Denying Tenure and Moving On

17 February 2014, 0423 EST

For some people this has been a very good month, for others, no so much.  Tenure (and by proxy promotion) is the thing most American Professors strive for, desire, believe is the crowning moment in their careers.* daffy professor

I will say for one, tenure denials, whether justified or outrageous – happen.  Our careers are determined by many things but tenure is not one of them.  It is a process filled with problems, but important nonetheless.  For me, there was some liberation in having the process go poorly.  Who I am kidding, I relished being denied.  It freed me, allowed me to work on things I was too cautious to do before.  In hindsight, I am glad the way my career has developed and what happened.  I am glad that I can even say that I have a “career.”  It is no longer about my portfolio, my CV, “my package.”  There is certainly life after tenure and tenure denial.

I have been taken by a case at my Alma mater, Whittier College, where an Assistant Professor denied appears to be arguing it was a political decision.  That there really appears to be no record of publication seems to be skipped over by press reports of the case.  Very few people outside the profession really understand what we do and what we should be doing.  It is as if we are back to this basic idea that all Professors do is teach.  We do so much more than that, we inspire, research, engage, translate, and transform.  Appearing to debate some righteous movement from the University podium is no longer enough, we need to back that up with action (publications, projects, impact) that help make our case with evidence and analysis.

The basic point is we need to think a bit beyond our records, our stats, and our limitations.  The unfortunately misguided Kristof op-ed makes this point clear.   We need to be bold and engage in research that transforms the public discourse.  Of course this might not happen right away, but the direction of our careers should be headed this way.  This should be the goal of tenure, to demonstrate you can do work on this level and that you will continue to do so for the rest of your career.

I had this back and forth with Simon in the comment thread in Phil Arena’s unfortunate news/post.  I think it is useful to recount some of it here, modified, expanded, and edited of course, because it could be illustrative to some either going through the process, or anticipating it.  Comments in brackets have been inserted by me.


If you [to Phil] do find out what really happened, though, I think grad students such as myself, or other very junior academics, would find it very helpful to know some of the details. So much of the process of figuring out how things work in the discipline for us is just stumbling around blindly into things. Obviously there are obligations of professional discretion here [more than just obligations, we can be sued for disclosing personnel decisions], but from my perspective, curiosity on these matters is closely related to wanting to survive and prosper in a complex and still somewhat foreign society [I think Professors are more like the Elves in Middle Earth, but fair point]


Young Padawan, I am not sure what lessons you are looking for. The process is pretty simple, publish at an incredible rate, have future projects lined up, do your teaching, do your service, and don’t piss anyone off. There are often problems along the way, people get denied for a whole host of reasons (we have a support group at APSA with cute name tags and everything), but the best advice is always that your record should be based on external projections, not internal benchmarks. If your record is strong externally, it won’t matter what happens internally. Those that survive this fit that description.  Their tenure denials make the University look poor and there are greener pastures (often aboard as I found out). Those that don’t have a record that stands up to external scrutiny will have problems making it in academia, period. Publish, say important things, focus a bit on quality – not quantity.


My curiosity stems from the apparent fact that even people who satisfy those conditions may not get tenure. It also stems from the fact that while these conditions are kind of obvious when generally stated, what satisfies them may not be. When is it better to publish less often but in better venues? How much are co-authored publications discounted? What are common ways to piss people off? How much does grant money matter? And so on. Also, when I put these questions to various tenured faculty members, I receive answers that are not wholly consistent. So maybe the experiences of people who didn’t receive tenure will be instructive.


I think there is a reason why the answers are not consistent. There is no consistent answer really. The only consistency for me is outside perceptions because the letter writers, leaders of your field, and big names at the top schools will always determine what is important and considered productive. Or take for example the major journals; ISQ will always be important, at least for the duration of our careers. APSR is just as important as it was in 1970 (when Dick Cheney published there) as it is today. Those things last.  Strive to publish at least some of your work in the best journals possible. But that is only one step in the process.

As for the specifics on coauthorship, publications in lower ranked journals, grants and other questions, basically if your department and school like you and you get letters that support you, there will be an easy positive case to be made. But if there is disunity and conflict in your department, some will use anything they can to make your record look weak. It is almost impossible to have a bullet proof tenure case, at least in 6 years. Even a tenure bar at a school can move, drastically. One year it could be a book and 3 articles, the next its 10 articles and book or contract. Who knows? There are always new Deans, new fads, new questions. The point is to make sure you minimize the weaknesses as much as possible, that you build strong relationships with your senior colleagues in the department and outside the department, and you focus on seeking out big questions that have implications for your field and/or society.

There are a few standard things to remember. Don’t publish in low ranked journals that have no impact factor, don’t work on edited volumes, don’t publish a book at a really low ranked press if there is some question about this at your school, be weary of book chapters, have a consistent voice in your work, have a second project started, at least apply for a few grants, go to conferences not to check the presentations box, but to engage the senior people in your field, develop new and novel pedagogical methods, think about diversity and interdisciplinarity in your work and in your perspective.  Most important of all, be nice and do your work.  In the end, that is all you can do and all you control.

The commandments of tenure and tenure denials

  1.      Thou shalt publish
  2.      Thou shalt do thy best to be an effective teacher
  3.      Thou shalt do their service and be a good citizen
  4.      Thy tenure and promotion bar is external to thine institution
  5.      When things go wrong, don’t involve your students in #thestruggle
  6.      Shitty things happen, be prepared
  7.      See #1

*There is no tenure in the UK, only promotion. We have a probation period of three years or less depending on time served in the field. Promotion is not mandatory and  you could technically be a Lecturer for your entire career.