This post isn’t about me. In fact, today is my eighteenth day as a tenured associate professor at Jumbo Public University. I had a white-knuckle ride up the administrative food chain, even though the votes and other approvals were unanimous for my reputedly slam-dunk, knockout, bulletproof, surefire case. Invoking these reassuringly violent figures of speech, colleagues would raise their eyebrows out of equally reassuring incredulity whenever I’d muse aloud about getting shitcanned. After I received my official letter, but before its contents became official, I still believed some freak accident would befall me. Can’t be too careful, ya know.
As I was saying, this post isn’t about me. Nor is it about Albert Romkes, the scholar of computational fluid dynamics whose lawsuit challenging his tenure denial at the University of Kansas last year has become a cause célèbre among his students and the KU community. Those in his field say his was a textbook denial. He had failed to secure grants, to publish sufficiently as first or last author, or to provide publishing opportunities to his grad students—in other words, he had failed to establish himself as an independent scholar, let alone the nationally recognized leader in his field a tenured professor at a research university ostensibly is. Add to this the credentials creep at KU and humbler institutions, and you wonder why he bothered, especially since the common wisdom is that those who sue for tenure are not just ending their careers, but making sure those careers can’t be resuscitated. As the common wisdom goes, suing for tenure
- gets you tarred as a troublemaker,
- distracts you from producing scholarship and securing another job, and
- costs you money a soon-to-be unemployed person shouldn’t be spending.
And that’s if you could get a lawyer to take your case. There is no lucrative settlement at stake, because what you’re suing for is a job. Courts also tend to defer to academic procedures, so overturning a denial is unlikely. Even if you prevailed, would you want to continue your career among people who’d so publicly already decided they didn’t want to be around you for the next 30 years?
One of my grad school professors didn’t sue for tenure, but got her denial overturned, as did one of my colleagues at JPU. Both have now had long, distinguished careers. Both, not coincidentally, are also women who were producing feminist scholarship when the academy was (more) hostile to it. While I was there, my grad department denied tenure with great regularity—perhaps U.S. News awards points for tenure denials—and with somewhat less regularity has tenured people with bafflingly thin publication records and apparently indifferent teaching, which doesn’t count. Those who’ve been denied seem to have made decent careers elsewhere, in and out of the academy. By contrast, my current department hires to tenure: people arrive with a book in print or under contract. Tenure requirements are specific, but with enough loopholes to make plausible arguments for keeping people we regard as assets to the department and the university. The last person to be denied tenure left before I arrived, but continues to be discussed in hushed tones, like some kind of mythical being. Part of this mythology is that this person was dreadfully unhappy here (much like I was when I began), so it must have been a relief to be denied, as that person left willingly, with no question about a lawsuit.
That person, coincidentally, is now tenured in the same sprawling state university system as a former professor of mine from undergrad.
In 2003 I Googled (may have been Yahoo) this professor when I was a grad student considering teaching Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I had read for his course in literature and philosophy. My undergrad career occurred in the first half of the 1990s (when most of today’s undergrads were born), yet I still remember that class vividly, because it was a seminar of only eight students. It was also the only class in which I regularly fell asleep. I may have enrolled in it because it met only once a week. Back in the day, when students could actually work our way through college, we squeezed classes around our minimum-wage adventures. For perhaps this reason, the class sessions were characterized by arid stretches of awkward silence, punctuated by the professor’s serenely sententious pronouncements that make no sense to me. I use the present tense because, in deciding whether or not to teach Zen back in 2003, I dug out my notes from “Philosophy in Literature.” I don’t imagine most people’s sleepwriting would make much sense, but I wasn’t always asleep in class. When I’m awake, I can be a pretty great stenographer, and my notes recorded many pages quoting the professor verbatim, followed by “wtf?” It was apt preparation for committee work, come to think of it.
By 2003 I wasn’t going to ask him for clarification, but I was curious what had become of him. Google (or more likely Yahoo) revealed he had left my land-grant R1 alma mater for a SLAC I had never heard of, which had denied him tenure for concerns about his teaching. He had sued and, after a lawsuit spanning three years, the SLAC prevailed. In the process, his tenure file became inevitably embarrassing public record. He said what to students? At a SLAC? O no he di’nt. Oh yes he did, he confirmed under oath. Amazingly, he had managed to become an assistant professor at a place in the sprawling state university system I mentioned above, where he (like me!) is a tenured associate professor. His posted CV is thin and so esoteric that I’d describe it as weird. After all these years, still: “wtf?” I imagine people say the same about my publications.
I’ve still never taught Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is just as famous for having been rejected by 121 publishers as it is for its navel-gazing philosophical syntheses, and I doubt I ever will. But if its example—like life after tenure denials—teaches us anything, it’s about that Beckettian chestnut about failing better. Academia isn’t that different from other lines of work. Those who sue over being terminated in industry are just as ostracized. But academic life is special for being organized around rejection. As one of my grad-school buddies (who, significantly, had the excellent sense to quit grad school) puts it, academics are approval junkies—those who always got the gold stars and wrecked the curve and bested 90+% of the other applicants for a spot in some prestigious program and then 399 other applicants for a job. What is tenure but Approval for Life? As the common wisdom goes, you can’t sue for approval.