Wednesday, 14 September 2011

On Denial

A reader who was recently denied tenure at a major research university has some questions about how to deal with day-to-day life after the negative decision has been handed down; specifically, in the 'extra' year following the decision but before having to leave the university.

It is good that institutions provide this transition year, especially since some decisions are handed down at the end of the academic year, but the final year can be very difficult/awkward/stressful for the individual denied tenure.

There are of course resources available, online and in print, from the point of view of those who have experienced tenure denial. I am writing from the point of view of a tenured professor who has seen friends and colleagues experience tenure denial or termination during pre-tenure reviews, and who has worked with colleagues who were denied tenure (before I met them) at a previous institution.

The Questions

What does a person [the one denied tenure] say in these situations during their last two semesters?
.. when meeting another faculty member in the hall?
.. when meeting their graduate students?

My question back is: What do you want to say?

Do you want to mention your situation proactively or would you rather not talk about it? I think you should do whatever you want in this situation. If you want to talk about it, you could say something like "I suppose you heard.." or "Did you hear my bad news?" and then just say as much or as little as you want. Some people won't have any reply that will be of any comfort or use to you, but perhaps some will be kind and/or have insights. If you don't want to talk about it, either don't say anything or talk about something else unless asked, in which case you can say "I don't want to talk about it."

I know that some colleagues may be uncomfortable with you for a while (especially if they voted against you), won't look you in the eye, and may seem to avoid you. If you want to try to break the ice and gets things on a more normal footing, you can try to do that with casual conversation. However, it's not your responsibility to make us feel better (you're the one whose been hurt), so this is just a suggestion for getting past the initial awkwardness.

..when someone asks: Why didn't you get tenure?
(I don't actually know why, just some vague rumors, which seem to vary a lot depending on the source, because it's all confidential, right?)

The parenthetical statement surprised me a lot, although I will be the first to admit that I don't know how all universities work. Is it really confidential? Isn't there supposed to be a letter explaining something about the basis for the decision? What information did you get, and how did you get it? Just a "no"? In a letter or in person, with nothing else? This is worth looking into. What was your publication, grant, teaching/advising record compared to peers? Do you have a way to figure this out? Was there no information in pre-tenure reviews that there was a problem, or was the negative decision a complete surprise?

But back to the original question, if you don't know, I guess you just say "I don't know." You don't have to elaborate, even if you heard rumors. If you know, then it's up to you whether you explain what the official reason is, and what kind of editorial comments you add about the fairness/unfairness of the decision and evaluation process.

.. when a potential employer during an interview asks: Why didn't you get tenure?

Again, if you don't know, you can only say "I don't know" and explain that you were not told. If you know (or can guess), just be open about it, e.g., "I didn't publish enough" or "I didn't have as many grants as I should have" (mention expectations vs record).

Keep it factual in an interview, as much as possible, so your potential employers/colleagues can make their own decision. If your record would have been sufficient for tenure at the institution that is interviewing you, the tenure denial won't be held against you. Several of the most successful people in my field were denied tenure at an PrestigeU and went on to have outstanding careers as researchers and educators at AnotherU.

.. when meeting with a group of female faculty and graduate students in a Women in Science meeting when the topic is "What advice do you have for graduate students for achieving success?"

If you don't know the reason you were denied tenure, it's hard for you to give any perspective on your situation in terms of what you should have done that you didn't do. I suppose you could tell graduate students (female or male) about what you think the expectations for the job were and whether those were reasonable/fair, including whether you were fairly evaluated. If you had no feedback along the way, including now, perhaps that is something that can be discussed as a challenge and problem that should be addressed.

I think/hope it is unusual to have no information other than rumors -- both during the tenure-track years and following a negative decision -- so some advice could be about the importance of mentors, communication, knowing expectations/criteria. In some cases, having all that information doesn't help in the end anyway, but at least you would have more insight into the evaluation.

.. when at the faculty retreat.. We interrupt this question to answer it now: Don't go to the faculty retreat. Just don't go. You will only be miserable and it is not a good use of your time or emotional energy. Even if you are planning to stay as a 100% soft-money researcher or adjunct teaching faculty, you do not need to go to faculty meetings or retreats anymore unless there is some very specific and constructive reason to do so.

.. when your graduate student asks the department head about what their future is without asking the question directly to you first.

Well, I would try to be understanding that this is a stressful and anxious time for your grad student as well. I don't know what the timing was of the conversation with the department head, but if you had time to talk to your student and didn't (because you were too upset), then it makes sense that the student would try to get information that they need. If it's not too late, have a frank conversation with them now about their and your options.

.. when someone else's graduate student whose committee you are on asks you to approve their plan of study when you won't be available (or eligible?) to service on the committee by the time the student graduates?

If there are official actions (like signing a form) that you can do now to help a student, in the post-tenure decision year that you are still a faculty member, you should do them. The student and their advisor can decide whether to replace you or keep you on the committee in some capacity (and if the latter, how do to that administratively). Presumably the advisor knows that they need to deal with this, but if they are in another department or if you are in different units of a large department, just tell them.

My correspondent asked for suggestions on handling these situations "gracefully". I think it is good to remain professional, especially if you will be interviewing elsewhere and trying to remain in the field, but I wouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about whether you are making other people feel bad or uncomfortable. Perhaps some people are disappointed in you, but it's not as if you committed a crime against humanity. Fair or unfair, you have lost your job and so you need to take care of yourself (and your students), get as much information as you can, consider your options (including appealing the decision), and move on however you think best.

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