Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tenure denial, from the spouse's point of view

I've been a longtime reader of Daniel Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University. He was rejected for tenure at the University of Chicago; he and his wife write an essay 5 years after his denial. It's naturally fairly bittersweet, but I am a bit surprised at the somewhat vehement comment about Chicago his wife makes:
Things turned out well for us. We were lucky—my husband found a job, with tenure, and we moved to Boston, which just happens to be my favorite city. Our kids were young enough to move without much difficulty. I know that other people have had it a lot harder. They've struggled to find work, relocated to less desirable places, and have painfully disrupted family life. This is particularly difficult for couples in which both are academics. Those of us in more "portable" careers should be grateful to have avoided the two-body problem. 
By the time we left Chicago, almost nine months after my husband's tenure decision, I was ready to leave Hyde Park behind and never look back. Whatever love I had for the place and for the university was gone. I have no nostalgia for the time we lived there. I am glad I no longer live in Chicago. I am happier here in Boston. And because of that, I look at the tenure episode as a hard time we had to endure to get to a better place. And it may be the same for any spouse or partner. Once you have unpacked, settled in, found yourself a good book group, a gym, a place to get coffee, once the kids are back in school and have made friends, once the new place feels like home, you may think, "This is better." A lot of the hurt will have subsided.
Denial of tenure in the chemistry world seems to be relatively rare -- that being said, it certainly hurts just as much (I would assume, since I've never attempted to be a professor.) I assume that it hurts the spouse as well, but for different reasons.

I imagine that spouses of laid-off pharma workers may feel the same way about Groton or Rahway or Pearl River, although I assume that the hurt of a tenure denial and the hurt of a layoff are a little bit different (in that tenure denial is typically made by people who you actually know, as is mentioned in the article.)

Best wishes to all of us.


  1. "Denial of tenure in the chemistry world seems to be relatively rare"

    What do you mean, all assistant professors (or the vast majority) get tenure at their initial university? Not sure I would agree with that, but I could be wrong.

  2. You know, I don't really know. I can only think of a few tenure denials offhand. My guess is that >80% of assistant professors are granted tenure, but I could be wrong. What do you think?

  3. The comments attached to that article are really interesting.

  4. Indeed. The academy encompasses all kinds.

  5. You know, I forgot about that one.

  6. Only leaves one to think what would have happened if she actually got tenure....yikes.

  7. It would be my hope that a murder conviction would be a good reason to revoke tenure. This must have been tested somewhere.

  8. Of course, there are cases of assistant chemistry professors, like me, where my department didn't recommend me for tenure and promotion even though I met all the stated requirements for tenure and I am a better teacher and have provided more service (comparable research profile) than another assistant professor who was recommended for tenure. I was completely blindsided by my department. I had no idea a denial was coming. All prior review letters were positive and didn't raise most of the concerns mentioned by the department in their denial. My spouse feels the same bitter betrayal and utter shock that I do. Now we're reeling from what seemed like a certain future to "where will I work next year?" Tenure hasn't yet been denied by the university, and I feel I'll ultimately be given a fair shot. Although my dossier is still moving up through the full evaluation process, I had absolutely no idea I'd be going through this after five years of success. So, even after one meets or exceeds all the stated requirements for tenure, tenure is never certain. This rejection impacts our spouses and our support system (family, friends, colleagues) as much as it hurts us. Wait for that final letter before exhaling.

    1. Hello, anon658:

      Chris Cramer (professor of theoretical chemistry at University of Minnesota) writes in to say:

      Anon, if your case really rolled out as capriciously as you make it sound (and I've no reason to doubt you), then you should immediately (before waiting to the end of the process) review your school's tenure policy carefully to see what recourse you may have to appeal to a Judicial Committee, for example, and seek qualified advice from experts associated with that body (and possibly even hire a lawyer to represent you before it). If you've got years of "everything looks good" and then a final decision of "didn't cut it", then you have the perfect case at the uppermost levels and your department is very likely to be overturned.

      Of course, you'll be in a department afterwards where you will feel unwelcomed by many of your colleagues, and that won't be pleasant, but you'll also have a secure base from which to explore other opportunities in a more thoughtful fashion than is true with a terminal year.

      Condolences on what I am certain is a terribly taxing time.



      Anon, if you'd like to talk to Professor Cramer, I can link the two of you. Confidentiality guaranteed.

    2. I would add to Prof. Cramer's offer. Having gone through a similar situation myself, I know how it feels. If sharing my experience/advice would help, I would be glad to share (scburdet(at)

    3. Hi Shawn & Anonymous,

      A colleague of mine has been denied tenure and he knew it was coming as he was not successful in getting funding.
      He is his job through the end of the next semester and has been applying for industry positions but no luck so far as the first question he is asked is the number of years of industry experience, which obviously is Zero.
      He is just burnt out and doesn't want to be in academia anymore after 6 years of Ph.D., 4 years of post-doc and 6 years in the tenure process. Any suggestions on how to re-invent himself?


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20