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Winning Tenure

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By Michael Munger


In April 2005, INSIDEHIGHERED.COM carried a story on the tenure process. Here is an excerpt:


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.


At some universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, among others) almost no assistant professor gets tenure. The only people who win tenure are those who are hired at the senior level and have tenure already.


But it happens everywhere. People in the public rarely understand how tough, and sometimes savage, the business of academia can become. About half of those hired don’t get tenure, though much of that proportion results from people knowing they are going to be fired and leaving voluntarily. Fired, sacked, out the door….it can happen for a lot of reasons.


About five years ago, my wife came up to me at a party, obviously worried. “All these people are talking about tenure, and it sounds hard. Do you have tenure?” I told her, as gently as I could, that yes, I had been tenured for a decade. “Really? Oh, good, that’s good.” She patted my arm. Donna is an attorney, and pretty darned sharp. But even after being married to an academic all that time, she is not sure what I do. If I am sitting, staring at the wall, working on something, she asks, “What are you doing? Are you okay?” Later, when I come out to have a glass of wine with her before bed, she says, “Are you done? Did you finish?”


Well, no, I’ll never finish. When I finish this, I have to do something else. And I want to. That’s why I got tenure rather easily: I want to write. The advantage of being an academic is that you can schedule the 70 hours you work anytime you want during the week. But that doesn’t change the time commitment, and that is what so few people see. To understand the tenure process, just know this: all the university wants to know is whether you are so committed to intellectual achievement, so devoted to the life of the mind, that you will continue to work hard even after you have absolutely no material incentive to do so.


That is what tenure does—it takes away all the incentives of fear, being fired, or even really being yelled at. You are free to work on whatever you want, for as long as you want. Very few people understand how the process works, because it seems so secretive and forbidding. In fact, the tenure process is straightforward, as long as you understand these five hard truths.


Hard Truths: Five Facts About Tenure


  1. Your university wants you to get tenure. Hiring is hard, and costs a lot of time and money. Denying someone tenure is a defeat for the department as much as for the candidate. Many junior people like to think that the process is biased against them. There may sometimes be political or other bias, but that is quite rare. The key is to take your six year initial contract and make yourself indispensable. As for bias: You don’t need to disguise your political beliefs. On the other hand, if you are going to “out” yourself as a classical liberal you must be reasonable! Nobody wants to have a colleague who openly views himself as the sole voice of reason and morality in a corrupt world. I have often found that people are at first surprised at my libertarian leanings, but once they find out that they can have a good discussion with me, it makes me more interesting. A department is like a large family. Everyone knows more about everyone else than they want to know. Tenure is a lifetime contract. Senior people don’t want to spend the rest of their careers with someone who is always angry, or is constantly defensive. You need to present yourself as a serious scholar and teacher, and a team player, who also happens to be a classical liberal. Your department wants you to succeed, if you seem to want to become part of the department.
  2. The big three—Or the BIG ONE and the other two. Universities vary a lot in what is expected in terms of the “big three” criteria for tenure (teaching, service, and research), but it is increasingly true that the “research” leg of the stool is the one that bears most of the weight. You need to realize that there are no specific criteria for tenure, no way of quantifying “here is what I have to do.” Pestering your colleagues with questions about specific, objective criteria will just annoy them. They are not hiding anything from you! It really is true that they will evaluate your tenure package carefully, but subjectively. Pay attention to your teaching (see #5, below), and do service if you are asked, but make sure you take care of your research output. Remember: what your colleagues really want to know is whether you will continue to produce useful, high-impact research after you get tenure. So if you wait until your fifth year and then publish four or five papers, that “counts” much less than if you had spaced the same number of papers out, one per year. Don’t put off your research; it has to come first, because it is the big one when it comes to tenure evaluations. Finally, research should also be primary in your mind because it is the only thing that transfers well to other settings. If you publish a lot, you can easily get another job; but you won’t need to, because you’ll get tenure. If you focus on service or teaching, you won’t get tenure and you also won’t get another job.
  3. Tenure is a hire, not a reward. You will not get tenure as a reward for being a good citizen, or a great friend, or the person everyone seeks out to ask questions about web design or operating systems. Those are good things, but you will get tenure, or fail to get it, based on whether you can make yourself indispensable. In other words, you have to be (a) the best scholar (b) in your specific field (c) that your college or university could plausibly hope to hire. Tenure is a hire, not a reward. Your contract as an assistant professor is expiring, after six years. Your 51 colleagues have to decide whether to offer you a new, lifetime contract. This may sound like a cruel, calculating business, but that is only because it is. Make them need you, make them need your contributions to the educational and intellectual life of the department. Otherwise, nothing personal, but they will fire you.
  4. Deans can count, but they can’t read. You may hear this often, once you start an academic job. It is actually not true (lots of Deans are actually very bright, and some of them appear rather life-like in low light), but there is an important element of truth here. Evaluating book chapters, or magazine articles, is hard, because you would have to read the thing carefully, and have specific knowledge of the field. Likewise, evaluating teaching is hard, because someone would have to study the professor’s teaching skills and techniques, and then write a detailed report. What makes a tenure case easy? If someone else has already done the hard work of evaluation for you! And that means refereed journal articles. As was described in the “getting published” section, the anonymous referee process guarantees that multiple other people have looked at this paper and thought it was good enough to publish. So, if you have lots of refereed journal articles, it means (a) you write a lot, and (b) a disinterested person, with no reason to know you or like you, thought the work was good enough to publish. The reason, in short, that people who publish lots of journal articles usually get tenure is this: they made it easy for the Dean’s review committee to evaluate the file. It is easier to measure that which can be quantified.
  5. Teaching Matters. One of the most dangerous canards in academics is the canard, “teaching can only hurt you.” What that’s supposed to mean is that if you are known to be a good teacher, it actually hurts your tenure chances. The kiss of death, according to this myth, is winning a teaching award, because that means you should be spending more time on your research. There may be some universities where this is true, but I can’t think of one. Again, there is an element of truth, but the real truth is more subtle. Many people have trouble facing the terrors of the blinking cursor and the blank page on their word processor. Writing is hard work. It is much more fun to spend your time with students, after class, after work, whatever. But if all you do is teach, and hang with students, then you won’t get your work done. Consider this: suppose you are teaching a 3-3 load (that’s pretty heavy, by the way). That would mean that you spend 7.5 hours per week in the classroom. Suppose further you spend 3 hours outside class for every hour in (that’s more than many budget in their day), grading papers, preparing lectures, and so on. That’s 30 hours per week, total. Plus, you get summers and holidays “off.” All that means is that you don’t have to teach then. What do people do with all that time off? In many cases, they waste it. They certainly don’t produce publishable research. So, if you come up for tenure and you have a teaching award and no publications, it is certainly true that you won’t get tenure. But it is not because you won a teaching award. It is because you refused to sit down and write, and then used teaching as an excuse.


I have one closing thought, and it is a happy one. Most tenure cases are not particularly close. If the young scholar follows the advice in the rest of this handbook and works hard on52 generating ideas and writing at least a little every day (every…day), then he or she will accumulate lots of solid publications. That tenure case won’t be so much a test as a celebration, a collective recognition of a job well done. It is likely that people who ignore the advice here may well not get tenure. But that won’t be you, so why even think about it?


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