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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.

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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 previous decision.

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.

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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.

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