global politics, relationally

Tone Deaf Academics: Post-Tenure Denial Interactions


Many people love APSA (at least until they are sleeping on the lawn because someone decides to find their inner fire bug), but IR folks have a less than cozy relationship with the conference.  Often, our attendance depends on the location.  Many people just don’t like how big the event is, how difficult it is to find colleagues among the masses, how few panels are allocated to IR thus making it tough to get on the program.  For me, the danger with APSA comes from running into people from the past.  Since everyone enjoys a tenure denial train wreck, I will describe an interaction I had that symbolizes the greater field’s inability to be civil, decent, and take responsibility extreme actions like tenure denial votes.  I have always been told don’t burn your bridges, but this advice goes both ways.  Nothing is likely more awkward than asking someone you tried to vote down if they had any positions for you are their new school, a situation I was confronted with and just walked away from – like I did that past job.

The event that irked me so much was running into a past colleague who opposed my tenure case.  I am not going into the details of that whole issue; it is not even really worth dissecting the event given my record overall.  Suffice to say I have done well since denial, but I was already doing well when the event transpired.  One of my former colleagues who was on the wrong side of the “debate” (masked as a quantitative versus qualitative dispute that really was more about the nature of productivity and the fear this induces) remarked that getting denied was a good thing for me.

I was bit a shocked to hear that.  It was strange having something so outwardly nice used to cover making a choice that could ostensibly ruin someone’s life, and to be so causal and assured about it.  While this might be true in the overall sense, the remarkable tone deafness of the remark and overall situation punctuates much of academia.  We hide behind others or the administration, failing to accept our own responsibility in these sorts of situations.  No one person can deny someone tenure, but as a group, the silence and conformity when these sorts of train wrecks happen typifies academia.

We have many activists in our field.  The Salaita case has been illustrative of this, but it is often too common to see people fight and advocate social justice, diversity, and progressive acceptance in their own work or others, but fail to take these values to heart in their personal interactions.  That someone who fights for process and acceptance can so blandly sit there and be satisfied at my outcome because I had survived and was better off for it is disgusting.

I am not the sort that thinks that all tenure denials are wrong, in fact I support quite a few them that become public.  But when these sorts of cases go wrong, often those that make the poor choices hide and cover their own responsibility for the situation.  Their failure to mentor, to engage in active scholarship, or condescension becomes the norm, rather than fostering true academic spirit.

The person who remarked that I was better off was suggesting that since things had worked out for me since then, that I was qualitatively and quantitatively better off, thus their burden in the series of events is lessened.  Because something does work out in the end does not absolve you of responsibility.  We have a tendency to self rationalization in this field; we become a cog in the machine making decisions that might not have a strong basis in reality.  Watching Cary Nelson, the former AAUP President, self combust to defend the UIUC administration over the Salaita unhiring is just very public example of towing the company line after fighting for academic freedom for years.

The key issue in the process of a tenure denial is the failure to properly mentor young scholars, not just academically, but personally.  The new groups needs to be integrated with the prior group, they should not be shunned because of who hired them or their methodological perspectives.  When I was denied I thought about the past and realized that I had only been invited out for lunch or dinner once over a period of seven years.  We were nonentities from the start.  Basic civil courtesies offered to most were not afforded to us.  This made it easy for some to push for a tenure denial.  We were not really people, just objects.  They had made no effort to mentor, instead letting jealousy or paranoia take hold.

Tenure denials are horrible things.  No matter what the outward experience might be, behind that facade is someone going through the complete and utter total destruction of their personal and professional lives.  Finding that all they sought to work for and establish was effectively destroyed by a few who never really saw value.  Academics convince themselves they are good people, smarter, better, and more considered than the rest of the population.  The fact is academics are the most selfish, tone deaf, and egotistical people around, even fighting years later to justify poor decisions made.  That someone could sit there and smugly assert they were right for the wrong reasons just typifies the collective failure of our institution.

If you have a case in your department that looks to be going south, don’t just seek fault in the person but look inside and see what you have done to let the situation get out of hand.  What can you do to help?  Everyone needs help and reasserting the civil bounds that tie academics together is an important step in the process of fostering a decent environment for work and life, something most of us just don’t have.

Author: Brandon Valeriano

Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren Chair of Armed Politics at the Marine Corps University.