Like many of my readers, I spent the weekend consumed by grief and rage. The mass murder in Newtown was the main reason, but not the only one--and since I have nothing unique or useful to say about Newtown, I'll talk about the one that better falls within the purview of this blog: the pointless and mean-spirited hazing that so many institutions and individuals seem to think is a necessary part of the tenure review process.
Once upon a time, I assumed that most tenure denials happened either at top-tier schools like my alma mater, which almost never tenure their junior faculty (why have an associate professor when you can hire two new assistant professors or poach a senior luminary?) or when a faculty member really did fall short of whatever her institution's tenure standards might be.
And some of the tenure denials I know about do fall into those two categories, though even those events are grimmer than I used to assume. It's not clear to me, for example, that some of the junior faculty my graduate department has tenured in recent years have been stronger scholars than those they haven't, and some of those denied tenure probably have reason to feel wronged or misled. Similarly, it had never occurred to me how traumatizing or divisive it could be for an entire department to have to vote down a beloved colleague who--for one reason or another--just didn't clear the bar.
But to my surprise and sorrow, a lot of the cases I've encountered in the past seven years don't fall into those more-or-less expected categories. I now know many people who have been treated abominably by their institutions, either getting denied tenure for dubious or obviously unjust reasons--or, if they have been awarded tenure, getting it only after being subjected to unwarranted and emotionally brutalizing treatment leading up to an eventual, hair's-breadth approval of their case.
None of the cases occurred at RU and none of the stories are really mine to tell, so I'll speak mostly in generalities--but I just don't get what an individual or a department or an institution gains by either losing good people or by hazing them to such a degree that they fear and hate their colleagues.
Often, it seems like just one or two people are behind it: sometimes it's a dean, but often it's some random asshole on a key department or college-wide committee who unilaterally decides that, for example, one of the candidate's publications isn't in a good enough journal--so he'd better have at least two more articles under contract by January! Or they'll declare that a book based on the dissertation doesn't count as new work. Or that two positive outside reviews and the editor's promise to bring the project to the board next month doesn't count: there has to be a formal, counter-signed contract. Or that one semester of bad student evaluations counts more than 10 strong ones.
Sometimes this hazing leaves a candidate with nothing to do but panic for months on end, fretting about the outcome. At other times, it involves seemingly impossible last-minute demands (get another article accepted for publication by next month! Make sure your evals this semester are the best they've ever been!). Either way, it's destructive.
I don't understand what motivates people to be such assholes to their colleagues, especially on the very point of tenuring them: do you really want to alienate those you're about to guarantee life employment? Is your only sense of power derived from passing judgment on other people and declaring them unworthy? Or are you so very unhappy that you need to frighten and humiliate your colleagues when they're most vulnerable?
Seriously, readers: if you've heard the kinds of stories I've heard, what's your explanation? Because the things some of my friends have gone and are going through just make me sick.