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.

  • Jay

    The only thing I can decipher from this jumbled hodgepodge of disparate paragraphs is that when tenure denial happens, blame everyone but the person who got denied and expect your former colleagues to apologize when they see you at conferences. What should your former colleague have said? Are you not indeed better off having been denied by a department that you obviously thought was hopelessly politicized? And how do you know how your former colleagues voted? If these are confidential votes, as they are at most universities, that’s a pretty serious breach of process.

    • Brandon Valeriano

      In small department with fixed preferences, its not difficult to figure out how the vote played out.

    • Barry_D

      Perhaps you should actually read the article – or have a friend read it, and explain it to you.

  • Scott Walker

    It is indeed impersonal. I didn’t go through the tenure stuff because my first continuing job was outside the US. But as a visiting assistant professor at 3 different places, I can tell you that both non-tenured assistants and adjunct/VAPs are viewed instrumentally rather than as humans. I had only one person ever come up to me in four years as a VAP and ask me how I was doing. I was denied a key to the dept. office at one place, and the ability to check out videos from the library at another (“Too many adjuncts never return them”). No one seemed to care that I was teaching the courses no one else wanted to teach even though they were out of my area of expertise.

    It is also often the case for new TT faculty. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that many are plopped into their office on the first day and never given much mentorship. There are certainly many bright people who do not get tenure, and indeed many would have been extremely good colleagues. In my own university, I can see people who take several years to mature as scholars, and such people would not have had a chance in the American system.

  • Anonymous superannuated prof

    I’m not good as remembering this as I ought to be, but often what looks like flat out nastiness is nothing more than social awkwardness about a difficult situation. Salaita’s situation is not the same as yours! I read the tweets — lots of them. Some are vigorous political advocacy well within the bounds of democratic deliberation; but too many are attacks on people who hold opposing views (as opposed to attacks on the views). So in that case, Salaita is being called out for his own own incivility. The various threats and nastygrams he’s getting are certainly uncivil, but faculty members seem to be treating him with appropriate courtesy. Nobody is making gratuitous comments about being just as well off not to have the UIUC job.

    As for your former colleague, ignore him. If you can muster the compassion, feel sorry for how awkward he must have felt. Despite the disruption in your life, you ARE doing well in your career. (I’ve just assigned one of your articles, in fact.)

    • Brandon Valeriano

      Never implied Salainta was the same, only suggesting that we have activists all over academia but when the situation hits closer to home or involves their own personal behavior, they are often found lacking.

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  • justpassingby

    I take issue with your assertion that, “academics are the most selfish, tone deaf, and egotistical people around,
    even fighting years later to justify poor decisions made.” This is the equivalent of how people say that the worst drivers are in their town. Just because you know more academics, you know more selfish, tone deaf, and egotistical ones, but that doesn’t make them any worse than other professions.

    • johndoheny

      ” but that doesn’t make them any worse than other professions.”
      My admittedly subjective opinion (I only taught at one university) is, yes they are. Unlike most career academics I came late to the party, having spent twenty years as a professional musician, and I have to say I have never encountered a shadier, more self-centered bunch of bastards in all my days. Not everyone was a sociopathic bully, but those that weren’t had no problem standing by passively while my life and career got shredded by a small number of genuinely nasty people for no particular reason at all beyond their own zero sum version of the world. Next to these people, the greasiest hustlers I ever encountered in the music business look like towering beacons of integrity.

      Mentorship? It is to laugh. The only advise on how to write a thesis was “make an outline.” Drafts handed in would disappear without trace for months and even years. My advisor’s idea of “preparing” me for defense was to come to my office the day of and spend an hour telling me I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. The “defense” consisted of him hollering “wrong” everytime I said anything. Even the other guys on the committee seemed flabergasted by his behaviour, but not flabbergasted enough to actually do anything about it, beyond assuring me there would be no “official” record of my failure.

      After that it was a simple matter of advisor demanding endless rewrites until my contract ran out. In the interim there were lots of charming incidents like the day he started screaming obscenities at me and physically shoved me out of his office. To this day I can’t believe I didn’t deck the bastard.

      It took me almost two years after my “termination” (which the dean effected by e-mail. Classy) to get him to pass the thing, and only then by chicanery on my part. I’m confident I’d still be rewritting it 3 years later if I hadn’t tricked him into signing it.

      Since leaving academia I’ve collected numerous stories similar to mine. They are not unusual. I love teaching. I used to love scholarship too, until I realized most academics couldn’t care less about opinions expressed by actual musicians.

      Fortunately I ultimately realized I don’t need these people, because I can play the saxophone, not just write about people who play the saxophone. Academia can get stuffed. Color me unimpressed.