Gems from the tenure denial archive … Form letters are all fine and good, but c’mon!!
I spent almost two years fighting the tenure decision.
By the time I received the President’s letter dated July 21, 2011 denying my appeal, 21 months had passed since I’d first submitted my tenure dossier, 13 months had passed since I’d filed my appeal, and 3 months had passed since the Committee on Faculty Relations recommended that he thoroughly reconsider the evaluation of my scholarly work.
The President’s letter came 7 months after I resigned from AU, half way through my terminal year. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for him to make the inevitable decision to uphold the denial; I needed another job.
And it was inevitable. By that time, there wasn’t anything about the process at AU that gave me any confidence it would end any other way.
I had moments of hope earlier on, but I’m not sure that I ever really thought I’d win the fight. Still, not fighting didn’t seem like an option. Despite everything that my letters implied about me and my work, it’s just not in my nature to do less than my very best in every situation. I’m not afraid of failing, but I’m not going to do it easily.
And I wasn’t about to fucking let them get the best of me. For two years I couldn’t get the Chair’s words out of my head: “she knows the consequences of this failure.” God, what an asshole.
After I received the Dean’s letter, I hired a lawyer.
A friend recommended a firm that was familiar with AU, and its policies and procedures. This was not new terrain.
For me, though, it was so strange … and so surreal. I think it was then that it really hit me that I was going to lose my job, when I wondered what the fuck had happened over the last many years to bring me to this place across from a stranger who would represent me in a law suit. My husband and I just looked at each other, unbelieving.
The decision to sue is such an individual one. In the many years since – and particularly as I’ve been writing this blog – I’ve met many people who’ve faced the choice. Some have pursued their cases, with mixed results; many have not.
The reasons for not suing are many. The prospect of winning is a primary one, of course, and it is generally dim. Judges are reluctant to interfere in academic evaluations, and it’s difficult to prove discrimination and other wrong doing when it is subtle and can be camouflaged as merit based. Settlement might be more likely and desirable, but it depends on the goal of litigation and whether remuneration is considered a successful outcome.
The financial costs are another enormous obstacle to pursuing a lawsuit. Although contingency fees may be an option for some lawyers, the hourly price tag in the hundreds of dollars for others can be prohibitive.
And then there is the time. There are numerous steps required in the process, which might include steps at the university, and then filing with the EEOC and perhaps the state employment discrimination agency as well. If a right to sue letter is issued, then there is the inevitable dragging of feet by the employer, the effort at mediation, the submission of documents, the dragging of feet by the employer, the depositions, the dragging of feet by the employer…
The emotional toll must be enormous.
I considered all of this as carefully as I could. Winning for me was to be promoted with tenure and while the lawyer said that my case was a strong, the odds of success were still pretty low. A settlement might bring some amount of monetary compensation but probably not much. Evidently, universities believe faculty will jump at any amount of money considering the value of their normal compensation. But unless AU compensated me for the loss of the college tuition benefits I might have otherwise had for my kids, I wasn’t keen on the primary price of settling: silence.
The cost of litigating was definitely an issue, but we had savings; it wasn’t completely out of the question as it would have been for so many others. The time was something I could wrap my brain around; what was another year or two? I was starting a new job – and one that would make suing a bit awkward — and I didn’t relish the idea of a lawsuit hanging over my head. But I’d figure out how to manage that. I had remarkable personal support and the will to fight.
Surprisingly, the prospect of the emotional toll didn’t worry me as much as it probably should have. I was exhausted but also energized; the adrenaline – and pride – required to continuously respond to the negative evaluations kept me pretty hopped up and I figured (wrongly, I’m quite sure) that I could easily withstand any additional shit that came my way.
In the end, though, none of these things worried me as much as what all of this would mean for my kids.
And I don’t mean how they’d be affected in real time. In 2010, they were 6 and 3, too little to know what was going on. We did everything we could to shelter them from the chaos, and we did it well. There were more than a few moments of short and quick tempers, many nights when I just couldn’t manage the bedtime stories, and weekends and holidays that were overwhelmed with letter writing and obsessing about the future. But despite my angst over this insult to injury, the kids were appropriately oblivious.
What I mean is, how the hell would I explain this to them? Someday they would know their mom was fired. They’d know that there were people who didn’t think I was smart enough, dedicated enough … just not enough. They’d know that I hadn’t accomplished something I’d worked very hard to achieve. They’d know I’d been beaten.
I wondered about not telling them. Ever. An appealing option, but not very realistic. They were at the center of this maelstrom because they were – and are – the center of my life. My work was worthy of tenure at AU and there would have been no question about it had I not had children.
It’s certainly true that if I’d been less distracted, less exhausted, less involved in raising my kids, I would have written more (although, not differently). If I’d been able to sleep (even) less and work late at night, to use 15 minute increments effectively, to have convenient daycare and hire additional help, I would have written more (but not differently).
But my only “failure” was being a mother – their mother – and, of course, that was no failure at all.
And I wouldn’t change a single thing. Not. A. Single. Fucking. Thing.
That’s what I’ve explained to my kids (F-bomb and all), who are now 13 and 10 and are beginning to make their own decisions, confront their own challenges, and experience their own disappointments.
If there is one thing I can teach them—one thing I know very well—it’s resilience: how to take risks, face difficulties, make hard choices, and not wallow in regret. We do the best we can, always, whatever that means at any particular time. And when that best isn’t enough to reach our goals, then we adapt. Sometimes that means making hard decisions like cutting our losses and moving on.
There will always be people who want us to fail, people who will be obstacles to our progress. Many will be exceptionally shitty, sometimes to our face, often from behind opaque processes, power, privilege. Some of them we’ll be able to see; many more will be hiding in anonymity, cowards whose false sense of confidence comes from attacking ours. All of them will think they’re better than us, they will act as if they have some special insight and know us better than we know ourselves.
Their goal will be to make us doubt ourselves, and they’ll succeed at times.
But we will stand up and fight when we need to, and then we’ll walk away when it’s time to move on.
I don’t know if a lawsuit would have been successful. In my fantasies … well, let’s just say I had all kinds of ideas about what success might look like. But after nearly eight years of working my ass off and two years of doing everything I could to fight for my career, it was time to turn the page.
All I wanted was to be able to tell my kids—to show my kids—that I did my best, fought the good fight … that I knew “when to hold ‘em [and] when to fold ‘em.” (1)
And I did.
(1) Schlitz, Don. (1976). The Gambler [Recorded by Kenny Rogers]. On The Gambler [Record]. United Artists (1978).
In my first post on gatekeeping, I argued that the academic gatekeeping process,
is a self-fulfilling cycle, based on a narrowly defined playing field that supports and promotes like-minded players who reject those deemed unqualified by the narrow standards that they themselves have devised and from which they have benefitted.
This cycle is driven largely by those who succeed in advancing through the tenure and promotion process. They are the academic leadership.
They are the gatekeepers.
They decide who succeeds and who fails. It is their judgment that is exercised in making and implementing the rules. It is they who decide who gets to play – and not just at tenure, but at numerous other evaluation points along the way, starting with hiring.
Of course, there must be gatekeepers. But because there is so much at stake, we should think very carefully about who they are—and are not—and what we expect from them as they make choices about who wins and who loses in the academy.
Here’s a start, a few of the expectations we might reasonably have of our gatekeepers.
1.Seniority and Experience. First, we might reasonably expect that gatekeepers be among the most senior people in the academy—those who’ve been through the evaluation processes themselves and who have the experience of doing evaluations.We might expect them to be rather sober in their decisions, knowing full well the significant consequences of their judgment.
This is not to say that they shouldn’t make hard decisions, but that the gravity of the decision would reflect the breadth of their experience.
Immediately, the challenge is obvious: only a select few—who, notably, are not a substantively, methodologically, or demographically diverse group—make it to senior status in the academy.
But there are other obstacles to role of seniority and experience in the most important administrative decisions. For example, in the tenure process, it is often the department that plays first, led by the department head or chair who (alone or with senior members of the faculty) establishes the trajectory and tone of the decision-making.
Yet, department chairs don’t necessarily have the seniority or the experience we might hope for someone with such awesome responsibility. Indeed, as most faculty know, the chair is often the sucker who draws the shortest straw.
The Chair at the time of my tenure case was neither particularly senior nor experienced. Instead, he had just recently been tenured himself and became chair just a couple of months before I submitted my dossier. His letter undoubtedly framed and set the tone for the evaluation of my record.
There are other senior players at the university with significant roles to play, not as rubber stamps but to check potential—and arguably inevitable—implicit and explicit biases in decisions. It is quite possible that they all may come to the same outcome in the case, and we know anecdotally that they often do. But, their role is to independently evaluate and provide legitimacy to the final outcome, whether positive or negative. But as my tenure materials reveal, that’s not necessarily how it works.
Reviewers external to the university are another set of gatekeepers who play, at least theoretically, an important part in the decision making process. Usually selected as a function of their seniority and experience, these experts weigh in on the merits of the tenure candidate.
Yet, in my case, their evaluations were all but dismissed. And it seems this is not unusual. Word on the street and in print is that the voice of these gatekeepers matters only if they’re negative. Or, put differently, they’re not considered valuable if they’re positive—at least, that is, for an internally disfavored candidate.
2. Leadership. It should go without saying that personnel decisions should be made by people with leadership skills. And there are some exceptional leaders in political science. But in my experience most of them came by their skills naturally.
The academy doesn’t train leaders, and anyone who’s been part of the selection process for academic administrators knows that demonstrable leadership skills are not a prerequisite for success in getting or performing the job.
We might debate the key elements of leadership—for me, they include clear & honest communication, transparency, responsibility and accountability, and inspiration—but the failure of leadership in my tenure case is obvious, not because I was denied but because of how the leaders exercised their power.
The most obvious failure was the Dean’s in speaking out of both sides of his mouth and doing a 180 in his evaluations of my record. But the Chair was no sterling example of leadership either, in part due to his lack of experience. For many departmental decisions, this may not be problematic. But at times the chair is the gatekeeper who makes career-altering decisions for his/her colleagues, as was true for me.
3. Substantive Knowledge. We might also reasonably expect that gatekeepers have some expertise about the work of the people they’re evaluating.
If the work is teaching, it makes sense that the evaluator would be an experienced teacher, perhaps even an expert in pedagogy, and would know something about how to teach the particular subject matter. And at some institutions, peer review and similar evaluation is used to provide feedback and accountability on teaching.
At many institutions, though, teaching is a secondary consideration in tenure decisions and students provide the gatekeeping function for teaching in the promotion process.
Because research is the fundamental part of tenure and promotion at most institutions, we might expect the evaluators of research be not only experienced researchers themselves, but also experts in the relevant substantive field.
Such expertise often comes from outside the university, the external reviewers whose role it is to be among the gatekeepers who can comment knowledgeably on the intellectual and scholarly merits of the work.
Yet, as I mentioned before, the hitch is that their input is likely perverted to meet desired outcomes. Particularly when their reviews are favorable (on an internally disfavored candidate), their expertise – or at least their word – is questioned and their review relegated to passing (if any) reference in the decision to deny.
Then, the views of internal gatekeepers form the basis of evaluation—even if they have no substantive expertise. My case demonstrates this clearly, as my responses to the Chair and the Dean illustrate.
4. Rules and Standards. Last but not least, gatekeepers should attend to the rules and standards of evaluation. Whatever those are. At minimum, all parties to the decision should be aware of the standards; but more precisely, everyone should know them, as in they should be clear and comprehensible and knowable. They should be predictable.
There are legitimate challenges in writing rules. Beyond the question of who creates them—usually the gatekeepers themselves—there is the very real issue of how specific they should be. The tension around specificity is obvious to anyone who’s been involved in a discussion about what it means to be a scholar in a particular discipline. In my experience, few people desire such rigid rules that no variance in individual cases can be considered. Similarly, ambiguous rules open the system to ad hoc and idiosyncratic determinations.
Surely, there’s a way of establishing standards that guide gatekeepers in making meaningful and defensible decisions without falling prey to flaws of either rigidity or ambiguity. Among many possible steps toward this goal is discipline-specific standards that account for differences in research, teaching, and service requirements.
Yet, faculty manuals often include only a very general set of guidelines about tenure, which are then interpreted and implemented as if they provide specific criterion for advancement. Generic passages like, “evidence of scholarship,” “significant scholarly contributions,” and “other activities that advance the discipline,” provide the appearance of precision but leave the standards completely open to interpretation.
In other words, depending on who the gatekeepers are at any particular time, the standards for being promoted are likely to change. As a result, there may be little that is clear, comprehensible, knowable, or predictable about how and why tenure decisions are made.
And so this short list comes full circle to the self-fulfilling cycle of the academic gatekeeping process. The decisions about who wins and who loses are not necessarily based on merit, but rather on the self-interest and self-importance of those in gatekeeping positions, who guard the gates and allow entry only to those who support their narrow conceptions of success.
The absence of alternative, authoritative voices poses a serious obstacle to individual advancement in the academy, but also to the goal of higher education and the growth of the academy more generally.
The challenge of diversity is not unique to academia. But one need only be socialized as an academic to understand that we often think we’re above or beyond the insularity of other professions and industries.
At a time when higher education is under concerted attack from politicians and others (just a few examples here, here, and here), we would do well to exercise a bit of reflection on the nature of success and failure among our ranks and to think creatively about how to break the self-fulfilling cycle of academic achievement.
A couple days ago, I took Twitter off my phone. A seemingly small effort to distance myself from the constant onslaught of information that is suffocating me. I like to think of myself as pretty disciplined, so this makes me more than a little disgusted with myself. I should be able to have an app on my phone and just not open it. There are a dozen other apps on the damn phone that I don’t use, including the Kindle app, loaded up with books that have been waiting for me for months. Even the several shopping apps have been ignored without much difficulty. Clearly, something is seriously wrong with me.
It’s not like there aren’t a million other things that I have to do that require my attention and distract me from that hypnotic little bird staring at me from the screen. I’ve managed to feed and clothe my children (although, upon reflection, there have been more short pants and short sleeves walking out of the house than there should be in January), say good morning and good night to my husband, wish my live-in mom a good day, and feed the pet bunny. I’ve managed to get myself to the office on time, prep for and teach my classes, engage my students and my colleagues, and complete the many administrative and other tasks required of me. I’ve managed to be a reasonably functional adult.
But Larry the Bird is watching me, and I’m watching him. He is—in his brief 140 character bits—my primary source of quickly digestible information about the world. And he’s been a God-send in many ways for my ever-changing and increasingly busy life.
Of course, it’s not Twitter’s fault that the world has changed so significantly in the last many months.
It’s not Twitter’s fault that I have this compulsive need to know as much as I can at every moment of every day.
It’s not Twitter’s fault that every morning when I wake up, I pick up my phone to see what’s happened in the hours since I was awake in the night … when I was checking my phone to see what happened in the hours before I shut my light before bed.
Poor Larry, it’s not his fault that I’m constantly trying to monitor tweet storms like this one this morning, and then trying to keep up with every response to it, moment by moment.
(Note: Downloaded from my computer, not my phone. One step at a time.)
It’s not his fault that I feel enormous pressure to remove myself from my various political and other bubbles, to force myself to confront my confirmation bias by following more and more people who can give me more and more, and different kinds, of news.
It’s not his fault that I feel compelled to be prepared for every single question and concern that my students have about their changing world, and that I want to be ready with a range of responses so that I can help them emerge from their bubbles and confront their biases.
It’s not his fault that this platform draws me in by providing much-needed connections to my colleagues in my own discipline and so many others that I would not otherwise have since leaving the university setting many years ago.
And it’s not Twitter’s fault that I want—need—to engage with all kinds of people who can help me learn about myself and find new personal and professional interests and paths.
Nope, this is on me.
It seems that the enormity of keeping up has snuck up on me rather abruptly. On any single day in my pre-#Election2016 life, I’d be plugging away being a parent, a spouse, a daughter, sibling, friend, teacher, colleague, blogger, reader, drinker of wine, kvetcher about life. A taker for granted of democracy and, you know, stability, predictability, relative sanity. The ushe. (Or is it yooz? I’ll have to ask Twitter.) Those days were busy, even frenetic. And the state of the world was worrisome and distressing at times. But my privileged life seemed manageable. Enjoyable even. I was attached to my phone and to Twitter, but in the normal, disrespectful way.
Then, BAM! Suddenly, I’m completely consumed. I can’t let it go.
And it’s not just the substance of the information, which I find devastating in so many ways.
It’s the volume of stuff that comes constantly, at a speed that is impossibly fast.
Yet I try to stay apace. The 140 character snippets of life race across my screen, making my eyes dart up and down and all around at an unnatural rate, consuming every extra minute of my time.
And what a joke, extra minutes! I’m a working parent. I don’t have extra minutes. Rather, I have time that I should carve out to spend playing with my kids, shooting the shit with my husband, reading a book, writing my blog, exercising, shabby chic-ing the second-hand desk that’s been in the garage for months. Or doing nothing. I hear that’s a thing and that it can add years to your life.
Instead, I’m on my phone, trying to keep up. I can’t let myself be complacent, I can’t be distracted from what’s happening “out there” by what’s happening “in here.” I must be vigilant. How can I justify reading a book for fun when yet one more executive order is being announced? How is a blog post on tenure denial even remotely as important as who will be the next Attorney General or whether another foreign leader has been maligned? My kids can play with each other; there are two of them, after all, and my second-by-second monitoring of the status of the Bill of Rights will ultimately protect their future. There’ll be time to talk to my husband tomorrow. Today, I must save the world!
[Gasps for breath.]
Yes. I am truly certifiable.
But there’s hope.
Taking Twitter off my phone is a (baby) step. Next up, a trashy novel. And writing; my blog may not be the key to maintaining democratic institutions, but it has its place and it’s time to get back to it.
First, though, it’s Friday, which means it’s movie night. My eyes (both of them) will be on one screen only—the one on the wall across the room. My hands will be occupied only by a (large) glass of wine and popcorn. And my attention—I promise myself—will be on my peeps sitting next to me.
The suffocating avalanche can wait another day …
It seems like I’ve been working on Part II of my gatekeeping post forever. And I’m not done. Sigh. So (not) funny how the specter of failure creeps into all of life’s crevices, even a personal blog with no deadlines, no commitments, no expectations.
I fret about not getting my next post out, yet I’ve been attending to all the other parts of my life: kids, live-in parent, and that pesky career thing, to name just a few. A conspiracy to impede my progress! Like it is for so many others, time is my most valuable – and scarce – resource. I have to remind myself that there’s only so much of it, and that priorities have to be set. Or, rather, they’re set for me.
Life. The primary theme of my tenure denial …
Failure or not, I will adapt. I may not be ready for my planned post, but I can make progress by writing about my appeal instead.
Besides, the appeal is a perfect segue to a post on gatekeepers in the academy.
Here, I give you the last two arbiters of my tenure case at AU: the Committee on Faculty Grievances (CFG) and the University President.
Actually, I have (relatively) little to say about this part of the process.
When I read them again after so many years, I realized how remarkable the letters were in representing the whole of my tenure denial experience.
The university committee—an external, independent evaluator of the process—arguing point by point the irregularities in the process.
The university president, seemingly disinterested and dismissive of each and every point.
It was—and is—rather anticlimactic.
Not that the CFG letter didn’t give me hope—less for myself, but for the larger issues I’d presented in my appeal. This was a committee of seven faculty, none of whom I knew personally, and only one by reputation. They investigated my claims by examining—and recording for the record and to provide some degree of transparency—relevant documents and interviewing relevant actors in the process. They found procedural and discriminatory irregularities in the evaluation process.
Most rewarding was their finding that the Dean had indeed changed his evaluation of my scholarly record after I delayed my tenure clock. The Committee flatly rejected the Dean’s explanation that his views were consistent over time, and they suggested that the President look carefully at the assessment of my scholarship.
Additionally, the Committee found that the focus of the Chair, Dean, and the Provost on future productivity and potential—at the expense of my previous work—was inconsistent with the Faculty Manual.
Similarly, it concluded that the Chair’s consultation with the senior faculty was not in keeping with routine procedures of the Department or the School, as the Dean had claimed. This violation of the Manual—which informed the evaluations by the Chair and the Dean—led the Committee to suggest that the weight of these reviews should be lessened in the President’s review of my case.
Furthermore, the Committee argued that I’d made a prima facie case for gender discrimination in the Department. They suggested that one sign of discrimination might be the Chair’s and Dean’s—and then Provost’s—dismissiveness of the external letters submitted in support of my tenure and promotion. Importantly, the Committee argued that the source of discrimination might not lie (only) in the evaluation process, but perhaps in the Department’s hiring and mentoring of junior faculty. The Committee asked the President to initiate an investigation.
Alas, as far as I could tell, there was no investigation by the President of any part of the process.
The review of gender discrimination in the Department by the Interim Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Academic Affairs mentioned in the President’s letter (and in my appeal) took place many weeks before the CFG made it’s independent determination that there was a prima facie case for discrimination.
Notably, her review—which she indicated was stimulated by the letter of support from my colleagues—was conducted many weeks after that letter was submitted and after the Provost had made the decision to deny tenure.
I do not know who else the Interim Vice Provost spoke to or how she conducted her investigation. I don’t remember hearing anything about a final determination about gender discrimination in the Department until I received the President’s letter. Indeed, it seems from the CFG letter that the Committee didn’t know anything about her review either as it is not mentioned in their letter to the President.
In the absence of transparency, I have no way of knowing if the President carried out his own, independent review of my case.
The failure of my appeal didn’t come as a surprise. I’d hired a lawyer several months before knowing full well how this story would end. Familiar with the tenure process at AU, she’d laid out a number of options for me to consider.
With the standard terminal contract in hand, I had a year to figure out what to do next.
*Quoted in Williams, Joan C. and Nancy Segal. 2003. “Beyond the Maternal Wall: Relief for Family Caregivers Who Are Discriminated Against on the Job,” 26 Harvard Women’s Law Review 77, 77. [Accessed November 9, 2016, at http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol26/williams.pdf]
 One of the most distasteful parts of writing the appeal was comparing my record to the records of my colleagues. I have redacted these portions of my letter.
I’m pausing from the details of my tenure case to reflect a bit. Since my ultimate goal for this blog is to think critically and broadly about success and failure in the academy, it seems like a good time to start piecing together some thoughts about higher education and academia. I’m starting with gatekeeping, which I view as central to success and failure in the academy.
I believe that the fundamental goal of higher education is to educate the next generation to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical thinking members of society. That’s a complex statement and may be controversial, but when asked over the years by students, friends, and family why I was a professor (and not a lawyer, for example), this has been the essence of my elevator speech. I don’t think it’s the only mission of universities and colleges – or faculty – and it certainly varies among types of institutions, but for me it’s the most important. And I think it’s true especially for political science.
I think we do our best in pursuit of this goal when we combine our dual roles of teachers and researchers (I could add service of many kinds, but that’s for another time). It’s wonderful when the connection is made by a single person, in a single class. I love when I can share what I know about a topic and how I know it as a model for thinking about and evaluating the world.
But the combination of teaching and research is not always applicable, and arguably, it doesn’t need to be. Instead, faculty rely on each other to provide the knowledge that we impart to our students. We are a community and our ability to fulfill the mission depends not only on our individual contributions, but our collective contributions. As researchers, we vary in the substantive and methodological focus of our work; as teachers, we vary in our topical expertise and pedagogical style. Some of us do more research than teaching; others do more teaching than research.
As a scholarly community, we do it all. Together, we are able to meet the goal of educating the next generation.
So the decisions about who gets to participate in meeting this goal—who succeeds and who does not—are extremely important.
If our value as a scholarly community in advancing subsequent generations depends on the sum of our parts, then the parts really matter.
Viewed in this context, the academic gatekeeping process – at least as I’ve seen and experienced it in political science – is terribly flawed.
It is a self-fulfilling cycle, based on a narrowly defined playing field that supports and promotes like-minded players who reject those deemed unqualified by the narrow standards that they themselves have devised and from which they have benefitted.
I’m sensitive to overgeneralizing without systematic data on hiring and promotion processes and results—and oversimplifying, given the variation among institutions. But one needs only to talk to colleagues from different universities and colleges to understand that decisions about who plays and who stays usually favor (and significantly) research over teaching.
And it’s not that research is so highly valued—as it should be—but rather that (at many places) teaching is so undervalued—and it shouldn’t be.
Assuming the goal for most of us is a tenure track position, then the cycle often looks something like this:
Some level of published research is required to compete for tenure track jobs, which provide the only path to tenure and the primary path to advancement in the academy.
Publishing depends not only on merit, but on time—perhaps the most valuable of resources—and other resources (ranging from funding to mentorship), which vary in availability among graduate programs.
Competition for tenure track positions is fierce, so many talented people (some with research on their CVs and others without) turn to contingent positions as a stop-gap on the way to tenure track jobs. Yet, contingent positions—because they demand enormous teaching loads—provide little time and resources for research. This makes it very challenging to attain a tenure track job later, leaving many permanently outside the traditional academic gates and unable to participate in the gatekeeping mechanisms of the academy.
If one is fortunate enough to have the time and resources to publish—and then lucky enough to successfully compete for the relatively few tenure track positions—then promotion to Associate and eventually to Full depends, again, on sufficient research, which requires time and resources.
For many reasons, though, not all faculty are similarly situated—either professionally or personally—with regard to time and resources, and thus are limited in their ability to pass through the tenure and promotion gates. Thus, they are prevented from attaining status among the gatekeepers.
Those who do successfully navigate this system—not only on merit (and for some, not on merit at all) but on good fortune—are those who have benefitted from the time and other resources required to succeed. And they go on to perpetuate it by holding the gatekeeping positions. And the cycle of “success” continues.
This cycle is even more complicated. Not all research is equal, and the definition of “good” research is often very narrowly defined—not only by substantive focus, but by methodological approach.
The definitions are made by the very people who get the tenure track jobs and who advance to positions of seniority. And the value of that work is narrowly defined by publication in particular venues, which are ranked in ways that are also a product of those who have succeeded by meeting the status quo standards for advancing in the system. And they, then, perpetuate those standards through their status at their institutions.
And this says nothing about those venues themselves, publication in which often requires vast amounts of time and resources that are often available only to those who have had previous success.
And all of this at the expense—often—of teaching. There are some faculty who excel at both research and teaching; in my experience, this is uncommon and usually the product of ideal workers who are able and willing to dedicate themselves fully to professional productivity.
Teaching often takes a back seat to research for those who want to succeed on the tenure track. The saying—that I continue to hear graduate students repeat—is that your teaching can hurt you for tenure if it’s terrible, but it can’t help you if it’s good (no matter how good).
Thus, if teaching is a strength and something in which time and resources are invested, it will usually be at the expense of research. And this is likely to put the tenure track—and tenure—out of reach.
And if the tenure track or tenure is out of reach, then full participation and advancement in the profession and the institution are out of reach as well.
It is worth noting, too, that one of the institutionally valued and encouraged ways of obtaining more time and resources to do the research that will earn promotion is to buy out teaching with research funding. And, the likelihood of funding is greater for those with prior research accomplishments, which met the narrowly defined standards.
Among the many effects of this cycle is that it puts the burden of teaching additional courses on other faculty, who then have less time to do their own research and whose professional fortunes are increasingly limited because they’re less likely to break into the cycle that would bring success. And, it contributes to the need for more contingent instructors, for whom the ever-increasing teaching loads diminish the opportunity for research, the key to the academic gate and kingdom.
I could go on.
The implications of this failure to think broadly and inclusively about what constitutes meaningful intellectual contributions to higher education are serious.
Not only does it result in the inability of many individuals with multifaceted skills and expertise as researchers and teachers to participate and advance in the profession.
But it results in significant loss for students, who—in my view—are educated best by their exposure to faculty with a range of skills and intellectual approaches that help them develop the tools to sort through the complexities of the world and make informed judgments about their place in it.
In the end, this is a devastating failure by and for institutions of higher learning.
I’ve been both outside and inside the gates, and I like to think I’ve been a thoughtful and attentive witness to and participant in the gatekeeping process. But I know that because I was largely successful in overcoming the many hurdles in my academic path, I didn’t understand or appreciate as well as I should have how problematic the process could be.
Sometimes it takes failure to understand success.
I’m at the end of my story of the formal tenure review. After the decisions in the School of Public Affairs, the evaluation process moved to the university level where the Committee on Faculty Relations (CFR) reviewed my file and then the Provost made the final decision. It’s all a little anticlimactic because we know I was fired.
The Provost’s letter was completely predictable, a rehashing of Chair’s and Dean’s letters about the inadequacy of my research record, emphasizing that I had little potential and no promise of an upward trajectory in the future.
If memory serves, I got through the first line of the letter, had a few choice words that reflected my incredulity about any remorse he might have had in ending my career, and put the letter aside.
Picking up the letter some time later, I noticed that the Provost hadn’t actually signed it; the Interim Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Academic Affairs initialed it on his behalf. This might have been the most upsetting part for me; so relatively trivial, but so significant as an indication of how little he actually cared about the decision he’d made.
I also noticed that he hadn’t referenced the letter of support from the senior colleagues in my department (not surprising) and had summarily dismissed the possibility of gender bias in my case (also not surprising). I’ll return to his complete disregard for the pattern of discrimination in the Department and School at another time.
Particularly notable in the context of his evaluation of my dossier, though, was the Provost’s failure to acknowledge at all the tenure evaluation by the Committee on Faculty Relations.
Presumably, the CFR plays a meaningful role in the tenure process. I’ve always understood that this type of committee is the first defense against the potentially parochial decision making in department and school evaluations—defense not just for the tenure candidate, but for the institution as well. At AU, the CFR has responsibility for evaluating the dossier with fresh and objective eyes.
It is a major understatement to say that I was surprised and relieved when the CFR letter recommended tenure. After months of devastating, negative evaluations, I had to read it several times to appreciate it fully. Not only did a majority of the Committee find my contributions to the University valuable but they viewed my past productivity as a positive sign of my future success. They seemed to appreciate what the others had ignored, that the slowed pace of production was a function of child-bearing, and was not a sign of future potential.
It was not a sign of failure.
And the Committee’s acknowledgment of bias in the process—whether explicit or implicit—was a welcome change from previous evaluations.
But as a procedural and practical matter, I wasn’t sure what to make of the CFR recommendations. I don’t know how common it is to separate tenure from promotion as the CFR did. To be sure, granting tenure without promotion was certainly preferable to me than being promoted without tenure. And it seemed like a serious rebuke of the Chair’s and Dean’s evaluations.
At the same time, it’s clear that the Committee was trying not to overly censure the Dean and the School. By suggesting that the School had a reputation of fairness and objectivity, they tried to balance their recommendation that the review process be examined in light of the arguments I’d made in my rebuttal letters.
And by not recommending promotion, they seemed to be preserving some authority for the School to develop standards by which to frame and evaluate the research agenda required to earn promotion.
From a dispassionate view, I understand why they tried to walk the line they did. But as a practical matter, it’s hard to see how they thought this would play out for me or the School. The powers-that-be hadn’t just denied me tenure, they had completely decimated my research record. I couldn’t imagine how we would have worked to develop a plan that would have earned me promotion to Associate Professor.
Alas, it was all conjecture in the end as the Provost ignored the CFR altogether and denied tenure.
But then, this was not a surprise to anyone familiar with tenure cases at AU, including my lawyer.
I’m guessing most people who are denied tenure will confirm how extremely lonely and isolating the process is. If colleagues know about what’s going on (and many of them don’t), they are reluctant to engage with someone facing a negative decision. The disregard by the people involved in the process, while understandable, is particularly awkward and even humiliating. One day you’re friendly and supportive colleagues, the next day they’re evaluating you, and then abruptly you are invisible. I did not see or speak again to many of my colleagues, even though I spent almost another year in the department.
But after I submitted my response to the Dean’s letter, a few of my senior colleagues in the department asked if they could add a letter to my file in support of promotion and tenure (in the Library).
The collegiality they offered by their request was priceless.
And the significance of their letter was beyond measure as it shined a light on the opaque process of the department’s senior faculty meeting about my candidacy (see my post Feckless. Utterly Feckless.).
There are a number of take-aways from the letter, but perhaps the most fundamental insight is that tenure decisions are not necessarily – or at least not completely – merit based. In my case, the decision may not have been fully informed by my record since it seems that many of the faculty didn’t have access to my file, including the external letters.
At the very least, it’s clear that issues that should not have been related to the merits of my case were raised in the meeting, including my exercise of parental leave, the personal relationships of some in the room to my mentors, and a recent hire in the department. I opposed the hire, a senior person who I believe participated in the meeting.
We suspected that nothing would change as a result of their letter to the Dean of Academic Affairs, and we were mostly right. By this time, it was clear that the decision to deny tenure had long been made, and probably initiated from on high.
But I am forever thankful for the effort of these colleagues, not just on my behalf but for the larger principles that they defended. They renewed my energy to continue the challenge, which became less about the particulars of my file and more about the fundamentals of the tenure process generally, as my dossier moved from the School to the University committees and administrators.
The Dean of the School of Public Affairs was the single constant evaluator during my probationary period at AU. A fellow political scientist, he was a consistent source of support – enthusiastic support – illustrated by his letters for my 3rd and 5th year reviews (the 5th is in the Library). He often asked for meetings to discuss departmental issues, suggesting he valued my opinion and insight, and discretion. It was he who encouraged me to delay my tenure clock for two years for each of my children. And it was he who asked me to serve on the university-wide committee to write AU’s first parental leave policy.
When it came time for his evaluation of my tenure dossier, a part of me truly thought he might reverse the tide of the first two letters.
Instead, and predictably, he followed the course of the others and recommended against tenure and promotion (find his letter and my response in the Library). His argument addressed the many issues already raised in previous evaluations, like external letters, standards, and future productivity. And he introduced new, ad hoc evaluative information.
But what was so remarkable about the letter was the 180 degree turn the Dean made from his prior evaluations of my work. The complete reversal was astounding.
So much so, that I actually had a moment of panic when I thought, Shit, have I misunderstood him and his evaluations all this time? I seriously thought I might have had it all wrong.
But no. I had it right. The Dean had simply ignored his previous support to reach the desired outcome.
In the 5th year evaluation letter, he began, “She is making excellent progress toward tenure at American University …” and continued, “She was and continues to be an active scholar and strong classroom teacher who serves both the university and the wider community.” (Dean, November 2005, p.1)
With regard to my scholarship specifically, “Professor Diascro’s research and publication record is outstanding,” followed by a list of my (presumably outstanding) refereed work. He then described the judicial politics reader as “a significant contribution to the field of law and politics, and the undergraduate courses taught in this field…” (p.2)
After explaining my current projects (one of which would be one of the two articles published before tenure, and another that would be a book chapter with a department colleague, also published before tenure), he concluded that, “Professor Diascro’s research agenda is diverse, lengthy, and significant. It has been well-reviewed and highly cited.” (p.3)
He ended the letter, “In short, Professor Diascro has an important record as a scholar and has demonstrated through her publications and her new projects that she is a scholar of substance.” (p.4)
Fast forward to his tenure letter. “Her scholarship … falls short of what we expect for tenure and promotion,” (Dean, January 20, p.1) and, “Her record at AU is clearly not as strong as her record at Kentucky, either quantitatively or qualitatively. This decline casts doubt on Professor Diascro’s future research productivity.” (p.1)
Now, the book chapter was “short,” and the judicial politics reader might have demonstrated substantive knowledge and editorial skills, but it was no longer a meaningful pedagogical contribution and was decidedly not scholarship (p.2).
And there was more.
I had used the time I got back on my clock after the birth of my kids to publish another book chapter and two journal articles. In other words, I used those two years to add three publications to my CV, two of which fulfilled the requirement from my 5th year review that I focus my attention on publishing in peer reviewed venues. (I’d also had an R&R at a prominent social science journal, a book prospectus in the works, and was collecting data on another project. All of this information was in my file.)
Obviously, my research production had increased in the two years since the last evaluation. How, then, did this translate into concern about my future productivity and lead to a denial of tenure?
According to the Dean (a comparativist), it wasn’t so much that my articles on judicial politics were published in Judicature (the so-called trade journal by the Chair) but rather that they were poor scholarship.
Despite his previous support for these projects and their subsequent publication in a refereed journal in my field – not to mention the positive evaluations about this work by external reviewers in my field – the research in these articles was deemed unworthy by AU’s tenure standards by the Dean, whose expertise was not in my field.
Notably, the book chapter was considered more worthy than the articles. This work was “better grounded in existing literature and has a more rigorous research design.” (p.2) I’m not sure on what basis the Dean made these judgments, but I suspect that his approval had at least as much to do with my coauthor, who (with the Chair) had been tenured recently.
This turn of events was – and is – worrisome.
Graduate students and junior faculty are regularly advised to talk to and work with senior faculty, be mentored and guided by those in the know and with power, be educated about the rules and standards, to network. These are the things that will help advance their careers.
Except that they may not, or not in a predictable way.
The Dean’s actions in my case illustrate clearly how capricious the process can be. This was someone with whom I’d worked for years, someone who had supported and advised me. Someone I trusted. If junior faculty can’t count on someone like this to be consistent and straightforward, who can they count on?
Around the time that I was writing my rebuttal to the Dean’s letter, the Department of Government was compiling data about personnel decisions – including hiring, tenure, and promotion. I knew about the most recent tenure denials (both women) and the most recent tenure successes (both men), and I knew that the department had a number of female associate professors who had not been promoted during my time at AU.
What I didn’t know was that not a single woman had been promoted to any rank from within the Department of Government since 1997. By my count, the three women who’d gone up for tenure since that time were denied. During the same time period, the six men who’d gone up were promoted with tenure, and then one of them plus another were promoted to Full. There was only one female Full professor in the department at that time, and she’d been hired at that level.
As I thought about the next steps in my case, I wondered whether it was possible that all of the women in the Department were less accomplished or productive than the men. Was it possible that none of us met the AU standards for tenure or promotion? That none of us knew how to do quality political science or get our work published in legitimate venues? Was there something about us that cast doubt on our future productivity?
I’ve struggled with this post because the next step in the process was such a let down. I don’t know what I expected after I wrote the rebuttal to the Chair’s letter, but it wasn’t what I got.
What I got was the realization that my career at AU – and probably in academia – was over. The decision had been made – in all likelihood, long before the chair had written his letter – and there wasn’t going to be anything I could do to change it.
There are many steps in the evaluation process. At AU, this included three steps in the School of Public Affairs: the Department (through the chair), the Rank and Tenure Committee (composed of faculty from all three departments in the school, including the Department of Government, the Department of Public Administration, and the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology), and the Dean. Then evaluation moved to the university level, with review by the Committee on Faculty Relations (a university-wide faculty committee) and the Provost.
I always assumed that the process of review by multiple levels was to provide independent evaluations of the tenure candidate’s file with the goal of protecting the individual and the institution from explicit and implicit bias and discrimination in the review process.
But when I got the Rank and Tenure (R&T) letter, it was clear to me that no number of independent steps in the process – and no number of rebuttals from me – was going make a difference. You can find both letters in the Library.
The chair of the committee – a colleague in the government department– wrote that the group had undergone “a long and thorough discussion of the merits” (R&T Letter, p.2) of my case and unanimously recommended denying tenure.
But where was this long and thorough discussion? After the complete demolition of my record by the department chair and my extensive reply, the R&T Committee produced two pages that included only a handful of sentences about my research record. It said nothing – not a word – in response to the disagreement expressed in the more than 20 pages between the chair and me.
One might reasonably argue that this is exactly what an independent review of a dossier should do. That it should not rely on prior reviews but rather make its own evaluation to provide an objective appraisal of the record.
But short of saying that my record was insufficient, this evaluation said almost nothing. Most of the letter was a listing of my accomplishments drawn directly from my dossier narrative. Where was the evidence of the “long and thorough discussion of the merits”? What did they discuss? Even if there was little disagreement, which the (mostly) unanimous decision suggested, what evaluative criteria had they applied to my work? They counted the number of publications and conferences, and judged the quality of the journals that published my research, but provided no benchmarks against which to evaluate my record. Not once did they provide any foundation – not a single standard from the department, the school, or the university – for their recommendation to deny tenure.
If this was an independent review of my dossier, I found the Committee’s work perfunctory, at best, and a denial of due process, at worst.
The Dean would say in his letter, several weeks later, that he had confirmed with the Chair that the Committee did indeed have a full discussion of my file; moreover, “the Committee is under no obligation to address in its recommendation every issue that Professor Diascro would like it to address.”
To be sure. But shouldn’t a candidate for tenure expect that the Committee would be under some obligation to address something of substance, particularly if its recommendation was to deny tenure?
The chair of the committee had his office across the hall from mine; it was difficult for him to avoid me as nearly all of the senior faculty had since the review process started. To his credit, he stopped in my doorway and asked me how I was doing.
I took a deep breath. At least he’d asked.
In our brief chat (the notes I made after we spoke are in the Library), I reminded him that I’d met the requirement to publish my work in peer reviewed venues; he replied that I had done the minimum.
I asked him if they had read the exchange between me and the department chair; he replied, yes, but that they didn’t really want to get involved in that.
Deep, deep breath. Keep breathing.
Feckless. Utterly feckless.
Still, I needed to respond. I wasn’t going to let any negative letter go unanswered. And I had a bit more time to react to the R&T letter than I did to the department because we were on winter break. Presumably since no one would want to be reading my rebuttal during this time, the administration gave me the holidays to work on my response.
With the extra time to reflect, I noticed something that I had been aware of only vaguely the first few times I’d read the R&T letter: one of the committee members had abstained from voting. Why? Did this person abstain at the beginning of the discussion, or after deliberation? Did the person participate at all? The Dean’s verification notwithstanding, I wondered what happened in the committee meeting and whether the discussion was as undisputed as the letter suggested. To this day, I have no idea who or why someone didn’t vote in my case.
I might have made an issue of this in my response, but at the time I was less focused on the abstention and more on what it made me remember about the Department Chair’s letter.
It’s funny what the brain recognizes and when. I’d read the Chair’s letter dozens of times but only in a nebulous way did I notice the Chair’s references to the division among the senior faculty. He mentioned the unsatisfactory assessment of my record by my “AU peers,” and that my “AU colleagues” were more critical than the external reviewers. He suggested that I had some supporters but that the senior faculty were “highly polarized” and “mixed” in their evaluation of my file.
But as I read the letter several more times, it occurred to me that he was talking about the faculty as a group, as if they’d had a meeting.
And then I remembered the email.
The norm in the department was for the chair to canvass the senior faculty for their views on tenure candidates. Presumably, the faculty read the dossiers of candidates before weighing in on the decision, which they did in one-on-one meetings with the chair.
But in one of his first official acts the summer before I went up, the Chair emailed me that he was going to gather the faculty instead; this, he argued, would increase accountability of the chair and make the process more transparent. He wasn’t asking my permission to make the change, but I responded positively to his announcement because I’d argued for years for greater accountability and transparency in the tenure process. I didn’t really think about the implications of a faculty meeting for my own case – and I didn’t inquire about accountability and transparency for whom – but I did register my concern that this process be thought through carefully to protect its integrity.
In retrospect, I wondered what affect the group dynamic might have had on the conversation about my case. How many of the senior faculty were at the meeting? If the debate was highly polarized, what were the specific points of contention? What were the rules of debate? Were those not in attendance included in the discussion separately? Were they allowed to vote? And what was the vote? Was there a vote? As far as I knew, this was a new practice without any codified procedures. And if the accountability and transparency promised by the chair was realized among the senior faculty in attendance, it certainly didn’t trickle down to me.
Later, I would learn more about the legitimacy of changing the procedure on faculty input and how the meeting of senior faculty transpired. In another post, I’ll return to these issues and how the faculty dynamic may have affected my case.
At the time, though, the R&T letter gave me the impetus to continue challenging the tenure process at AU. Despite feeling that the Committee’s recommendation represented the nail in my academic coffin, I still held out a small amount of hope that the Dean would see through the failures of the first two stages; after all, he’d been a constant and supportive evaluator of my record during the probationary period. But regardless of his actions, I was going to go on record about what I saw as clear violations of due process in the system.