A Tenure Horror Story
by James A. Grigsby
I have two purposes in posting this note. First, I want to explain how
I was denied tenure at MLAC* University in Ohio. I think I've lived a tenure
horror story that is pretty bad; it has destroyed my academic career, perhaps
for good. I find that people are usually embarrassed to discuss their tenure
denials--I am not. If my story can help reveal the sorts of problems lurking
in academe, I will be well rewarded.
But I was also inspired to write by the fact that MLAC University is
currently advertising for a "tenure track" position in physics.
I am embarrassed to say that I spent seven years of my life as a member
of that institution and its physics department, and I simply want prospective
MLAC faculty members to know what I went through, so they might make a sensible
decision about whether they wish to devote their lives to that university.
The whole story is long and complicated, and I cannot hope to tell it all
in this post. If you are interested, I will send a more detailed description
of my experiences via email. No matter how bad this story sounds, it was
much worse than I can express--I lived my worst-case scenario.
I know someone will certainly accept the position at MLAC, and to that
person I can only express my hopes that things turn out better for you--my
heart goes out to you.
James A. Grigsby London, Ohio 15 February 1998
*Note: MLCA here denotes Midwestern Liberal Arts College. I've been persuaded
by my wife to remove reference to this institution from this posting. However,
I welcome email! Please write to me directly at HD149438@aol.com.
Permission to reproduce is hereby given.
The shortest possible version is this: after five years of acceptable
performance reviews, my department (there were three other members, rather
elderly, all tenured) surprised me during the final week of the spring term
(June, 1995) by informing me that they would not recommend me for tenure.
It appeared to me that they were attempting to circumvent the normal tenure
procedures and prevent me from receiving the review for tenure that usually
occurred in the fall of the sixth year; in retrospect, it seems even more
clear that that was what they were trying to accomplish. This surprise meeting
occurred roughly two months after I had reported to the provost the concerns
brought to me by a number of female students that the department (and especially
the department chairman) had discouraged them from studying physics (one
claimed she had been told "Women don't do well in physics.").
For those two months I had also been shunned by the department.
I spent the summer trying to determine whether I would get a tenure review,
and it was not until fall that the new president of the institution assured
me that I would. Since the department had already announced its intentions
concerning me, I requested that a neutral third party be permitted to oversee
the handling of my case, but the chair of the Faculty Personnel Board eventually
informed me that the department would be permitted to handle the entire
affair. I was denied any form of arbitration or third party participation.
In retrospect, what happened next was inevitable. The department carried
out what to me was a silly charade, in October even presiding over an open
meeting for students, in which the students were permitted to make comments--for
the record--about my qualifications for tenure. Had the department handled
that meeting in a different manner, probably the rest of my case would never
have become public. According to five faculty witnesses present at this
meeting, over fifty students attended, and their comments about me were
overwhelmingly supportive. Also according to those witnesses (and a tape
recording of the meeting made by a student), the department chairman became
increasingly abusive to students who simply wanted to praise me. At the
end of the meeting a student asked the chairman whether the department had
already made their decision about me, and he stated that they had, and implied
that student input would have little effect. This apparently caused quite
an uproar, and a student--who also happened to be a reporter for the campus
newspaper--reported the event in a front-page story a few days later. My
case was to remain in the public eye for the next 18 months.
Shortly thereafter, the department produced over thirty pages of attacks
against me. Only nineteen pages did I get to see at first; the really personal
stuff they attempted unsuccessfully to conceal. When I look back on it now,
the whole thing would seem almost comical if it weren't so terrible in its
consequences. They attacked my personality, and claimed that I was simply
too hard to get along with to be tenured. They admitted that, while they
had always been satisfied with my teaching, now they saw problems. They
assessed my research as trivial, but then admitted that they hadn't actually
read any of my publications. One of them even attacked my lunch habits (this
was part of the stuff they tried to keep me from seeing), claiming that
I didn't go to lunch with the department often enough, and that when I did
I didn't talk enough, didn't talk to the correct people, and usually left
too early. Unfortunately, what didn't make it into their documents were
some other things that they couldn't dispute: my student teaching evaluations
were extremely strong (the Faculty Personnel Board later stated that they
were in the "top tier" as compared to my colleagues who received
tenure that year), all peer reviews done of my teaching had been equally
strong (including those done by the department), I had outpublished (in
refereed journals) the rest of the department combined, and my research
students had given papers at scientific conferences all over the country.
Also missing was a discussion of the roughly 60 letters of support from
students, alumni, parents, and faculty that utterly contradicted the department's
claims against me. Most notably, the department failed to mention that,
of all the documents and comments received by the Faculty Personnel Board
concerning my case, the only negative comments came from the Physics Department
itself. The Board called this divergence of opinion "unprecedented."
The Faculty Personnel Board apparently reviewed my case, but in February
(1996) refused to recommend me for tenure, citing the need for a positive
recommendation from the department. When I announced the result to my students,
more publicity ensued. Thirty-five students took out a full-page ad in the
campus newspaper in protest, and several wrote letters to the editor. The
newspaper reported it in a front page story.
I responded by filing a grievance against the department, citing their
inappropriate handling of my case in general, and asserting that their documents
against me contained half- truths, gross misrepresentations, and outright
lies. In early May, a faculty grievance committee unanimously agreed with
me, and recommended that I should be given a second tenure review. In their
full report, they stated that I had been the victim of "arbitrary and
capricious actions." They concluded that "...the Physics Department
did an inadequate job of presenting the positive side of Dr. Grigsby's case.
We believe the department understated the strength of his professional qualifications
and presented a biased report to the Faculty Personnel Board." Four
days after the grievance board's announcement, I received notice from the
president and provost that I would be fired. No mention was made of the
grievance board's finding.
Nevertheless, I did get another tenure hearing--of sorts--the first time
in MLAC history (as far as I could determine) that someone had been given
a second chance. The provost agreed somewhat grudgingly to another review,
and did not respond to my satisfaction about the ground rules for such an
unprecedented process. In a qualified way I agreed to her terms: that the
process not be another full review in the sense that new documents would
not be submitted, but that the Faculty Personnel Board be permitted to examine
the findings of the grievance board. Later, the Personnel Board wrote their
belief that the provost had designed the process in such a way as to make
it difficult for the Board to do anything other than simply reaffirm its
Nevertheless, in November, 1996, the Faculty Personnel Board stated that
its previous decision had been incorrect, and in a 5-0 vote (with one abstention)
recommended me for tenure.
Shortly thereafter, though I didn't know about it at the time, the physics
department was permitted to meet with the president and provost (I was permitted
no similar meeting) and then to prepare a new statement about me, apparently
in direct violation of the provost's directive that no more documents be
admitted. According to what I learned later from a Faculty Personnel Board
document, the document was very different from the first documents they
had produced, in that it apparently attacked my qualifications as a physicist--an
assertion that the Faculty Personnel Board seems to have rejected (with
excellent reason!) out of hand. From what little I was able to learn, it
appears the Department claimed that, since my research specialty is Astrophysics,
I am not a physicist, though my degrees are all in Physics--this is an old
story that anyone with a background in astronomy/astrophysics knows well.
I was not permitted to see the document in question.
On January 6, 1997, I received my second notice of termination from the
president and provost, thus gaining the dubious distinction of being perhaps
the only person in MLAC history to have been denied tenure twice.
The consequence of this nightmare is that I have been effectively banished
from the academic world. No university would consider me once they got wind
of what had happened. My research program (which had increased in vigor
during my stay at MLAC) has been destroyed. After leaving MLAC I taught
for a short time at a community college, but was paid less than I received
as a graduate student for similar teaching duties. I was then hired by an
insurance company as a programmer, and stayed for two months, until I was
offered my present job (to say that a PhD physicist is out of place in an
insurance company is a gross understatement!). I now work for a dynamic
aerospace company where expertise and hard work are valued, not vilified,
and where people do real things rather than just talk about it.
Bottom line: I jumped through all the hoops. I got all the degrees, did
the postdoc, got the grants, published, became an excellent teacher, and
put up with harassment, and here I am, likely out of academe and my chosen
field for good. Could it happen to you? Absolutely. I would never advise
anyone to swerve from his chosen path, but you should remember that after
all those years of sweat and deprivation, you could end up like I did, as
a programmer for an insurance company--or worse. And you could get that
way by simply having the bad luck to end up in a corrupt department or institution,
or by having a particularly stupid department chair who cannot tolerate
having a junior faculty member be better than he at anything.
This page was last updated on March 17, 1998.
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