Tenure and the Profession: the Departmental View

The professional values, anxieties, and contradictions that we have noted play out most conspicuously in one’s home department.  How does tenure appear from this point of view?  Consider, first, what kind of beast a department really is.  You have a group of people who share a field of study and a comparable level of training but, in most cases, little else.  Yet history has collected them and tenure has glued them together for life.  They are stuck with each other.

As Gogol observed, “There is nothing more touchy and ill-tempered in the world than departments.”  And it’s not hard to see why.  When people are stuck together, they evolve complicated and recondite ways of getting along that may seem perverse or mysterious to outsiders.  In the worst cases, a department can come to resemble the cheap hotel room in Sartre’s No Exit, where the inmates torment one another with an endless round of seductions, lies, and betrayals: hell is revealed as other people.  But most departments seem closer to families in both situation and dynamics.  Some are bigger, happier, or healthier than others, but all operate like family systems governed by homeostasis.  Behaviors that seem weird or dysfunctional may actually work to keep the system intact; that’s why they persist over time and resist rational or administrative interventions.

Hogarth, The Committee of the Rumps

You can join a family by birth, adoption, or marriage.  But none of these guarantee a natural, close fit.  Birth is merely an accident.  Adoption involves a choice based on parental dreams more than on in-depth knowledge of a personality that, in any case, is still emerging.  Marriage requires a compatibility test, but for one member only.  So it’s no surprise that siblings and in-laws frequently don’t get along.  All they really have in common is family membership.  Even when relations are amicable, they may not be warm, intimate, or affectionate.

Since one can’t be born or adopted into a department (because everyone is supposedly a peer), the hiring and review process lead to a relationship that’s more like a marriage.  It comes at the end of a lengthy courtship that begins with applying for a job and ends with the award of tenure.  Throughout, the department sees itself as the object of desire and expects to be wooed like a rich heiress or eligible duke.  A glance at any faculty directory shows that departments tend to hire people with similar backgrounds, especially when it comes to where they got their degrees.  They want people just like them.  But they also want people who can compensate for departmental weaknesses, real or perceived; they want to bring in fresh blood and new life.  Needless to say, this puts candidates in a double bind.

Because so much is at stake, departments take tenure reviews very seriously. The underlying question is: can we live with this person?  Do we want him or her around for the next thirty years?  So there is much parsing of articles, teaching evaluations, and outside reviews, along with much soul-searching, hand-wringing, and gossip.  Everyone means well, but they all have their own ideas about what’s important, and tenure protects those with arbitrary, idiosyncratic, often fatal opinions. It usually takes a tremendous effort to reach the consensus that administration demands.   A department can easily come to resemble a family where everyone’s an in-law.

Tenure and the Profession at Large

How does tenure look from the viewpoint of the profession as a whole?  Some common features extend across disciplines, departments, and institutions.  Because merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for approval, the tenured ranks resemble a guild or a club whose members cherish a sense of eliteness, exclusiveness, and privilege while, at the same time, believing that these are all natural, logical consequences of ability and performance.  No one who has received tenure feels it was undeserved.

To the profession at large, the tenure review performs a vital gate-keeping function.  It’s the final barrier to mediocrity, the last chance to weed out slackers and underachievers who have somehow managed to slip through.  It protects the profession by enforcing standards of rigor, brilliance, and hard work.  Call it a quality-control mechanism if you like.  But notice that the principle of peer review, which is commonly invoked in justification, embodies a fundamental contradiction.  For a peer is an equal, but here those doing the review are already tenured.  They may consider themselves peers to one another, but certainly not to the candidate.  In practice, the designation of peer simply means holding a Ph.D. in the same field; it obscures the power relations that really govern the situation.

The main justification for tenure given by the profession, via the AAUP first and foremost, is that it protects academic freedom.  No doubt this is true to an extent, as anyone who has worked at an institution without tenure (including myself) can attest.  But it is not only reason that tenure endures, nor, in my view, even the primary reason.  Academic freedom has the same oxymoronic, obscuring quality as peer review.  If your ideas threaten or contest those of a senior colleague, you had better keep them to yourself, or else they may put you at risk for tenure.  If your research challenges existing paradigms, you will find it hard to get a fellowship or a grant; just think for a moment about who gets to sit on the committees that review proposals and applications.  In short, academic freedom does not apply equally.  In practice, it’s a privilege largely reserved for the tenured.

From inside the club, tenure is also justified as a form of compensation.  We all know how fond academics are of complaining about their low salaries in comparison to those of other learned professions.  But in fact academic people seem to prefer privilege, status, and security to income.  If they wanted real money, they’d go into administration or business.  As one senior colleague admitted, “They pay me with tenure.”

Tenure, it seems, is both a meal ticket and an admission ticket.  Without it, you not only don’t eat, you don’t get to stay at the table.  From the inside, denial of tenure is viewed as  a terminal diagnosis, a death sentence.  Anyone who has looked for a job after tenure denial — or, for that matter, considered hiring such a one — knows how hard it is to overcome the stigma of damaged goods.  Some, it’s true, do manage to find other teaching jobs, but most will take a lateral arabesque into administration or leave academia altogether, becoming part of the gray, exiled, undocumented mass of the Disappeared.

Tenure and the Person: Eyes on the Prize

How does tenure appear from the point of view of the person pursuing an academic career?  Once out of grad school, it becomes the main focus of aspiration, effort, and worry.  It’s the next hurdle, yet also the biggest and most desperate. Getting into grad school, finishing the dissertation, and finding a tenure-track job all seem like practice runs in comparison.  The stakes are high, the uncertainties inescapable, the rewards dazzling, the consequences of failure abysmal.  The tenure review both defines and distorts everything.

To the candidate — notice how this term of apprenticeship persists — tenure initially presents itself as a reward for good work, like a grade.  Merit seems to be the key thing, as demonstrated by refereed publications (lots of them), superior teaching (bolstered by hallway buzz and glowing evaluations), and diligent acceptance of all assignments or requests for service.  When we were students, we always got rewarded for good work, and we’re still in school so why shouldn’t that continue?  Matters are further confused by the institution’s stated criteria, which invariably emphasize scholarship, teaching, and service, and a review process that gathers and sifts the evidence without reference to personal likes and dislikes or “external” factors such as enrollment, the economy, or institutional history (about which more later).  In short, candidates believe that if they do a good job, meet the criteria, and say yes to everything, they will get tenure.

Or rather, they want to believe it, they really do.  But everyone knows that you can do everything they want and still be denied.  It’s frightening to think that popularity and being liked, they very things that we learned to loathe in high school, matter as much in the land of research and intellect as they do in politics, business, or suburbia.  Merit turns out to be a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for final approval.

Meanwhile, your colleagues, whom you have blithely been treating as friends and mentors (or, in worse cases, as annoyances to be avoided), suddenly assume the role of judges who hold your future in their hands.  You begin anxiously scrutinizing their faces and parsing their remarks for signs of a tilt to one side or the other. You realize that most have already made up their minds; you begin to suspect that the review, rather than some sort of objective analysis, will really be a matter of aligning the evidence to confirm expectations. You begin to feel helpless, vulnerable, and exposed.  You realize that you really have almost no control. You start losing sleep.  A sense of dread begins to infect your life.  

Yet oddly, tenure itself begins to look even more dazzling.  If you get it, you’ll be free of this crippling anxiety.  You won’t have to run the gauntlet ever again. You’ll be free to pursue your own interests and your own work.  You’ll wear the laurel crown; you’ll belong at last.  And it would be only fair, because you’ve worked so hard, made the grade, fulfilled all requirements and expectations.  You’ve done what was asked, and arguably more.  It would only be fair.  No one, after all, goes to grad school thinking they might someday not get tenure, just like no one gets married expecting to be divorced.  It’s simply unthinkable at the time.

Of course, you can avoid the whole thing by bailing out.  Some, indeed, jump off the tenure track and into greener pastures alongside — government, foundation work, industry, business, that sort of thing.  But most, having invested so much already, prefer to take their chances and go through the review in hopes that everything will work out. After all, they’ve always succeeded at school; they’ve been the bright, exceptional ones.  Why shouldn’t they be exceptional now?

My aunt Woozle, who is 96, likes to say, “Things work out, because they have to.” Perhaps. But they don’t always work out just the way we’d like, not as quickly, not as easily, not as simply.  The task, therefore, is to stay alive before, during, and after the review.  The warrior’s four way vision provides balance and strength, but it’s not enough.  We must also remember how tenure is perceived by the profession and the institution.

Entering the Citizen Phase

It’s fall, the season when everyone starts thinking about tenure.  Energetic new hires jostle for position, third years nervously scrutinize their vitae, sixth years gird for the gauntlet of class visits and the grind of dossier preparation.  Meanwhile, senior members of the department reluctantly trade their rumpled collegial garb for the sterner robes of judgment or advocacy, sometimes both together.  It’s a bewildering time for everyone.  But come spring, it’ll all be over.  We’ll know who’s in, who’s out, and where to go or not to go from here.

For those following the Standard Model, the tenure review looms as a Great Divide.  Make it across this absolute watershed, and you’re set for life.  You get to go on; you get to follow your calling; you get to stay in the game, assured of a comfortable, respectable future and an institutional home.  But fail to make it, and you fall back into bleak uncertainty with no clear path, no security, and every likelihood that you’ll be forced to leave the profession.  You’ll become one of the Disappeared.  No wonder the tenure review provokes fear and loathing even while it’s viewed with incredulity from the outside.  Ordinary mortals can barely conceive of lifetime job security.  What’s more, to face an up-or-out decision after investing ten to fifteen years on education and probation seems like cruel and unusual punishment.  What kind of culture demands that sort of thing from its faithful?  Tenure begins to look like a system of human sacrifice.

Nevertheless, pace Marx, our purpose here is to understand the world, not to change it.  Balance requires that we focus on changing ourselves.   Not present at the creation, we had no chance to give helpful hints for the better ordering of the universe. Perhaps in the next incarnation.  Meanwhile,  time presses, life goes on, and, somehow or other we have to deal.

As a first step, let’s not forget that entering the citizen phase of work life doesn’t just mean getting tenure.  Sooner or later, we have to find a place in the world, and there are so many possible niches for those with academic training.  It’s just that graduate school, with its intellectual hazing and organizing fictions, brainwashes us into thinking that the Standard Model must be the only acceptable path.  But take a look around and notice all the smart, accomplished, prosperous, intellectually vibrant, learned, curious, and creative people who aren’t academics.  Think about those who actually  left the academy for greener fields in industry, government, foundation work, consulting, journalism, the clergy,  or the arts?  Admit that more than once you may have gazed down their road wistfully, may have felt, perhaps, a slight touch of envy. But when you have put your shoulder to the wheel, straining mightily to make the grade, it’s hard to entertain other possibilities.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be blogging about entering the citizen phase, writing from both sides of the divide and considering how tenure looks to the person, the profession, and the institution. We’ll also share stories about stepping off the standard path. Please respond with thoughts, comments, or stories of your own.