Individual vs. Institutional Failure

There are only a handful of people who have ever seen my reply to the chair’s letter. You can now find it in the Library.[i] I think it’s pretty obvious that I was pissed ... really, really pissed! I had only two weeks to reply, so after a few days of perseverating over how to proceed, I finally sat down to craft a response. There’s little about it I would change now. The substance and the tone of the letter accurately reflect my disgust and profound disappointment with the disingenuous portrayal of my record.

But I’m glad to have the hindsight and this blog to emphasize in a way that I didn’t (and couldn’t, at the time) the issues of failure and what they mean beyond my experience for understanding success in the academy.

The chair’s letter initially left me feeling like the failure he said I was. And it’s remarkable how that feeling sticks in the recesses of my mind, even after so much time has passed. But I also understood then – as I especially do now – that the wholesale misrepresentation of my record didn’t reflect my failure. Instead, it revealed significant failure on the part of the institution.

Differentiating individual and institutional failure is critical to the conversation about success in academia. I think our first instinct is to assume that most failure is individual. If someone follows the rules and works hard, then he/she will succeed. And we believe this is true because we see lots of success; in fact, that’s generally all we see because people don’t advertise their failure.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what the rules are and what working hard means in academia. There appears to be a pervasive belief in a myth of meritocracy, that there are objective and agreed-upon standards for success, and that the people who rise to the top have met these standards and so earned their positions of power. And this gives them the legitimacy to interpret and enforce these standards as gatekeepers of the system.

So, if someone doesn’t get a job, doesn’t get published, doesn’t get tenure, doesn’t get promoted, it’s because the individual is deemed wanting in some way. Otherwise, they would have the job, the publications, the tenure, the promotion.

Yet the standards for our work aren’t really that objective or consensus-based. And the requirements for type of research, venues for publication, number of publications, among other things, are generally underspecified, in part because there’s disagreement about what constitutes good scholarship (and even good teaching).

With this imprecision surrounding standards, the process of communicating and administering standards is particularly important. The rules should be readily identifiable and comprehensible, they should be known in advance of judgment, they should be applied consistently, and they should be applied with transparency and accountability.

Although the burden of proof for tenure is on candidates to demonstrate their productivity through the probationary period, that burden is unmanageable without institutional structures that provide reliable and valid measures of productivity and routine, detailed feedback.

Thus, an unsuccessful outcome (like the denial of tenure) is not necessarily an individual failure. It may be an institutional failure instead. I think my tenure case provides a good example of how this can happen.

Perhaps the most common piece of advice that successful senior academics offer junior faculty is to know the standards, presumably by knowing the faculty manual and by talking to senior colleagues.

I find this advice problematic, largely because the reading, talking, and listening is only as meaningful as the sources are knowledgeable and trustworthy. Candidates for tenure rely on clear, honest, and straightforward conversations – whether in person or through written contracts or evaluations – about what’s required for a positive outcome. The absence of this communication severely disadvantages candidates and constitutes a significant institutional failure.

In my case, let’s take at face value the chair’s argument that my research did not meet the “bar set by recent tenure cases in the department” (presumably including his own) and was so poor that its “inadequacy in meeting standards” would “lower the publication standards below those of recent tenure denials and also set excessively low research expectations for the five new junior faculty members … .”

If all of this was true, how did I make it through the first and second probationary reviews? How was it possible that I was looking at a letter making these claims at year eight?! How was I even hired in the first place??

The chair’s letter suggests that the failure was mine, that I had been warned about substandard production in my previous evaluations.

But he misrepresented those reviews. In eight years on the faculty at AU, not once – not once – did anyone tell me that the substance of my research was problematic in any way. Not a word about research methodology, not a word about publication outlets. Not a word about the courses I’d taught, much less the courses I hadn’t taught.

Before I accepted the position at AU, I spoke extensively to the chair who hired me as well as other administrators at the university about tenure expectations. I was leaving a tenured position! I wasn’t about to be an assistant professor again without knowing – as best as I could – what the expectations were.

After arriving, I consulted senior colleagues, I published with senior colleagues, I was reviewed twice before by these very colleagues. Not a word of dissatisfaction about the kind of scholar or teacher I was or would be.

Quite the contrary, in fact, as I describe in my response letter. Not only was there nothing negative about the substance of my work, but my senior colleagues wrote very positive things about my research and my teaching as I progressed towards tenure.

The inconsistency in evaluating my contributions across time is glaring. If my colleagues thought my work was so inadequate and inferior as the chair claimed, then they should not have written such enthusiastic reviews in the years prior. If the standards had changed with time, they should have said so.

It’s hard to write negative reviews and deliver bad news; most people don’t want to be critical or unkind (at least to your face). But it’s the responsibility of senior people – especially those in positions of power – to provide constructive criticism that can help candidates improve and progress toward this goal. Junior faculty rely on this feedback; it’s critical to the process, and essential to their success.

It is true, as I acknowledge in my response, that the 5th year review said I should focus on publishing in peer reviewed outlets as I approached tenure. Specifically, the University Committee on Faculty Relations wrote, “The candidate will need more peer reviewed publications for tenure,” and the Acting Dean of Academic Affairs wrote, “… you should turn your energies to publishing your newest work, that work undertaken since coming to AU, in peer-reviewed venues.” I heeded this advice, and two articles were published in a peer-reviewed journal before I went up for tenure.

When candidates don’t heed the advice and warnings of their evaluators, the failure is theirs.

When senior colleagues and university officials don’t fulfill their obligations to junior faculty by communicating standards in a consistent and transparent way, the failure is squarely on them and the institution.



[i] In addition to redacting names, I have redacted a section in which I compared my record with those of two colleagues who were denied tenure before me. The chair raised the comparison in his letter and I felt compelled to respond, mostly because he had misrepresented their cases as well as mine to make his argument. He was wrong to do it, and I won’t perpetuate the wrong by making it public.