There have been so many posts about the destructiveness of the tenure system that I would like to say something more about this. I, as people paying close attention to this blog may already know, did not get tenure.
It was not at all traumatic, as I had seen it coming. After my mid tenure review I had an illness and the medical people in charge of it would not believe that my degree of impairment, while not terribly severe, was severe enough that I would not be able to work hard enough to get tenure. Since I could not get support from them to ask the university for a time extension of some sort, I just waited it out and made plans to go back to school when my no vote came.
I was surprised to have a positive vote from my department, and some of those colleagues, at least, were surprised to hear later of a negative decision from the dean. I went to see the dean who, not knowing about my health situation, said, look: the only problem is that your book is not in page proofs yet. Bring it to me in page proofs in early fall (it was now late spring) and we’ll vote again.
This was a nice offer but I said no because my health situation had not changed and I knew I would not have page proofs by that moment. But you can see already that all of none of this was particularly traumatic at a personal level. It caused many practical problems, yes. It was not terribly embarrassing, however, and it did not ruin my career, although it changed it.
What I liked about it was that it was objective. There was nothing in the written records of the decision that was not true, nothing untoward. It was civil and respectful and I am still friends with the people I was always friends with at that institution. These friends include one of the people who voted me down and no, it is not out of masochism that I maintain this friendship.
It was a very different experience than an earlier one, when I had been truly harrassed and hounded in another job, or the behavior I have had to put up with, and have put up with unnecessarily because I was already so beaten down, after tenure in my current one.
What was difficult about not getting tenure was what so many people I knew transferred onto it. They transferred onto it their own fears and wanted to watch me act them out. I will not cite all instances, but to give you an idea:
1. A close friend who had gotten tenure, on a “worse” record, at another institution with different standards refused to speak to me for a year. As he explained later, it was because he was so embarrassed that he had gotten tenure and I had not. An R-1 is not a SLAC, said I helplessly. Your job description is not the same as mine! But the reason he had finally called was that he had heard I was applying for jobs but also new postgraduate programs. Because I was only in my mid thirties at that time, I was considering using what retirement funds I had to get retrained in something I could feel less personally involved in, and that would be more lucrative. He had heard this and was calling to say don’t do that! it’s dangerous! And when I said look, you didn’t speak to me for a year, you have no right to opine now, he dropped out of sight and has not returned.
2. Another close friend called me up to complain: why had I screwed up? Couldn’t I have just gotten the right combination of drugs and finished that book on time? She had never had a tenure track offer, I had had more than one, and it was my duty to make tenure for the sake of us all, by G-d! She scolded for so long that I wrote her a note saying look, please do not call me again.
3. At the MLA and other major conferences, I was swarmed with people. How are you? What exactly is going on? It was not really sympathy or empathy – it was Schadenfreude, and they wanted to drink every last drop.
The best advice I got about not getting tenure was this: “Look, people will want to talk with you about it. Under the guise of support, they will constantly invite you to coffee, to drinks. You have your own life to take care of, especially now. Accept their invitations only if you really want to, and only on condition that you not be grilled about your feelings on the matter today, your plans as of today. Use the sentence, ‘I find it exhausting to discuss it.’”