A Light in the Dark

I’m guessing most people who are denied tenure will confirm how extremely lonely and isolating the process is. If colleagues know about what’s going on (and many of them don’t), they are reluctant to engage with someone facing a negative decision. The disregard by the people involved in the process, while understandable, is particularly awkward and even humiliating. One day you’re friendly and supportive colleagues, the next day they’re evaluating you, and then abruptly you are invisible. I did not see or speak again to many of my colleagues, even though I spent almost another year in the department.

But after I submitted my response to the Dean’s letter, a few of my senior colleagues in the department asked if they could add a letter to my file in support of promotion and tenure (in the Library).

The collegiality they offered by their request was priceless.

And the significance of their letter was beyond measure as it shined a light on the opaque process of the department’s senior faculty meeting about my candidacy (see my post Feckless. Utterly Feckless.).

There are a number of take-aways from the letter, but perhaps the most fundamental insight is that tenure decisions are not necessarily – or at least not completely – merit based.  In my case, the decision may not have been fully informed by my record since it seems that many of the faculty didn’t have access to my file, including the external letters.

At the very least, it’s clear that issues that should not have been related to the merits of my case were raised in the meeting, including my exercise of parental leave, the personal relationships of some in the room to my mentors, and a recent hire in the department. I opposed the hire, a senior person who I believe participated in the meeting.

We suspected that nothing would change as a result of their letter to the Dean of Academic Affairs, and we were mostly right. By this time, it was clear that the decision to deny tenure had long been made, and probably initiated from on high.

But I am forever thankful for the effort of these colleagues, not just on my behalf but for the larger principles that they defended. They renewed my energy to continue the challenge, which became less about the particulars of my file and more about the fundamentals of the tenure process generally, as my dossier moved from the School to the University committees and administrators.