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.

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