On Tenure

April 2, 2009 | Blog

A hot topic in my life lately, though unfortunately something I know next to nothing about. (All’s I know is that guaranteed academic freedom is and will continue to be important in my life). So I want to highlight another person’s wisdom, from a cool article from Inside Higher Ed entitled “What I Wish I’d Known About Tenure”.

These days I’m especially intrigued by the following pearls:
1. “Tenure is based on the university’s needs, not the achievements of those seeking tenure, and the university sets the rules and controls the odds.”
2. “…the tenure process is like a form of academic hazing…Your chances of success may also improve if you do not get mired in departmental politics or have major conflicts with powerful departmental members.”

So much for the “meritocracy.”


  1. Reply

    Sherman Dorn

    April 3, 2009

    My jaw almost hit the floor when I read the piece, because some of it was absolutely false. No, not the politics part--I've seen cases where department politics ruled--but the fact that the author was clearly someone who was denied tenure and misunderstood enough about the dynamics that I suspect there's quite a bit left unsaid.

    In any case, here's the tipoff: the author's claim that most tenure cases are in the "gray" zone. No. Or at least not at institutions I'm aware of. A lot of tenure cases -- and the vast majority at my institution -- are not in any gray area. That doesn't mean that the vast majority of tenure or promotion applications are approved but that the decision for upper-level administrators is not a hard one, because the recommendations all along the line are consistent in one direction or another.

    In addition, the stuff about politics is missing a lot. At some point I need to write about deviance credits in higher education (Ira Shor's concept originally, if I remember correctly). But that would require some rereading and thinking about it more than I can right now.

    My impression: please take the Chronicle piece with about ten pounds of salt.

  2. Reply

    Amy Strecker

    April 3, 2009

    My experience with university tenure is through watching my mom complete the process successfully, then participate on the other side of the table through the duration of her career. I would have to agree with Sherman's comments above.

    University tenure is drastically different from k-12 teacher tenure. Of course politics are involved in the process -- I don't know any part of university life (or professional work life for that matter) that doesn't involve some politicking.

    However, in the university setting applicants have to make their case and provide evidence of worth to the department, the university, community, students etc. It's a grueling process that takes months to complete. I'm sure the process needs updating and is more dysfunctional and bs filled at some institutions than others, but the idea of having to earn job security through hard evidence of success and outstanding work isn't a bad idea.

    In contrast with the university tenure system, the k-12 tenure system I observed as a teacher is unfortunately a simple waiting game for too many teachers. If you can stick around long enough, it's yours. There's no performance standard (or at least not one that's ever enforced in my experience)required for the incredible gift of life-long job security.

  3. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    April 3, 2009

    Amy and Sherman,

    Thanks for your comments. Must say, these things resonate with me. I've recently watched not one but two friends denied tenure. And, my mom labored for years to even get on the tenure-track, after 20 years of service denied the chance. Universities treat talented people as disposable for many reasons, all the time. And applicants don't have nearly the say that's implied here. "Sticking around" in academia is laudable enough, under current working conditions at many places. I dislike thinking about this in relative terms, it's pointless- the current system is broken, no matter whether any other system works.

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