My tenure dream is over. I prepared for it for most of my adult life and, like many other tenure-track wannabes, did the right things: the solid doctoral program, the prestigious postdocs, the publications in top journals, even a book at a fancy university press. It didn’t help that I reached the job market just as the 2008 economic crisis hit everybody, everywhere. Yet, for me, as for the majority of what are called contingent faculty, the quest for that elusive tenure position might have been doomed from the beginning.
When I entered graduate school, the job market in the social sciences and particularly in the humanities had been lagging for decades. The economic crisis only gave our universities the opportunity to further their transformation into neo-liberal rent-seeking enterprises, handing out diplomas to their customer base for a fee. While students face increasing debt levels and diminishing job prospects, their nontenured professors strive to do their jobs amid the insecurity of a very unstable position. And looking at Wisconsin and others, not even tenured faculty might enjoy that position for much longer, either.
For me, an academic from Uruguay, seeking tenure was a quest not only for academic security and recognition but also part of my American Dream. I had hoped that landing a tenured position would help me secure the permanent resident status I needed to remain in the city and country I had come to see as my own. Numerous professors, mentors, colleagues and friends encouraged and supported my quest. They meant well, trying to reproduce a system that either had worked for them or that they aspired to join. We were all part of an imagined professional community where the security and status afforded by tenure mattered.
The benefits of tenure can’t be underestimated in a country with increasingly less work stability and even fewer benefits. Tenure and the associated professorial ranks are also signs of distinction and academic status -- a paramount concern of those who, as they have seen their position under attack, have clung to the small things that differentiate them from the rest. I am not complaining about the pettiness or the shortsightedness of it -- the inability of those who do have tenure to see that they and untenured professionals are on the same sinking boat -- because that is the world I wanted to enter.
But I can now see that all those years led me to a delusion, or perhaps, an addiction, that supported, encouraged and fed a tenure pipe dream. The truth is that I came close, but that I didn’t get it. So I finally decided to accept that and move on. Of course, I am disappointed, but I try not to be bitter. I recently discovered an entire literary genre -- “quit lit” -- by people writing about the experiences of leaving something they have pursued or desired in order to better deal with the loss.
In fact, I have few regrets, and I love the job I do now. I am still in academe, working in a grant-supported position on a topic that I care about deeply about with an awesome group of colleagues. As long as I keep getting grant money, I will be fine. I am not so self-absorbed as to fail to realize that I am one of the lucky ones. And I am also the happy recipient of a green card, which gives me peace of mind every day.
As I have come to the realization that I won’t get tenure, I can also see the upside. I no longer have to attend boring departmental meetings, serve on endless committees, make small talk with colleagues or go to birthday parties of tenured professors. Gone, too, is the tedious -- and increasingly expensive -- networking at professional conferences. And while tenure is a nice gig if you can get it, I rarely saw it displayed to protect courageous scholarship, support someone’s role as a public intellectual or challenge the direction in which our universities are heading.
In the end, tenure, like the security it provides, might be a thing of the past -- gone forever except for a few star academics. I kissed my tenure dream good-bye and am glad I did. And if you, like me, are wondering whether you should continue to strive toward what seems to be an increasingly elusive goal, you might be, too.