Nothing Is Forever

Or, What I Learned From Being Denied Tenure

May 27, 2013

Last month, during finals week, a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, after watching one of my favorite graduate students defend her dissertation, the Provost’s office hand-delivered a letter to me. The letter (or rather, the Provost) regretted to inform me that I had been denied tenure, but thanked me for my service to the university.


I was standing in the hallway in front of my new office, one with windows, one that had been assigned to me because my chair, my department, and even my dean assumed I’d be granted tenure, with no problems. I was chatting with some colleagues, who watched as I opened the envelope and turned pale.


I suppose if there had been any doubt about the outcome, I would have been able to accept that this was the final decision. But there hadn’t been, so it felt like a joke (a very bad one, indeed).  My world was falling apart—I was losing my job, my footing, and colleagues I had come to think of as family.


My first reaction, after the shock, was a feeling of, well, not anger. It was panic and humiliation. I considered not letting anyone know what had happened and just drifting off into the sunset of my “terminal year.” Instead, I got on the phone, and the response was overwhelming.


Here’s what I’ve learned from being denied tenure:

People Actually Pay Attention

Colleagues came out of the woodwork to tell me how shocked they were by the decision. One after another came to tell me about my work, what they valued, and why they considered me invaluable to the university. I had no idea many of them even knew what it is that I do, or have done.

It Pays to Get to Know Your Colleagues

Despite all outward appearances, I’m pretty shy. I come off as an extrovert, but it’s painful for me to put myself out there, and it’s rare for me to make the first move socially. Instead, I offered to serve on committees, where I could get to know people on a work level first, but also just to get to know their personalities a bit better so I would be comfortable knowing them socially. When crisis hit, I knew whom to call and whom to count on.

Teach Your Students Well

I teach social activism, and many of the students who have taken my courses have gone on to be incredible community organizers. When they discovered I had been denied tenure, they organized a campaign that included petitions, virtual days of activism, and letter writing campaigns—all without any input from me. Administrations may not pay attention to students (particularly in tenure cases), but knowing that I had touched so many lives, and that they were willing to help me was a gift in a very dark time.

Think of Your Karma

A colleague of mine, who had been denied tenure at another university, came to me with her own story of anger. She hadn’t been able to let it go, and it was clear that her bitterness was eating her up; she despised so many people and could not forgive. I thought a lot about what that kind of anger could do to me, and in discussing it with another friend, I decided that there were two things I wasn’t willing to sacrifice by turning to anger and bitterness: my dignity and my karma.  It’s too important, and I have a long life to live.

There may sometimes be reason to hope

Although it first appeared that the provost’s decision would be final, the support of my colleagues, department, chair and director may have turned the tide. The provost agreed to review my case again next year. And for that, I’m grateful, although wounded.

Figure Out How to Heal

I’ll get back to you on that one.


Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.  She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization (Routledge 2010) and Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2013).



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