Tenure Denied: A Story of Failure

'Tis the season for promotion decisions in the academy, and it’s always a pleasure to learn about the many successful outcomes among my colleagues in political science. With good reason, Twitter and Facebook are lit up with announcements and congratulations for these scholars and teachers. But it’s a bitter sweet time as well. I’ve learned of two recent unsuccessful tenure and promotion cases and I suspect there are many more. We don’t know about them because we don’t talk about them. They aren’t the material of social media announcements, and if we do learn about them (usually in private emails or in hushed whispers at the proverbial water cooler), we don’t share the news. Mum’s the word.

And so it was for me, six years ago this week that I was denied tenure by American University. I’m not the quietest person in the world, as my friends and family will attest. I’m not particularly shy and, although I’ve been know to have a crisis of confidence or two, I’m not especially insecure. I’d been promoted with tenure many years before at the University of Kentucky, so I was well into my career by 2010. To be sure, my life had changed in some substantial ways during my time at AU, but I knew my way around and what I needed to do. Or so I thought.

But when the tenure process started with a denial from my department – my department – I was speechless. I remember the chair appearing in my office doorway at the end of the day to tell me that he’d written a letter opposing tenure. I don’t remember saying anything, just staring at him. When I got home, the letter was waiting for me in an email. And that’s when the gravity of the situation – not just for my career but for my sense of self – sunk in.

For most of the seven pages, he detailed what he viewed as my poor research record, a “downward trajectory” since the earliest days of my career nearly 15 years before.

But it was the end of the letter that dealt the most devastating blow, intellectually and psychologically. “… as a former tenured professor … ,” the chair wrote, “Dr. Diascro knows the consequences of this failure.”

Failure.

Failure?

I’ve spent the last six years thinking about failure – mine, theirs, everybody’s – and I’ve wrestled with how to understand it, how to learn from it, and how to move on from it.

Among the things I’ve learned is that we don’t talk enough about failure. Mum’s the word is a terrible way to understand anything. If we are to learn from mistakes, overcome losses, make failure a productive part of our professional and personal progress, then we need to shine a light on it.

Instead, we hide failure. To be sure, there are some exceptions (see, for example, here and most recently here), but for the most part, we highlight our successes and make our failures invisible. Among the many problems with the invisibility of failure is survivorship bias and the warped sense of reality that it creates. When the only stories we know are the success stories, then the strategies we adopt in pursuit of our own success are based on a very narrow and incomplete set of experiences. Our understanding of how the academy works and how we work in it is severely limited.

So, I’m going to tell my story of failure. It’s taken a while to be able to talk about it publicly, but it’s time to get out the spotlight and take a close look at what happened.

I’m not going to give advice as I write. There are plenty of people doing that, most recently for political scientists generally and for women in the profession more specifically. I respect efforts to inform junior faculty about how to succeed in the discipline – the need to be helpful and encouraging seems more pressing as the job market continues to tighten and the very nature of higher education seems threatened at every turn.

Yet, I’m less sanguine about our ability to give meaningful instruction about strategies for success, particularly for tenure and promotion. Although there are some standard processes for advancement in the academy, they are administered differently from university to university, department to department, subfield to subfield. Additionally, these processes affect individuals uniquely; and there are many individuals involved in the process besides the tenure candidate, who tends to be the primary object of our advice and discussion. Moreover, as I’ve said, the advice generally comes from a position of success, which is capable of providing only incomplete information.

My approach is different, more story-telling than advice. I have a lot to say about my experience at AU and the decision to deny me tenure, and these reflections will be the subject of the many posts that follow. I’m new to blogging, but will try to communicate effectively in this venue. My hope is that something I share will resonate with others, that my experience may be useful to their careers and lives.

As a last point for this post, let me state the obvious. There will be some (many?) who think that AU made the right decision. That’s fine. I spent months having my perceived shortcomings highlighted in often spectacular form during the tenure process itself. I doubt there’s much that anyone can say that I haven’t heard before.

Still, one of the risks I take in doing this is opening myself up to additional critiques of my professional and personal decisions, my intellect and skills, my character, and a whole host of other things, I’m sure. I managed it the first time; I’ll do it again.

My hope is that some readers will bring constructive criticism, sincere perspectives, and even their own or others’ experiences to the conversation. I think we can all benefit from an open discussion about failure in the academy.