It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Game

Ok, that’s not true. It is whether you win or lose. But it’s also how the game is played. And that’s the primary lesson of my tenure denial. I’m starting with the department chair’s letter in opposition to my tenure, which I’ve posted in the Library. In my next blog post, I’ll include my rebuttal. In it, I challenge an extremely unbalanced and flagrant attempt to achieve a desired outcome by cherry-picking evidence and disregarding objective, consistent interpretation and application of the rules and standards for tenure at AU. His letter, and the process as a whole, is instructive for future tenure candidates, external letter writers, university faculty and administrators, and for academic institutions in general.

Before I go there, though, there are a few more overarching topics that I’ve struggled with for some time, and they provide a useful framework for understanding what happened at AU. I hope they help us think collectively about how tenure and promotion, and other aspects of academia, might serve individuals and institutions better in the future.

Controversy surrounding the purpose and future of tenure is not new. I’ve always had mixed feelings about tenure. And, yes, for all the cynics out there, even before I was denied at AU and after I’d been successful at UK, I questioned the promise of tenure for academic freedom and the costs for scholarship, pedagogy, and higher education generally. In many meetings over the course of my career, I have wondered – often out loud, probably to my detriment – about tenure and the tenure process.

Tenure is the brass ring of the academy. It is the only way to stay regularly and dependably employed in academia. We can’t even compete for the ring if we’re not on the tenure track, a track that has narrowed while other “tracks” have become more crowded. For those on the tenure track, the competition is fierce and the stakes high. If you don’t win, you get “unhired.”

So, the rules about the competition – who gets to play and who does not, and who chooses the winners and by what standards – are extremely important. It should be obvious – but I fear that it is not – objectivity, transparency, and accountability are critical here. While at one time, tenure may have been a given for faculty, I don’t know anyone now who makes the argument that tenure is an entitlement for time served and effort made. Rather, it is earned. But how?

I’ve written that I was surprised to learn that the department chair opposed tenure – and I was. This is not to say that I took for granted getting tenure at AU. I was fully aware that personal circumstances I’d faced during my probationary period affected my professional life, as these things do. I had not been as productive in my research as I’d hoped or was capable of being. Despite having been tenured before, I knew not to rely on my work at UK to make my case at AU; I didn’t rest on my laurels.

No, my surprise at the department level was that it came out of nowhere – and was inconsistent with previous evaluations. And it was a vehement – vitriolic – wholesale rejection of my career. This chair (newly-promoted to associate) and my colleagues in the department were people I’d known for many years. There was nothing in either formal or informal communications or previous evaluations that suggested my work was thought to be on a steeply downward trajectory or that I was on the road to failure at AU.

At the time, I was more concerned about the new provost who did not know me well and whose goal was to increase the research profile of the university. I was acutely aware that he might apply different standards than were the norm when I was hired and that had been applied during my probationary period. There was nothing I could do about this concern. I had published within the standards as they were explained and demonstrated to me, I’d produced as much as I could – of the type and quality I always had – and I would deal with his judgment when it came.

So, yeah, I was surprised when the chair told me that he’d written in opposition to tenure. My first reaction was incredulity as my heart sank. Surely I was reading it wrong, I thought. But no.

As life continued – going to the office, teaching classes, and seeing colleagues (many of whom played at least an indirect role in the decision) – I was consumed with self-doubt. And shame. I’d had my ass handed to me, and in a thorough, clinical, demoralizing way. I spent many hours wondering what I might have done differently. How should I have spent my time? What other decisions should I have made? When should I have kept my mouth shut? When should I have said no? When should I have said yes? I did a lot of rummaging through my mind trying to make sense of this letter. What had I done wrong?

Yet, lurking under the self-doubt and self-deprecation was the very strong feeling that something was not right. It will be easy for some readers to conclude that I would yell foul on the process because I didn’t like the outcome. But that’s not really my style. I’m pretty self-aware and self-critical, and as I’ve said, I knew that the case might be made that I hadn’t done enough. That this outcome might be explained in part by decisions I had made in my personal and professional life did not absolve others for their part in the process.

And this letter stunk of something more. What I realized after the fog lifted a bit was that the chair might have written a very different letter with generally the same message, that my research record had not met the tenure standards for number and placement of publications. He could have acknowledged my excellent teaching and service, and the consistent research and publication record I had, but criticized the overall productivity of my scholarship.

But that’s not what he did. In the end, the only part of my record left standing was my service, which had little value to him. Not only did he methodically impugn every part of my research record at AU, he cleverly used my record and tenure at UK against me. But that wasn’t all. With faint praise, he damned my teaching record.

And that’s when I began to suspect that things weren’t as they seemed. I may be just a decent scholar, but my teaching record was unimpeachable. Opposition wasn’t really about the merits of my scholarship. This was a personal attack.

I don’t know if the letter reflected his views or, more likely, he was the foil for more senior faculty and higher administration officials. As I mentioned, the chair was newly tenured and a new department head; it’s not hard to imagine someone in that position being manipulated to achieve a particular goal.

Either way, it was his letter with his signature, and it was designed to create an airtight case against me. And in so doing, it perverted the evaluation process by cherry-picking from my research and teaching record, misrepresenting internal and external reviews, and selectively interpreting and inconsistently applying the rules and standards of the institution to reach a specific outcome. The process of denying tenure was significantly flawed.

As long as we have tenure, the rules for how we get on the track and ultimately earn it are critical. Without carefully defined standards, the process is vulnerable to ad hoc, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable decision making. Without the fair and consistent application of the rules, the outcomes are vulnerable to bias and discrimination. And without a transparent and accountable process, individuals are denied meaningful redress.

In the end, those in power can manipulate evidence, bend the rules, and define the game in their image. They can easily remove those whom they find substandard by narrowly defining – or redefining altogether – subjective standards, and preventing challenges to their authority by hiding behind the myth that the process is merit-based. As they prevent careers (by restricting the tenure track) and end others (by denying tenure), they limit the exchange of ideas and opportunities for intellectual growth for individuals, institutions, and academia as a whole. They limit the promise of tenure itself.

The personal significance of my tenure denial is that it marked the end of my career as I knew it. And that was unfortunate for me, and my family. Importantly, though, I think it was unfortunate for AU and the academy more generally. I would have had a long and productive career that would have benefitted – in numerous ways – the university and academia.

But the significance 6 years later has less to do with me, and more to do with the lessons about how defective the process of tenure evaluation can be. To be sure, there are many, many others out there who could make the same argument and tell a similar story to mine. I think mine sheds some light on the how the game is played and, I hope, helps spark a more thoughtful and productive conversation about success and failure in the academy.