Tenured and Happy

Cynthia Wu didn't experience the angst many report, at least not about her own career. But she finds herself thinking about the responsibility of a former adjunct to those who aren't yet on the tenure track.

March 30, 2015

During the summer of 2014, my university completed the administrative steps that awarded me tenure and promoted me to associate professor. I sat back and waited for the existential crisis that early-career academics are told accompanies this transformation: the depression, the letdown, the exhaustion. It never came. Almost a year later, I’m still happy.

I never nursed an idealistic vision of what a faculty career would look like, so I’m not resentful that my job isn’t perfect. I never wished to become an academic superstar, so I’m not dejected that it hasn’t happened. All I wanted was a workplace that supports my professional growth, values my contributions, and provides a lively and collegial intellectual community.

I have that.

I enjoy the economic predictability that comes from knowing when my next paycheck will arrive. If I hadn’t gotten tenure, I wouldn’t have been able -- as many without much income are forced to do -- to move in with parents or rely on a working spouse or partner. I shudder to think about how my chronic illness would fare even with the Affordable Care Act. My circumstances would have been very precarious.

Let’s not forget the original purpose of tenure -- to protect academic freedom. The writing I’ve produced in the past year reflects a newfound sense of ease and inventiveness. This position of stability emboldens me to take risks in my scholarship that I otherwise wouldn’t have dared. For example, my most recent publication contains a critique of my institution’s treatment of its international students -- practices that are, to be sure, not unique to this place. Most importantly, the university has provided me with resources in the form of a sabbatical. As of right now, I have more than half of a manuscript for a second book completed.

Try doing that as an adjunct.

I’ve been one. I’ve also worked as an academic secretary and as part-time student affairs staff to supplement my adjunct salary.

If I feel any post-tenure malaise, it comes from knowing that this change in my institutional standing occurred at a time when that possibility for others had already eroded. The corporatization of the academy and declining public support for higher education have meant that a greater proportion of the faculty is now contingent. Combine that with growth in the administrative ranks, and we have a recipe for tuition hike disaster. Students of this generation take on more debt than ever before in order to afford an education delivered by workers who are compensated less and less.

I don’t like this path. Let’s forge a different one.

I empathize with the challenges faced by the “sandwich generation” of associate professors who are overloaded with obligations standing in the way of career advancement. Particularly for women and people of color, who shoulder a greater proportion of service and mentoring, the barriers to finishing the research that would promote us to full professor are real. The emotional toll of extended time spent at this stage should not be discounted.

The most generous advice for faculty in this position tends to counsel them to budget their time wisely, know when to say no, avoid isolation, reconnect with one’s scholarship and make a concrete plan for the future.

The least generous insists that they recognize their privilege or just “snap out of it.”

These words of encouragement, though well intentioned, don’t account for the bigger picture. They place the onus of career advancement on those who are most subjected to the very structures that cause burnout and professional stasis. This is precisely what puts tenured folk in proximity with our contingent brethren.

We don’t need a more dogged pursuit of individualist professional gain. We need a shared pact to commit to institutional change. Furthermore, this revolution needs to be jump-started by those with the most power: chairs, deans and provosts.

These players need to ask: Is the workload in my department, unit or institution fairly distributed? Are the resources in my department, unit or institution equitably disbursed? What am I doing to improve morale? What can I do to be more family friendly? Am I supporting and cheering or policing? Do I care about my faculty’s successes or only about my own?

Accordingly, there should be a reward system for chairs, deans and provosts who have tangibly improved conditions for all faculty, both in-rank and contingent. The task of humanizing the workplace should not be an appendix to their responsibilities but a crucial part of them.

We need deterrents to the administrative bloat that further diverts resources away from teaching and research.

My biggest concern as I face down another 25 years or so in this profession is not that I will become disaffected or stalled in my research. It’s whether or not I can convince my fellow tenured colleagues to agree that we not pull the ladder up behind us and abandon the others in the interest of careerist gain.

I don’t find tenure depressing. I find it sobering. We need to use that sobriety to take collective responsibility for making the academy more livable for everyone.


Cynthia Wu is an associate professor of American studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


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