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Essay on the impact of the tenure process

Get a Job!

Tenure Brain

April 28, 2014

The recent release of the Boise State University survey on faculty working habits suggests that faculty members work an average of 61 hours per week, or 50 percent more than a normal work week. The release of this study coincides with yet another listicle that describes the job of university professor as sabbatical-rich, summers-off, and stress-free. Hardly.

The tenure process is one that is certainly the opposite of stress-free. And before you cry "tenuresplaining," let me suggest that the inhumanity of the tenure process might well be just another example on the spectrum of academic pain that includes failed job searches and the vagaries suffered by many contingent academic laborers in higher education. The hurt comes from the same place, my friends.

For the two years I was going through the process of seeking tenure, I pretty much lost my shit. It started the day I turned in my tenure materials. Suddenly, everything was out of my control. Up until then, my tenure case rested on my research productivity and, to a much lesser extent, my teaching adequacy. So as long as I was publishing in peer-reviewed journals (as articles are the norm in my field) and getting decent teaching evaluations — both of which were somewhat under my control and which I did successfully — I felt secure. And then the second I lost control, Tenure Brain took over.

Tenure Brain, as I've come to refer to the two years surrounding anyone's tenure case, causes the hopefully-to-be-tenured to assume the worst possible scenario in any situation. Senior colleagues are talking nastily about you behind your back; junior colleagues also going up for tenure glare at you, as if it's a competition and only one of you can win; the dean seems suddenly nefarious in his innocuous memos; your friends have become dolts; and your family might as well suck it, so much as they understand your precious, and precarious, mental state. Even the cat has it in for you more than usual. This paranoia lasts until you, hopefully, get the letter from the Highest Administrator Possible saying your tenure has been awarded.

If you've been so lucky, the second phase of Tenure Brain kicks in, when you wake up one day angrier than you've ever been in your life, for no good reason at all other than you've realized you've spent the last 16 (or probably more) years of your higher educational life on the job training for the tenure hoop, and now you're pissed at all that time you were unconsciously under a mighty mighty emotional weight. And the weight has only kinda been lifted. I mean, really: What other job on the planet requires THAT much preliminary, at-will employment?! It's ludicrous. And what do you get for it? Maybe a tiny raise (or a big one, if you're so lucky to be at such a university), maybe more teaching, and definitely more service work. Oh, yeah, and permanent, sweet permanent employment. But at a price that maybe has made you a little less human.

If you don't get tenure, or if your case is contentious or denied , then Tenure Brain's effects are tenfold. I watched several close friends at multiple universities go through the tenure process, many of which were tough cases due to years of institutional stupidity, mismentoring, and undocumentable gender discrimination. Some got tenure, some didn't. And all I could do was stand there and bear the brunt of their deserved anger on any occasion I could. Because they couldn't (and shouldn't) keep it bottled up. It's not healthy. I got tenure and thought about seeing a psychiatrist just to talk through some of the pain, and I definitely had to see a physician and several physical therapists to work through the health-related issues that arose because of the stress.

I can't even imagine what my friends whose cases had glitches, or worse, were going through, although a disciplinary colleague recently written wrote about what it felt like for her. But having been through the process, and the subsequent anger, I wholeheartedly supported their grief. And grieving, as we know, takes time. Which is why Tenure Brain lasts so long. Five years after tenure, I am still working through some of the emotional and physical baggage.

I want to say these things out loud because I don't know a single academic who's gone through this process successfully or not who wasn't negatively affected by it in some way. In many cases, those negative effects are pretty serious (and our medical system is in no way capable still of supporting us). As soon as I heard I got tenure, which happened about this time of the year, I became an even more outspoken academic, but this time against tenure. It's one of the few things I've done that actually made tenure seem worth it. But, then, why make others go through that same hell? Just because "we" did? That's BS. There has to be a better way to cultivate academic freedom. And there has to be a better way to evaluate faculty productivity across a range of factors, including teaching and service. 

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a faculty-administrator in the sciences who knows all too well what an insufficient mental health system and the ravages of tenure can do not only to one person, but dozens, if not hundreds of people on a campus. We didn't talk about that, but about administrative policies on hiring adjuncts to cover classes, which the administrators thought was a more solid plan than hiring tenure-track faculty. Given the multitude of labor issues that arise from contingent labor, I politely suggested otherwise — that full-time, permanent, non-tenure-track positions might suit the university's and students' needs better. The administrator had never considered this option.

Not everyone wants a tenure-track job. Not everyone wants to be evaluated on their research productivity. Not everyone wants graduate students to advise. On my more dour days, I think tenure should be done away with altogether and that everyone should be on recurring lectureship contracts that have the ability to turn permanent based on whichever factors a department needs at the time of hire: teaching, research, or administration, with the possibility of renegotiating those percentages annually. Some universities, such as the University of California system, do this already for their lecturers. Some high-profile and state universities, including high-profile and land grants, even have teaching- or administrative-oriented tenure-track positions, often but not always based on the fact they have medical schools, with clinical faculty positions, attached.

I'm no expert on academic labor practices, and I'm sure some of these utopic-sounding positions aren't all they're cracked up to be. But, for me and the people I see around me, tenure isn't all that it's cracked up to be either. The only difference it makes for me now is that I can officially, from the other side, say that I think it's a stupid, inhumane process that isn't worth much. And, yet, I will go through the process again when I start my new job this fall as an untenured associate professor. I am not looking forward to it. I could have negotiated for the open position to be tenured, but I didn’t feel the need to push back on that point since I do the work that will secure it for me without needing that threat of a hoop. (Plus, there’s a hefty raise with tenure that I can take advantage of. And I fully understand that a department wants to make sure it knows what it got in a hire before granting a permanent position.)

But doing the work is only half the battle — the mental and physical stress is the other half that I will have to learn to cope with again. I am one of the lucky ones who has a job, but I cannot remain retrenched in a secure position of tenurability knowing that others still have that hoop to jump through, or are desperate for a job so the hoop is even available.

Opening up to each other and talking about this not-so-holy grail, hopefully on the way to change the system to better-suit everyone's needs, would be a useful — albeit admittedly scary — conversation toward what higher education, and tenure, becomes next. But, also, just talking and listening to friends who are experiencing Tenure Brain — often unbeknownst to them, sometimes years in advance of their tenure application — will also help.


 

 

 

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