Conversations About Failure

and bouncing back.


August 30, 2017

Recently The Chronicle featured an article on “bouncing back” after tenure denial,  profiling academics who had moved on from their denials, but also addressing the stigma attached to a losing tenure bid. This, of course, hit home for me—after leaving my former institution just over two years ago, I am just beginning to grapple with the emotional and psychological consequences of my tenure denial, even as I experience the process of bouncing back. It’s a lonely road, even knowing that it is not a rare event. I think we need to share our stories more often, and we need to end the failed-tenure stigma.

Now, to be fair, I have been remarkably fortunate.* In my terminal year I was offered a tenure track position in a good institution, in the same city (literally in the same neighborhood), with credit towards tenure. I begin my third year there as an Associate Professor as well as department chair. After the prolonged tenure battle I endured  (three years, two separate tenure reviews, an appeals hearing, three denials from the same provost), I have landed safely.

But the trauma of those years has not left me. The feelings of rejection, humiliation, and loss are still fairly raw. I haven’t yet forgotten how, after ten years, I was treated like a dead woman walking in my final year—no longer invited to after-talk dinners with visiting scholars, no longer asked to serve on committees, and assiduously avoided by my dean and others in the administration. I lost friends, connections, and my sense of place.

During the process and afterward, I was well aware that I needed to continue with my research agenda and to continue to move forward, for the sake of my career as well as my mental health.  I’m not going to pretend that’s been easy—after such a rejection, it’s natural to feel that your work and research—indeed, yourself—are unworthy. Writing has been painful and in some ways terrifying. I have not yet approached my work with the confidence I felt before the tenure denials—partly out of exhaustion, but also out of a sense of self-protection.

I expect these experiences are not uncommon. But how often do we hear these stories? In grad school we are encouraged to go for the golden ring of tenure-track, but how many of us received preparation for failure to achieve it? How can we be prepared to not internalize the idea that tenure-denial is both a failure in work and character? An academic career is rife with failures, large and small. Rather than focusing so much of our attention on the small number of “successes,” let’s talk more about those failures and end that stigma. I’m now ready to start that conversation.


*I’m fully aware that women tend to say they have been “fortunate” or “lucky” when speaking of success, rather than saying, “hey, I earned this.” But given the vagaries of the academic job market, I’m not about to discount the element of luck in any given case.



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