After hearing about an incredibly contentious tenure case at my alma mater and several other contentious ones, I'm curious to hear how such issues come to be. Some issues that seem to be at play: personal animosity between faculty, dispute about the merits of the candidate's research, scarcity of resources and discrimination based on gender, sexuality, religion and other aspects of identity. Some of these are legitimate, while others are clearly not. For those curious as to how nasty things can get, I recommend reading here. The account is both appalling and fascinating.

Do faculty see these issues coming? Are there tell-tale signs they might miss? One person I talked to was quite surprised both by the animosity one fellow faculty member had towards him and by the degree of influence this brought to bare on his tenure case.

Once such issues have been identified, how can the candidate defend against them? At what point should he/she be prepared to defend against them? From the other side, what processes exist to prevent such biases from influencing the process? Are they functional, and to what degree? Are there better practices that could be implemented to avoid such discontent?

  • 1
    Note that the case you cite (of Caltech professor Jenijoy La Belle) is nearly forty years old. – Nate Eldredge Jan 27 '14 at 5:02
  • 4
    While this is an excellent question overall, it's so broad that it encompasses many subquestions that themselves could have multiple answers. I wonder if maybe this needs to be broken up into separate questions. At the very least, it might be useful to separate questions about issues and questions about processes ? – Suresh Jan 27 '14 at 6:43
  • Oops, I was going to read through your link, but it's 165 pages ): – gerrit Jan 27 '14 at 9:46
  • 2
    Could you define what do you mean by "contentious tenure" in this case? (Is it about giving tenure, or about a tenure going bad or something else?) Being explicit, rather than implicit, may help this question. – Piotr Migdal Jan 27 '14 at 15:42
  • Piotr -- my focus is on the process of awarding or denying tenure, not what happens after. – Zach H Jan 29 '14 at 22:25

One source of problems is a lack of communication over what are the expectations for the tenure candidate to meet before becoming "eligible" to receive tenure. But a substantial amount of the issues can lie with either someone in the decision-making chain, or the candidate himself or herself. In the latter case, this makes a tendentious situation inevitable.

For instance, there is the rather notorious case of James Sherley at MIT, who alleged multiple issues, including racism, and claimed that he believed his papers from his previous institution would "count" toward his tenure case. (Meanwhile, at MIT, his publication list in five years amounted to a total of six publications, three of which I believe were editorials.) He went on to hold a hunger strike to protest.

So I think that there really isn't a way to prevent things from becoming contentious unless everything is made "open": criteria are specified in advance, and everybody participating can follow along the entire process. (That is, the candidate can attend the meetings where the tenure case is being discussed.) However, I suspect this is unlikely to occur.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.