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Gaining Tenure: Rules Your Chairman Never Told You

May 5, 2000
By Lawrence Douglas and Alexander George

Copyright 2000, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Posted with permission on This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

In our continuing series of articles devoted to helping the junior professor survive the rigors of the tenure process, we turn now to the ticklish subject of collegiality. Our experience has taught us that one of the gravest mistakes a young professor can commit is to act under the assumption that sterling scholarship and outstanding teaching are sufficient to achieve academic promotion.

Know this: All your achievements aren't worth a hill of chalk dust if your senior colleagues hate you. With that fundamental axiom in mind, we have designed a number of reminders that should help the junior professor achieve and maintain a level of popularity among his or her colleagues necessary for gaining tenure.

* Avoid ressentiment. Never forget that you will be judged by senior colleagues who never would have received tenure had they been evaluated under the standards by which they will judge you. The fact of the matter is that many senior professors entered academe in the 1960's and 70's, when colleges and universities were undergoing a period of rapid expansion stimulated by the baby boom. During those gravy days, a professor would have had to shoot up in front of students and be convicted of gross moral turpitude to be denied tenure. Now, this deadwood is going to judge you. Unfair? Certainly -- but just remember that if you make it past this hurdle, you, too, will live to be an unworthy fossil who determines the careers of far more talented and industrious people than yourself.

More important, recall that your senior colleagues are very likely to begrudge you your achievements, not to mention the time and effort they must expend attending to your case. That is a dangerous state of affairs and needs to be delicately addressed. We recommend that you do everything possible to make your senior colleagues feel that you respect them. For instance, let it be known that you, for one, still eagerly await the completion of your department chair's philosophical analysis of the metaphysics of Carlos Castaneda. Or that you found yourself thoroughly convinced by his reassessment of the feasibility of cold fusion. Such gestures will help your senior colleagues believe that they have not simply the duty, but the ability, to judge you.

* Shine, but not too brightly. This is a corollary of the last observation. Your senior colleagues, especially the ones who are recently tenured themselves, want you to bring glory to their department. But they do not want to be eclipsed by some upstart. Practice the art of humility and the art of downplaying those of your accomplishments that might threaten others in your department. Disarm through such lines as (coyly embarrassed): "Well, Stockholm was nice, but the ceremony was a little long."

* Let it be known that you are no stranger to litigation. At the same time that you perfect the techniques of self-abnegation and obsequious behavior, make sure your colleagues know that, when backed against the wall, you can be vicious. Let it be known that you once engaged the services of Cravath, Swaine & Moore to bring a suit against your own grandmother. Remember, your colleagues fear litigation; and if they don't, they fear the trustees who do.

* Use great care in deciding which committees to join. Many a promising career has foundered on the rocks of a politically sensitive committee, every member of which will inevitably be despised by some section of the faculty. Avoid at all costs membership on committees that are charged to revise the curriculum, to explore the role of athletics in admissions, or to "look into" faculty benefits. Jockey for appointment to committees that oversee campus landscaping, or that will search for the institution's next archivist. Always pay careful attention to what you are quoted as saying in the committee's minutes; revise and distort as necessary.

* Learn how to read your colleagues' evaluations. With the astonishing number of documents generated by increasingly baroque and elaborate tenure procedures, you will no doubt have occasion to read hundreds of evaluations of your performance. Sadly, in our experience, junior faculty members fail to realize that inflation has also beset the rhetoric of evaluation, and so they overlook the red flags contained in seemingly positive documents. You must understand that anything short of the most extreme and prodigal praise should be the source of the gravest concern. Some examples of the discounting required by Rhetoric Inflation:

"We strongly endorse." (Frankly, we're deeply ambivalent.)

"She is a talented teacher." (She has published nothing.)

"The candidate is certainly intelligent." (We've seen much smarter.)

"His scholarship has puzzled some." (We believe he is deranged.)

* Behave yourself in faculty meetings. As a general rule, say nothing. Look interested, but not unhealthily so, in the proceedings. Never read magazines, grade papers, knit, or snore loudly -- those are among the privileges of tenure. If you must speak, avoid bombast, references to the history of the institution, and homilies -- those, too, are among the privileges of tenure, and you must not be seen to be clueless or cocky regarding your position or prospects. Never offer friendly amendments to the motion on the floor, for you will only lose friends doing so. By contrast, if you have reason to believe that your colleagues hold such meetings in contempt, look exasperated and, if such are the prevailing customs, mutter snide comments under your breath.

* Avoid conflicts of interest. Your chair has organized a cocktail party to celebrate the purchase of your department's new photocopier. At the same time, your wife goes into labor. What should you do? Our experience indicates that the best way to resolve such painful conflicts of interest is to prevent them from arising in the first place. Intimate relationships and parenting create the greatest interference with professional obligations. We therefore advise that you avoid all personal attachments until after the tenure decision. After promotion, you should feel free to have as many relationships and children as you want. (We recommend no more than one child, however, in light of the pay scale of professors.)

We recognize that the road to tenure will take many female academics past their child-bearing years; here adoption remains an attractive option. Intimacies with the spouse of a senior colleague should be scrupulously avoided until you get your promotion in writing.

Lawrence Douglas is an assistant professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought, and Alexander George is an associate professor of philosophy, at Amherst College.