To Be Conditionally Unaccepted: When You Are Denied Tenure

crowderRev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary (full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Dr. Chowder reflects on the painful experience of being denied tenure, but also on bouncing back, and even seeing the “silver lining,” in this (temporary) professional setback.  She offers some tips for other scholars who have been denied tenure to remain resilient.

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To Be Conditionally Unaccepted

“Isn’t it crazy how the world tries to make us ashamed of so much.” I heard this recently from someone describing shame emanating from unexpected health challenges. Things beyond our control can so quickly become a source of embarrassment. Pride, professional expectations, and pretention easily spiral to chagrin. When plans do not go, well, according to plan, it is common to press the “shame on you” default button. Discussing success is the academy is a no-brainer. Yet, what happens when the publishing path takes a wrong turn? What is our recourse when tenure denial attempts to catapult us off a cliff? There are times when the hallowed halls of academia do not accept us. We become the conditionally unaccepted.

Academia is a polemic. Much of it is public thought and research in the hands private people. Whereas our teaching, lectures, and publishing are on display for all to see, so many of us are introverts. We realize for the sake of survival and networking, we have to share ideas and garner feedback. Social media makes tooting our own horns just a click away…done. However, there is reticence and embarrassment when the things do not go so well. We quickly go further inward, almost regretting that we can out to play in the first place. I believe that instead of shaming ourselves or letting the difficulties of the academy force us inside, painful watershed moments are times to embrace the outside.

A few years ago, I was experiencing my own tenure drama. I knew as the first African American and third woman in this department’s history it was an uphill battle. The percentage of faculty of color at the university in general was dismal. Both an African American and a Latino professor had been denied tenure within four years.

This did not look good for me, and it did not go well. For five years at the end of every semester, I was summoned to the “principal’s office.” A parent’s phone call, a student’s email, an evaluation or comment, and there I was waiting to hear the charges and my subsequent “punishment.” It all culminated in the dean telling me six months before my tenure portfolio was due that I would not get the administration’s support. Forty classes, six hundred students, and numerous missed events in the lives of my children – for naught?!!

My immediate response, of course, was to run and hide. Well, actually, my immediate response was to leave the office, less I spoke or acted unprofessionally. So, I reached out to trusted colleagues and advisors. I told my story. I shared my experiences and sought wise counsel. These actions became life-saving and life-affirming for me.

I offer the following to persons for whom the academy has taken its toll:

  1. Process. Take the time to muddle through and accept your various emotions. Rejection is more than a notion. Anger, embarrassment, and sadness take turns as daily dance partners. Meditate on how you feel. Grab a journal. Write a letter to those who scorned you, but please don’t email it or post it to Facebook.
  2. Tell. Too often we are ashamed when the bad surfaces, especially in the polished, refined world of higher education. Sharing our experiences is cathartic. You must tell your own story. Academia is large and yet so small. Social media makes the private, public knowledge in just a few seconds. People know or will find out sooner or later. So, you tell it. Furthermore, you are not the first or only one to have such a harrowing experience, and you won’t be the last.
  3. Trust. I went to people who had been where I was trying to go. I needed to know what to do next. Surround yourself with people beyond your career grade. Their resources can prove invaluable. If I had not been forthcoming about my own career crossroads, I would not have known about my current opportunity.
  4. Do the do. Just because it did not work out at one institution does not mean you are a bad professor. It could have just a bad fit. For people of color in the academy, there are some colleges and universities that are hard on our spirits. I was able to teach adjunct a year after my tenure experience. My publishing schedule has been amazingly full. Sometimes it is a matter of finding a hospitable context. We must find the place that will nurture the work that our souls must have.
  5. Discern. Try to look for the magnificence in the madness. My interest in biblical studies and pop culture piqued because I was trying to find a way to connect to students at my former institution. That may not have come to fruition had I not wrestled with trying to be a better teacher, even in a hostile environment. To this day I am still intrigued at how the bible appears in peculiar places.
  6. Mentor. There are students and upcoming professionals who need to learn from us. Much instruction emanates from our challenges as well as our successes. The professor-university connection is a relationship. It looks one way during the dating game, but marriage is different phenomenon. Sometimes marriages end in divorce. Sharing this narrative with persons fresh out of grad school is just as important as sharing a syllabus or teaching tips.

The “shame” from not getting to next can leave us devastated. Rejections like gut-punches leave us breathless. Just know somewhere is a space that will indeed breathe new life into you. We must fight to do the work we were destined to do and in the end, accept ourselves.

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Biography

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. She is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary and serves on the ACTS DMin in Preaching Program Committee. She has written numerous scholarly articles and frequently blogs for ON Scripture and The Huffington Post. Her book on womanist maternal thought is due next spring.

10 thoughts on “To Be Conditionally Unaccepted: When You Are Denied Tenure

  1. as a member of academia- I completely understand your experience and agree with your statement. The process of tenure is quite arbitrary and subjective. Often it is not what you have achieved or accomplished but what your colleagues think of you..

    But speaking up and out is critical – especially for faculty of color. There is NO shame in not receiving tenure. The shame should rest on colleagues who deny tenure to their peers!!

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  2. Reblogged this on Super Hero in Training and commented:
    This is a very important article. I want to make sure to blog this. She offers a great way to process and deal with rejection in professional life. Very much appreciated.

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  3. Hi, thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts. It is really good to hear when someone has risen above these events. My experience is still quite devastating, and it has moved beyond the academy. In my case, non-renewal of contract wasn’t the only event, but also included excommunication and isolation. Former colleagues have actively shunned me at seminars and social events. Perhaps the worst is finding out that one of my referees (a senior academic and former doctoral supervisor) has actively prevented my appointment at other universities and in government positions. Another referee (also a senior academic at the same department) advised me indirectly that I should reconsider noting this person on my applications. What did I do? No idea. Really. Other than there was a factional split in the faculty and it got very political, with many academics leaving. My family have found this to be unbelievable, and it’s difficult to explain to non-academics how the system works, nor the impact it has across so many career facets. This is why I think it’s so important for grad students to maintain family relationships and friendships beyond the academy – these people will be there for you when (former) colleagues are not. For me, it has meant a reconnection with friends I haven’t seen in years and time to do other things than worry about publication/research/teaching track records.

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  4. this is great. i love the anti-shame focus…. thank you for sharing your experiences and reflections.

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  5. I am so impressed by your confidence, courage, and candor. I was denied tenure a few years ago in a divisive case but was able to find another position at a place that is a much better fit. But I was not exactly open about my status when applying; nor have I mentioned it to my present colleagues. (I told them that I didn’t have tenure at the time, so I didn’t lie either.) It’s now the case that I’ve witnessed administration who hired me in hiring situations discount candidates who may have been denied tenure because “we don’t want somebody else’s reject.” It’s troubling, but it’s out there. While I know I’ve already proved and established my own worth and abilities in my new position, I still worry about the likelihood that my tenure denial becomes more widely known. It sometimes seems a relatively minor blip in my own history, but it’s taken me so long to get to that point. I know it doesn’t define me, but I’m still so terrified it will for other people. I applaud what you’ve done, but I’m not sure I could have done the same.

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  7. Reblogged this on travelingeneticist and commented:
    This post by Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) echoes so many of the thoughts, feelings I had when I was denied tenure.

    Although I was upset, I was also relieved. LIving in a college town in the middle of a state that just passed some major discriminatory laws took its toll on me, and I chaffed frequently when I heard other faculty speak.

    I lied about who I was; I overlooked comments that were unacceptable and I lost some of myself during those years, all in the name of making tenure.

    Being denied tenure has taken me to the edges of one of the most remarkable cities in the world, opened doors I never expected to be open and given me a rare opportunity to switch careers in mid-track.

    Given the bleak funding levels, especially for those of us who are no longer ESIs, only reinforces my choice. I was tired, tired of banging my head against the wall every day to fit in, to secure funding, to be successful.

    Instead, I forged my own idea of success, and I haven’t looked back!

    Great post, Stephanie!

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  8. Great blog! I was denied tenure eight years ago at a small liberal arts college with a 97% tenure rate! What happened? To this day, I don’t know because they’d written the rules so that they didn’t have to tell me why! I got a post-doc (!!!!) and then another job at a place that is a better fit for me and is geographically closer to my family. I can actually say that I’m glad I did not get tenured and stuck at that other school! But, its taken me this long – eight years – to say that out loud!

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