Day 19: Tenure for Life
I was recently tenured.
A friend of mine told me a story about when he was interviewing and one of the people who interviewed him asked him what he would do differently when he got tenure. He couldn’t think of an answer. She said, that’s the right answer. You shouldn’t do anything differently.
I tried to be a pre-tenure faculty member for whom that could be true not because I was living out of fear of who I was upsetting, but because I was doing what I thought was right in teaching, research and service situations regardless of what people thought. I think my friend’s interviewer’s comment can sometimes imply that faculty are so beaten down, well-disciplined in the Foucaultian sense, that they will continue to feel sheepish as they did before they were tenured.
Soon after I learned of my tenure decision, I was back home in Philadelphia visiting my family, and it struck me how freeing it would be if you could address your personal life as if you had tenure–tenure for life, I like to call it. With tenure for life, you would feel freer to be honest with people, to support others in weak positions without fear of reprisals, to show you were hurt and angry when you were. Like tenure in higher education, it wouldn’t mean being reckless; it would still involve good judgment.
I find myself torn between a ‘tenure for life’ mentality and a just going along to get along one. I think institutions of higher ed would be stronger if more people took their tenure as a freedom that empowered them to change and strengthen the institution. So why do I think going along to get along is better in my personal life?
I might have something of a reputation for speaking my mind. And that makes me reticent at times because I don’t want to be dismissed for speaking my mind. But that dismissal would seem to be less likely in personal and political moments where speaking one’s mind is less of a reason to write someone off.
One thing seems clear about tenure-for-life: unlike tenure, it isn’t granted to you by someone else; you give it to yourself. For now, I’m going to think about it as something to aim for. Maybe one day I’ll give it to myself.