Guest post: A tenure debacle and the invisible support network that kept me upright

Note from Meghan: This is a guest post from my colleague, Gina Baucom.

 

There has been a procedural error in your tenure case at the college level. I’m going to recommend that we stop your tenure case this year, and redo it again, from the beginning, next year.

This is not what you want to hear when you are going through tenure. Unfortunately, this is what I heard at a meeting the Dean called with me last January, even though the department vote on my tenure case had been unanimous and positive.

Winter term is usually a very hectic term for me; I’m co-teaching a 400-student genetics course and sometimes prepping grants. This particular term I was also squeezing in some extra seminar travel, planning a symposium for the next fall, and doing some society level work. So imagine it: I had heard positive news from my department the previous fall, people were congratulating me, “Rubber stamps from now on, usually!”; I’m busy teaching a large and stressful course, and then everything came to an abrupt halt because of this procedural error. I’m going to remain appropriately vague about the specifics of what happened, but I will say that the Dean assured me it was not a weakness in my case, and that I should take a vacation. Could he pay for a vacation for me? I’m not sure if he was joking or serious. I didn’t take him up on it.

The weight of what happened didn’t hit me immediately, but broke in slow waves as new bits of information came out. I remember not sleeping the night after I received the email from the Dean telling me there was a problem with my case, but before I had any real information. Wow. I did everything right and I’m losing my job anyway. What will I do? I like making jam. I could open a roadside stand. I could sell pie. I’m cool with that. But don’t they realize I managed to get a job in 2010 after the market crashed? And then I managed to get a federal grant, and then another tenure track job in a place my spouse could find work? And then another federal grant, and when the department told me to aim higher with my publications, I did? I thought I did everything right?

So once these thoughts started happening, and the confusion set in, and then answers about specifics of the case started to become more apparent, I noticed something else happen in the background, kind of off to the side of my anger and complete disappointment: people started showing up for me in various ways. My spouse started bringing me treats home after work. Mostly chocolate. My friends messaged me on facebook ‘Hey, how’s it going today?’ People I only knew through social media messaged ‘Do you need anything? Can I read a manuscript draft for you?’ Meg and another group of friends texted me every day to check in and make sure I was ok. One of my senior collaborators helped me clarify thoughts for a grant; we wrote a couple together and managed to get them funded. Effectively, there were people that stepped in and said, through either action or words, “Whoa, this is not cool. What can I do to help?”

This support network is something I knew was there, but didn’t quite know how strong it was, or necessary, until I saw my career falter. It’s difficult to express how disconcerting it is to have a stumble like this, and how clarifying it is to see who is there to help. It’s also humbling to have your trajectory altered when you don’t expect it. I think a lot now about people who have gotten negative tenure decisions, and how their lives were altered as a result. Not just the more logical next-step sorts of things they had to deal with, but also the mental load of being turned down. It’s a heavy weight to deal with.

Recently, Meg brought up the idea of the invisible support network, and it resonated with me. We are incredibly lucky to have an active Advance office on campus, and they were instrumental in giving me advice and stepping in when needed. But beyond that, the experience of this last year crystallized just how important an invisible support network can be for a woman on the tenure track in academia, and how clarifying it is to see who is on your team. Some of the support that was offered to me came from the obvious places; much of the support came from less expected places, people who have been doing this for a while, and who knew, from experience, how sleepless nights and self-doubt could compound together into a shit stew that no one should be served. It also changed my view of how people interact with each other in a broader sense. Things that I used to think impressive — “Whoa, they did XYZ and managed to publish it in this journal? Cool!” have become a lot less impressive. I have begun looking at people less for what they climb toward on their own and more for who they bolster along the way.

I decided to write up this perspective for people as a way to encourage women, and others, to think about what sort of invisible support they can offer one another. As my lawyer says — and yes, I got a lawyer AND a therapist out of this deal — women have particular types of issues with tenure. We really need each other in ways that you might not understand when you first start on an academic track. Support can be as simple as “Nice talk, have you thought about doing <blank> before?” or “Let’s start a writing group” or “Damn I had this weird interaction, how do I respond?” There are stories like mine out there, and people dealing with loads of things you aren’t aware of. When you hear stories like this, and regrettably those that are much, much worse, I encourage you to think, ‘Wow, that could easily be me. What can I do to help?’

8 thoughts on “Guest post: A tenure debacle and the invisible support network that kept me upright

  1. I hope all turned out well with your tenure, and thanks for sharing your experience. A support network in and outside of academia, or lack of, can make or break a career. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you are stranded on a desert island alone after having your ship piratized or sabotaged. Unfortunately, women are too often left on the island.

  2. OK, now try seeing how this story sounds with the outcome that you DON’T get tenure. I mean, everything. The department positive vote and strong support, all of your invisible support network congratulating you and telling you not to worry because everything is going to be OK, and then, a procedural error not of your own making. But then, wait, what? You didnt get tenure!!What? How could this have happend, your invisible support network asks. Your lawyer and your therapist help you though it in various ways, but since, you know, you have to leave your job, sell your house, _actually move your family across the country instead of just imagining how hard it would be if you had to do that_your invisible support network goes up in flames. It starts when they think that something bad happened to them which, in fairness, it did, but its not as bad as what happened to you. It is exacerbated by their own sense of regret, of powerlessness, of not seeing this coming, of having their voices silenced as they try to change, or even understand the outcome. But then, you know, you become the problem. Because you’re no fun anymore. And you can’t seem to be happy for just ten minutes about when the next person from your department gets tenure, despite being inferior to you in every metric, except for “number of penises”. Yes, your invisible support network becomes an invisible non-support ex-network.

    Which was totally the worst thing about the whole ordeal.

  3. A tweet of Gina’s I thought it might be useful to copy here:

    Here are some data for further context, reinforcing what I take to be Gina’s point. Most people who get hired into TT positions get tenure, either where they were originally hired or after choosing to move to another TT position: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/dont-worry-too-much-about-whether-youll-get-tenure-because-you-probably-will/

    The point here is absolutely not to ignore cases in which tenure is denied, or dismiss the experiences of those who’ve been denied tenure. Commenter Emily’s experience (above) is truly awful and I’m very sorry that anyone would have to go through that. That others have had better experiences with the tenure process doesn’t make the bad experiences any less bad. The point is just that tenure denials (and very awkward tenure processes like Gina’s) aren’t the rule. And so it’s probably not useful or healthy for anyone on the tenure track to worry in a generalized, abstract way about going through a similar experience (easier said than done, I know…). You can’t always foresee or prevent bad experiences. All you can do is deal with them as best you can, if and when they come. Which is part of what makes support networks so important.

  4. I am in a non-tenure track position, with its own uncertainties. But I refuse to go into a tenure track position. I am 5 years post-PhD at 43 years old. There is no desire to spend the next 6 years of my life being miserable trying to achieve tenure. And for what? 65K a year? No thank you.

  5. Well, this story is pretty harrowing. And Emily, OMG, we have much in common. Your last line was a gut punch because, as I have said elsewhere (https://cen.acs.org/content/cen/articles/94/i37/Moving-tenure-denial.html) and probably tweeted at some point, the biggest, hardest shock of the whole ordeal was the disintegration of my social network. So, Gina Baucom, I hope that you are correct in that this will all turn out OK for you, and one day you will look back at this time as an annoyance rather than a life-altering moment. My sincerest good wishes to you, and please update all of us.

    But I say to Jeremy Fox, and to everyone else comforting yourselves and others that such situations are rare-they are less rare than they used to be. Tenure is on life support, as evidenced by the fact that vacated tenured lines, whether by death, retirement, failed retention, or tenure denial, tend to disappear much more often than they used to. So I think that stories like Emily’s and mine, while still the minority, are more common, less fluky.

    Also-that part about “after choosing to move to another TT position” usually means that they didn’t get tenure where they started out, and the “choosing” part was a choice to try again somewhere else. Not being on SNAP doesn’t mitigate the trauma, grief, and, often, betrayal that accompany tenure denial. In fact, many people who are denied tenure go on to lead productive lives as meaningfully employed people. I myself am so much better of than I was when I got tossed out, emotionally, financially, socially, and, I don’t know, I guess I would say spiritually (though I don’t mean that in a religious sense). But we will always carry with us the shame of failure and the sting of expulsion, even if we are successful in extracting our identity from the awful experience we had.

    It’s been a decade now since my tenure denial and you know what? Last summer was the first summer since 2010 that I didn’t get at least three phone calls from people that I did not know saying “Hi, my friend (insert name) told me that I should talk to you because I just got denied tenure and they said you’d be good to talk to”, which, it turns out, I am. Last year I only got one phone call and it was from someone that I knew, so..

    My point is not to scare people, but rather to prepare people. We all like to think that if we just do what is expected of us-get grants, publish papers, graduate some students, get good teaching evaluations, sit on some committees now and then, we’ll get tenure. Or that if our department strongly supports us, we’ll get tenure. Or if we have not one single negative letter, we will get tenure. And I am here to tell you that this is demonstrably not true. The fact that it is mostly sometimes sorta true does not make it a reliable fact. But if you know this, you can be prepared for any outcome. It’s still going to suck, absolutely suck, in ways that you can imagine and ways that you can not. But it doesn’t have to crush you.

    I want everyone to know that the very most important thing I learned from not getting tenure is that it is not the end of your career. For me it was actually the beginning of a much bigger and better life and career, to the point where I am often grateful that I was denied the option to clip my wings in exchange for security. It is not the abyss. It is not a catastrophe.You will survive. You may even thrive. But it is pretty damn high on the list of traumatic experiences, so you’ll have to buckle up and work hard if you want to survive it.

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