To Be Unaccepted

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder writes about being denied tenure -- and bouncing back.



March 24, 2015

“Isn’t it crazy how the world tries to make us ashamed of so much.” I heard this recently from someone describing shame emanating from unexpected health challenges. Things beyond our control can so quickly become a source of embarrassment. Pride, professional expectations, and pretention easily spiral to chagrin. When plans do not go, well, according to plan, it is common to press the “shame on you” default button. Discussing success is the academy is a no-brainer. Yet, what happens when the publishing path takes a wrong turn? What is our recourse when tenure denial attempts to catapult us off a cliff? There are times when the hallowed halls of academia do not accept us. We become the conditionally unaccepted.

Academia is a polemic. Much of it is public thought and research in the hands private people. Whereas our teaching, lectures, and publishing are on display for all to see, so many of us are introverts. We realize for the sake of survival and networking, we have to share ideas and garner feedback. Social media makes tooting our own horns just a click away…done. However, there is reticence and embarrassment when the things do not go so well. We quickly go further inward, almost regretting that we can out to play in the first place. I believe that instead of shaming ourselves or letting the difficulties of the academy force us inside, painful watershed moments are times to embrace the outside.

A few years ago, I was experiencing my own tenure drama. I knew as the first African American and third woman in this department’s history it was an uphill battle. The percentage of faculty of color at the university in general was dismal. Both an African American and a Latino professor had been denied tenure within four years.

This did not look good for me, and it did not go well. For five years at the end of every semester, I was summoned to the “principal’s office.” A parent’s phone call, a student’s email, an evaluation or comment, and there I was waiting to hear the charges and my subsequent “punishment.” It all culminated in the dean telling me six months before my tenure portfolio was due that I would not get the administration’s support. Forty classes, six hundred students, and numerous missed events in the lives of my children – for naught?!!

My immediate response, of course, was to run and hide. Well, actually, my immediate response was to leave the office, less I spoke or acted unprofessionally. So, I reached out to trusted colleagues and advisors. I told my story. I shared my experiences and sought wise counsel. These actions became life-saving and life-affirming for me.

I offer the following to persons for whom the academy has taken its toll:

  1. Process. Take the time to muddle through and accept your various emotions. Rejection is more than a notion. Anger, embarrassment, and sadness take turns as daily dance partners. Meditate on how you feel. Grab a journal. Write a letter to those who scorned you, but please don’t email it or post it to Facebook.
  2. Tell. Too often we are ashamed when the bad surfaces, especially in the polished, refined world of higher education. Sharing our experiences is cathartic. You must tell your own story. Academia is large and yet so small. Social media makes the private, public knowledge in just a few seconds. People know or will find out sooner or later. So, you tell it. Furthermore, you are not the first or only one to have such a harrowing experience, and you won’t be the last.
  3. Trust. I went to people who had been where I was trying to go. I needed to know what to do next. Surround yourself with people beyond your career grade. Their resources can prove invaluable. If I had not been forthcoming about my own career crossroads, I would not have known about my current opportunity.
  4. Do the do. Just because it did not work out at one institution does not mean you are a bad professor. It could have just a bad fit. For people of color in the academy, there are some colleges and universities that are hard on our spirits. I was able to teach adjunct a year after my tenure experience. My publishing schedule has been amazingly full. Sometimes it is a matter of finding a hospitable context. We must find the place that will nurture the work that our souls must have.
  5. Discern. Try to look for the magnificence in the madness. My interest in biblical studies and pop culture piqued because I was trying to find a way to connect to students at my former institution. That may not have come to fruition had I not wrestled with trying to be a better teacher, even in a hostile environment. To this day I am still intrigued at how the bible appears in peculiar places.
  6. Mentor. There are students and upcoming professionals who need to learn from us. Much instruction emanates from our challenges as well as our successes. The professor-university connection is a relationship. It looks one way during the dating game, but marriage is different phenomenon. Sometimes marriages end in divorce. Sharing this narrative with persons fresh out of grad school is just as important as sharing a syllabus or teaching tips.

The “shame” from not getting to next can leave us devastated. Rejections like gut-punches leave us breathless. Just know somewhere is a space that will indeed breathe new life into you. We must fight to do the work we were destined to do and in the end, accept ourselves.


Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. She is the director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary.

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