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Vincent M. Lechuga

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The Politics of Tenure

Like a majority of Americans, I have grown tired of the political maneuvering and self-righteous “chest thumping” of which all political parties engage—Democrats, Republicans, tea partiers, and the like. Washington, DC is dysfunctional and has been for many years. One can say the same thing about the tenure process. As a newly-minted associate professor, I have reflected on my precarious road to tenure and have learned many things that you don’t hear about in graduate school. For me, I learned that the road to tenure is about more than your academic record. Half of the process involves the forging of relationships with the various faculty factions. There are the teaching-centered faculty who see you as a threat because you have been hired for your research skills. Most of them have been teaching in the department for decades and feel less valued as the department focuses on research over teaching. There are other camps that develop around particular chest-thumping senior faculty. In some cases the senior faculty members around whom these camps develop do not like one another. Then there are those who view their own agenda as “right” for the entire department, deriding those who oppose their thoughts and ideas. There are so many reasons that the faculty camps develop—too many to list hear. But my point is to say that I learned a lot about the tenure process during my six-year probationary period and the one thing I can say with confidence is that the road to tenure is equally about one’s people (i.e., political) skills as it is about one’s academic record.

Since the list of what I learned is so long, I will only mention a few of the more important lessons specifically aimed at junior faculty members and graduate students. To begin, keep your head down low and resist, for as long as you can, getting drawn into a political camp within your department. If you get into a position where you have to choose a side, choose wisely (i.e., who will you piss off the least). For junior faculty colleagues, this sometimes means being a closeted liberal in a conservative camp. As well, it’s important to ascertain the culture of your department so that you don’t anger the wrong people. After a few years you’ll know who are the “difficult” faculty. If you do anger someone, then go into damage control mode ASAP with the help of your camp. Additionally, don’t “speak out” too much. Whether it involves making statements during a faculty meeting, hanging a portrait of someone who is considered controversial (e.g., Malcolm X), or making uninvited comments to a dissertation chair regarding their student’s not-so-great dissertation. Lastly, academic freedom is tangential to junior faculty. This is to say that untenured faculty members have academic freedom only when tenured faculty are willing to be your advocates. Otherwise, you’re on your own. As I said before, I learned a lot about the tenure process during my six years, and the list of what you need to know as you move through tenure is immense, with much of it based on an individual’s departmental, college, and university culture. My hope is that this post will help those who are experiencing the tenure process or will experience it in the near future.

About the author

Vicente M. Lechuga is Associate Professor of Higher Education Administration in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University

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