Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tenure Anxiety Over-rated

Sure, it is easy for me as someone with tenure to think that anxiety about tenure is over-rated.  But let me put it into context a bit.  Over the past few days, there has been a thread on whether single or married people are advantaged or disadvantaged at that reservoir of erudition--Political Science Job Rumors.  While nearly everything said there can be and is discounted, the questions and concerns raised there perhaps (trolls aside) indicate the general level of anxiety about tenure. 

To be clear, the process is fraught with enough uncertainty that when my first job offer from McGill suggested that I start without tenure and then go up for it when I arrive, I politely said no thanks.  I had received from Texas Tech, and folks tend not to give up tenure when they move.  I was no exception even if I felt confident that my record exceeded McGill's standards at the time--you never know what might happen.  When you have a contract that essentially says you cannot be fired (tenure means both more and less than that), you tend not to give it up.  Also, I am not so far beyond tenure to forget that "anything can happen" when a small group of folks with little accountability get into a room to decide one's fate.  Especially when that fate can then be randomly revised by folks up the chain (the Dean, the Provost, the President, the Board).*
* My previous employer, TTU, had a record of doing exactly that--intervention from on high, even at the board of regents level.  Definitely an outlier in academia.

Having said that, the focus of that thread on expectations of single vs married people over-thinks things.  There are basically three kinds of departments in academia:
  • Those where tenure is almost always granted. Many, if not most, fit into this category.  This can occur if standards are very low or non-existent, or if the standards are very clear and the department hires well.
  • Those where tenure is rarely granted.  Harvard, Princeton, and a few other places are known as having a low tenure rate and where being denied tenure is almost a badge of honor.  Certainly, folks denied at these places can get good jobs with tenure either in hand or promised much of the time.
  • The troublesome places in between--where tenure is often uncertain.  This can be because the standards are unclear, where the political dynamics within the department lead to unpredictable outcomes.  The department could be divided along methodologies, along generations, along personalities, or some combination. 
In the first two places, it almost does not matter what you do or do not do no matter how much you publish.  In the third kind of place, things might be entirely within your control or entirely beyond it.  In such cases, it often matters far less what one has done (and one's marital status will be entirely irrelevant), but how one fits into the various department cleavages and in the hearts of the key folks on the tenure committee.  People can read your file however they want, using slippery standards that contradict their last vote.  There is no accountability for the tenured folks doing the voting (which is why one wants to get into that club and then not leave).

How do you know which kind of department you are in?  Good question.  Glad you asked.  Mostly by the track record--who has gotten tenure, who has been denied, what their records were.  If the department has not made clear what the expectations for tenure are, and there have been folks denied tenure that have what you consider to be tenurable records, then make sure you apply for other jobs the year you go up for tenure (never a bad idea).

If you are uncertain about what kind of department you are in, then either you are genuinely in the unpredictable place or you are more anxious than you need to be.  Ask the other junior faculty what they think.  Take whatever the senior faculty say with a grain of salt as they may be confident in your tenure case but they may not know what lays in the hearts and minds of their colleagues.  Again, the track record of the recent past is the best indicator.

But you can always be surprised.  You can be in a department where almost everyone gets tenure, where your record exceeds the standards, but a small coalition among the tenured folks may be enough to block you.  It happens.  Not all the time, but it happens.  But it will almost certainly have nothing to do with one's marital status (the thread at PSJR that inspired this post) and more to do with small group decision-making.  So, the best advice I can give to any assistant professor is to try to write enough stuff in enough good places (yes, there are differences about what counts where) to meet not the department's standards (which can change and which can be ignored) but the discipline's standards.  If your record is respected in the profession, that helps in two ways: the outside letters written to evaluate your work will probably be positive, which can affect how the decision goes in the department; and it means that if something goes wrong within the department, you have a competitive record for getting a new job. 

Again, there is good reason to have anxiety as the stakes are big--life-time employment--but focus on the things that one can control, ignore the stuff that one cannot control, and don't speculate too much about how the minds of senior faculty operate.  Talk about doing down the rabbit hole...

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