When a Professor Loses It

Denied tenure, a well liked faculty member suffers a breakdown -- in public. Are there lessons for academe?
May 3, 2005

The scholar was well liked and well published, according to the e-mail that arrived last week, but he was denied tenure in April. And then he lost it.

One day on campus, he started shouting expletives about the university administration (some versions of the story have this taking place in a class; others do not). He then moved into a hallway, continuing to shout and removing his clothes, taking leaflets off the walls. At some point, he was subdued by campus security officers.

Many people at the university involved know about the incident (or versions of it they have heard, with the "facts" changing a bit), but there's been no public discussion. Professors in the department where this happened have been told to refer anyone asking to the public relations office, where a senior official would confirm only that there was an incident last month involving a professor.

We're not naming the university or department here because to do so would lead to identifying the professor, who is getting help, and who doesn't need (or presumably want) to be known nationally. To provide some context, it's a university you've heard of, but it's not the kind of place that is on "top 10" lists of public or private institutions.

Told of the incident, a number of experts on faculty life shared a sense of sadness for the individual, and differing reactions on what the incident means more broadly. Those quoted below did not know the individual or the university. They all noted that it was impossible to know exactly what was going on for this professor, but that the incident resonated with them -- for different reasons.

All said that the story was a useful reminder of how traumatizing the tenure review process can be -- and all said that while people don't like to talk about it, professors suffer breakdowns.

"I'm surprised this kind of thing doesn't happen more often," said Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a frequent writer about the way academe treats junior faculty members and graduate students. "So much of the system makes people feel utterly powerless," he said.

Nelson said that he knew of one professor (not at Illinois) who suffered a breakdown after he was denied tenure, and responded in part by stripping naked and climbing into a college building by hauling himself up a wall, holding onto ivy, and climbing in. The professor was eventually able to reverse the decision and to win tenure.

Ann Franke, vice president for national issues and chief knowledge officer at United Educators, which provides insurance to more than 1,000 colleges, said this incident is a reminder: "There are always going to be faculty members who demonstrate aberrational behavior in a variety of situations." In the same way that colleges know what they would do if, for instance, a professor had a heart attack in the office or in front of a class, colleges should know what they would do if a professor had a mental collapse of some kind.

As a general rule, she said, colleges "tolerate low-level eccentricities from faculty members more than they might tolerate similar eccentricities of staff members. That goes with the empowerment of faculty, but there are times when people do have acute mental health crises."

Franke said she did not know how this professor learned of the tenure denial, but suggested that this incident points to the need to deliver such information in a way that shows compassion, yet  does not create legal problems. A department chair who tries to soften the blow by saying that the president made the wrong call, Franke said, may create "an awkward situation" if the college is sued.

Some department chairs might fear that they can't tell rejected candidates for tenure about the availability of counseling services without risking a lawsuit. Franke said, however, that if a department chair includes the availability of counseling services among a range of services in human resources, the career center, etc., mentioning counseling is fine -- and may be appropriate.

Sandra I. Cheldelin, a psychologist who teaches at George Mason University and runs conflict resolution programs involving academic departments at a number of institutions, said, "The real story here is the high stakes of tenure. There is an extraordinary amount of pressure about tenure -- people have been working their entire careers toward this one thing."

Cheldelin said that people can't assume that just because someone doesn't appear on the verge of a breakdown, news like a tenure denial might not set off much more than disappointment. "Any time you have something that's really threatening your livelihood, then people's responses are going to differ, but they can be as powerful as it was important to them."

Cathy A. Trower, a research associate at Harvard University who is leading a major study of the American professoriate, said she wondered if the professor involved realized that he was in danger of not winning tenure. And she said that while there can never be true assurances about who will and will not win tenure, colleges greatly reduce the chances of a breakdown (or resentment or anger) if people have a real sense of their odds.

"This may have come as a surprise to this individual -- and that simply should not be the case," Trower said. Colleges should be giving midpoint reviews 'that send a signal of whether or not you are going to be successful."

It's also important for senior professors -- for whom tenure reviews are in the distant past -- to remember how difficult a period it is. "This can be very scarring and there is a stigma attached to denials," she said. "It's so brutal that I know people who have achieved tenure and then as a result of the process have left the academy."

Of course people in any profession face disappointments over not getting raises and promotions. But Trower and others noted that tenure in academe has some characteristics that just aren't widely replicated: If you don't get promoted, you don't get to stay on, but must leave; you are judged in part by peers with whom you interact daily; the process is extremely long and has multiple stages; and the subjective portions of the process (is someone a good teacher? was a book influential?) may be very difficult to make sense of.

Nelson of Illinois said that the system is sufficiently "crazy" that one can't help but lose faith in it. "Let's say you've published your first book and articles and they are great and then some goon on the committee says you haven't done enough conference papers. The whole thing can come undone. Or you've got six letters and they are all positive except for one small criticism in one letter. Someone on the committee will say, 'Ah. Someone had the guts to tell the truth.' And suddenly you are in jeopardy because of one person's whim."

In such an environment, he said, it's not irrational for a tenure candidate to be less than rational. "We badly need more sanity in the tenure process," he said. "Sometimes the paranoia is merited."

Another reason people are crushed, he said, is that they aren't prepared to be turned down. "I tell my students every year that they will find the job market emotionally crushing and disabling and they don't believe me until they are out there."

Nelson thinks that people who advise Ph.D. students can help in part by staying as mentors to their advisees through the tenure process -- even as their advisees become junior faculty members at other institutions. Nelson said that professors up for tenure, if they are feeling emotionally vulnerable, will for good reason avoid talking to anyone at their institution about their emotions -- fearing that their comments could end up being discussed by a tenure committee.

Someone at another institution (like a Ph.D. adviser) can listen, he said, and provide counsel. "We need to think of mentorship until tenure."

Faculty members don't like to think about the possibility that one of their students may end up defeated -- professionally or psychologically. "People deny how severe the psychological pressures are, but they are real," Nelson said.


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