Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Think you can reform your institution before earning tenure? Think again, suggests Kerry Ann Rockquemore.
February 8, 2010

For the past three weeks, I've been focusing on the most common errors that tenure-track faculty make as they transition from graduate student to professor. The first three mistakes (A Semester Needs A Plan, Stop Talking, Start Walking and Balance is a Myth) generated passionate responses, so I want to reiterate that while my column may feel like tough love at times, I hope each of you know that I am deeply invested in your professional success and personal sanity! If you are mired in one of these mistakes, it's OK. There is no judgment here. I am simply observing the common errors based on my work with junior faculty and my reading of the faculty development literature. And, of course, I've personally made every mistake that I describe each week! That said, let's move on to Common Mistake #4: Investing in Long-Term Institutional Change at the Expense of Your Research Agenda.

If I have seen it once, I've seen it a hundred times. A brand new faculty member (most often female and/or under-represented) decides to work single-handedly towards structural change at her institution. Full of energy and righteous indignation, she bursts on the scene fighting every battle imaginable. She spends hours each week sending e-mails, protesting policies, serving on committees, writing reports, and/or organizing students while spending ZERO hours writing. She sincerely promises herself that she will devote her breaks to writing.

But when the breaks arrive, her energy has been so consumed by departmental drama and campus conflict that she needs that time to physically and emotionally recover. As a result, no writing occurs. By the end of her first year, no articles have been completed and nothing has actually changed at her institution. Let me be clear, working for change is not problematic in and of itself, but it is an error if you are doing it at the expense of your research and writing (or teaching if you are at a college where teaching is a significant component of your tenure evaluation). I understand the desire to work for change where you are, but if you fail to win tenure and promotion, any progress you've made will likely follow you right out the door....

Your Presence and Success Represent An Institutional Change!

What is a well-intentioned new faculty member to do when surrounded by things that need to change? If you are highly productive, ahead of schedule on your research agenda, and your tenure case is being described as a "slam dunk," then feel free to organize on (as long as your activities don’t make you a thorn in the side of those who will be voting on your tenure case). However, if you're working toward change, but not publishing, here are a few tips:

1) Re-think your attitude toward institutional change

If you are an under-represented faculty member, then please understand that your very existence in a predominantly white and male department IS your contribution to institutional change. Your physical presence in the classroom, in meetings, and on campus represents an important change at your institution! Your success in winning tenure will be a further contribution toward change. As a pre-tenure faculty member, that's enough.

2) Plan now for your post-tenure contribution to change

I encourage you to create a list, file or box where you can keep all of your ideas for change. My list was entitled: "all the things I'm going to do once I have tenure." At the top of my list was "design a mentoring program that actually works". By putting it on my list, I released myself from the need to create that change while I was on the tenure track and instead devoted time to my writing and research. Once tenured, I set out to change the way we understood "mentoring" at my institution and created an under-represented faculty mentoring program that was later institutionalized by my provost's office. I also wrote The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul, started giving New Faculty Success Workshops, and established the kind of discussion forum that I desperately needed when I was on the tenure-track.

I was only able to do these things effectively because I was tenured, had an established research record, and could invest time in making the long-term changes I thought were necessary. I'm not writing this to toot my own horn, but to provide an example to encourage you to think of your career in STRATEGIC and LONG-TERM ways (i.e., as a book with many chapters). You can't do everything now, but you can focus your energy today on whatever it is that will allow you the stability, respect, and reputation in the future to achieve a larger set of goals.

3) Limit current commitments and say "no" to any additional requests this semester

For those of you who are reading this and already over-committed, list your current commitments on one piece of paper. Ask yourself: what initiative, committee, or project can I work on in a limited capacity that will fulfill my desire to make change with a minimal time investment? Pick something where your senior colleagues do the heavy lifting, risk-taking, and time-intensive labor. Let everything else go by either notifying people that you are over-committed and need to prioritize your research and writing, or quietly fading out by not attending the next meeting. If anyone asks you to sit on any additional committees, start a new initiative, join a strategic planning project, and/or start some sort of insurrection, just say "NO."

4) Write EVERY DAY for 30-60 minutes first thing in the morning.

I know you're sick of me saying this every week, but I can't stop! Writing every day will increase your productivity, which is important. But even more importantly, there's something about spending the first hour of your day writing that sends a signal to yourself and the universe that AT THIS MOMENT IN TIME, your research is your highest priority. Do not take my word for it, just try starting your day with 30 minutes of writing this week and see if it shifts your energy, your sense of yourself as a scholar, your commitments, and how you interact with others in your department.


  • If you are under-represented in any way, shape, or form, then stop and appreciate the fact that your very presence on campus represents change at your institution.
  • Create a file, box, or list to capture ideas about what institutional changes you want to work towards once you have tenure.
  • Take 10 minutes to make a list of all your current service commitments that involve long-term institutional change on your campus.
  • Gently and lovingly go through that list and ask yourself: Does this make sense for me at this time? Is this work precluding progress on my research? How many hours am I spending each week on this work versus writing and research? Will I be here to see this change? Is my commitment to my current institution equal to my institution's commitment to me? Edit the list accordingly.
  • Write every morning this week for 30-60 minutes.
  • If you remain resistant to daily writing, patiently ask yourself, why?

I hope that this week brings you a long-term perspective on your academic career, relief that you don’t have to do everything all at once, and a sense of appreciation for all that you contribute to your campus by just being you!

Peace & Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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