The Tenure Code

At Amherst College, where I’ve taught for more 20 years (oy, gevalt!), a couple of years ago a tenure case was brought down in part because of the word “solid.” I’ve put it in quote marks in part because tenure cases are multiheaded monsters: Their rise or fall as a result of countless factors. In this particular one, one of the factors—and, ultimately, a stumbling block—was this much-contested word.

An outside reviewer had used it to describe a candidate’s publications record. It became a subject of debate among the Committee of Six and the department supporting the candidate.

Here I need to offer a quick crash course through the college’s hierarchical structure, or at least a portion of it. The Committee of Six, a judicial body of elected faculty whose job it is to legislate on a large number of issues, is in charge of reviewing tenure cases once the candidate’s department has offered its recommendations. For these cases, the C6 looks at, among other things, every student evaluation, every letter from peers, and every outside review with utmost dedication. In other words, it is a painful, meticulous process of what I call logocrasy: a Kafkaesque labyrinth of language. The president then endorses or rejects the C6 tenure recommendation.

“Solid,” a colleague with past experience in C6 affairs told me, is code for flaccid, uncooked. She added another no-no: strong. An institution of our statue, she said, only wants—only should want—the best, the brightest. In short, the brilliant.

But if everybody is brilliant, then nobody really is, for brilliance isn’t about norm. This, clearly, is a conundrum, for three reasons. Reason No. 1: Members of the C6 come from various fields, from the sciences to the humanities. Their capacity to judge candidates from fields other than their own in at least half the cases is based on good will, not on intimate knowledge of the discipline. Reason No. 2: To be elected to the C6 they must have spent about a decade making themselves known in the community, which in turn makes them electable. By this time, the demands for tenure have changed from when they went for tenure. So they often demand of a candidate’s record more—much more—than their own records are able to display. This means that by their own implausible standards they wouldn’t receive tenure themselves. And Reason No. 3: The drive for exceptionalism is a long and winding road.

Reason No. 3 concerns me the most. Amherst College, like other institutions at the top of the food chain, sees itself as superior. It wants only top students, top faculty, and top administrators. But what does “top” imply? Do we get top people or do we make them? Isn’t that what our mission is? By way of example, I know countless B and even C students whose originality is unsurpassed by their fellow A counterparts. Likewise with faculty: How does one become a strong teacher? Answer: talent + experience + DNA. As for administrators, I leave their qualifications to others with better discernment.

Exceptionalism at Amherst is such that the C6 expects—and the college community expects the C6 to expect—outside reviewers to use only exceptional language in tenure letters. If a candidate isn’t “superb,” “extraordinary,” “unparalleled,” “remarkable,” and “at the top of her field,” then the assessment is coded with mediocrity: Good isn’t good enough.

The rush for superlatives is distressing. Departmental letters for tenure are narratives as long as 15,000 words festered with adjectives as cartoonish as they are improbable. Outside letters follow the same fetish. The composite portrait isn’t of real-life people but of utopian characters. This exceptionalism, this sense that we are above the crowd, better even than our closest competitors, allows the C6, and the rest of us, to be proud of our aloofness, though it gets lonely at the top.

Do outside reviewers know about this tenure code? They do. Or, at the very least, they use the codes they’ve learned in the culture of their own institutions. For every institution has a code. Too bad these letters are confidential; otherwise someone could do a longitudinal analysis.

Personally, I get an average of between six and eight tenure-evaluation requests a semester. Such is the volume, let alone my other commitments, that I regularly decline, often to all, unless the candidate is a former student of mine, because each of these letters takes weeks to prepare: They involve attentive, meditative reading of the candidate’s dossier, comparison with equals in the field, and, more than anything else, a cavalier approach. One’s readership is minuscule, yet it has an outsized degree of power in its hands. Everyone knows the formula: Academics + power = mendacity.

I’m told that in some institutions, declining such invitations amounts to a rejection ending up in the candidate’s files. For that reason, I do what I most dislike but others have suggested as the pertinent approach: I don’t respond.

What I don’t know, where I’m in the dark (as other outside reviewers surely are, too), is in regards to particular institutional codes. Will “wonderful” be “sorrowful” at the University of Freedonia? Is “perfect” really “imperfect” at Yoknapatawpha College? I could blanket my letter with exceptional language but it would be a travesty: Things are what they are, not as we wish them to be.

By the way, I like teaching at an exceptional place. It’s rock solid, especially the students.

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