A story from INSIDEHIGHERED on the tenure process.
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.
Many people at the university involved know about the incident (or versions of it they have heard, with the “facts” changing a bit), but there’s been no public discussion. Professors in the department where this happened have been told to refer anyone asking to the public relations office, where a senior official would confirm only that there was an incident last month involving a professor.
We’re not naming the university or department here because to do so would lead to identifying the professor, who is getting help, and who doesn’t need (or presumably want) to be known nationally. To provide some context, it’s a university you’ve heard of, but it’s not the kind of place that is on “top 10″ lists of public or private institutions.
It happens everywhere. People in the public have no idea what a tough, sometimes savage, business academics is. Well over half of those hired don't get tenure, and at Duke and other top research universities that proportion is even less. Fired, sacked, out the door....it can happen for a lot of reasons.
I don't know if I was oblivious, arrogant, or just lucky, but it never occurred to me that I might not get tenure. I didn't even tell my wife when I got it; just seemed like one of those "sun rose in the east this morning" things. About five years ago, may 1999 or 2000, she came up to me at a party, obviously worried. "All these people are talking about tenure, and it sounds hard. Do YOU have tenure?"
We got married in 1986, so I was enough of a veteran husband not to laugh. I told her, as gently as I could, that yes, I had gotten tenure in 1992. "Really? Oh, good, that's good." She patted my arm.
Donna is an attorney. Even after being married to an academic for nearly 20 years, it is hard for her to put herself in the place of a professor. If I am sitting, staring at the wall, working on some equations, 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. 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.
I keep hearing from junior people that it has gotten harder to publish, and that it is now harder to get tenure. Maybe...but I doubt it. As far as I can tell, the work habits of junior faculty is what has changed. People watch TV, play with their kids, do almost anything except sit in their office and work. The first couple of jobs I had, nearly everyone (but certainly the junior people) were all in their offices by 9:30 am....on SATURDAY. Having a shared work ethic, and time together, made a difference. Now, lots of senior people rarely use their offices except for office hours. So junior people don't get the sense of how hard, long, and often you have to work.