawing out the tenure process beyond its original conclusion.

Suppose, merits aside, you decide that your best option is to restart your career somewhere else. Here is where I want to make the case that there are real options and that the news is not all bad. You have not perished, after all, but have the opportunity to be reborn. In next month's column, I'll explain how.

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.