Just a few years ago, one of my female friends, Magda, called me at my office to share the news that she had been anxiously waiting for in the last few months. “I got tenure!” she shouted. “We knew you would!” I hollered back over the speakerphone just before we began franticly chatting, and interrupting each other, while setting a plan for an upcoming celebration on her behalf. As the daughter of a farm worker from Central America, Magda embodied the epitome of the American Dream by becoming the first in her family to obtain a college degree, with honors, followed by a PhD with distinction from an Ivy League University. By the time she defended her dissertation, Magda had acquitted a remarkable curriculum vitae that included a couple of peer-reviewed papers published in high-ranked journals in her discipline. Soon after her graduation, I was not surprised to learn that she had landed a tenure-track job at a well-reputed urban university.
Magda’s early achievements are even more remarkable given the fact that her field, the humanities, has become one of the most precarious in the academic world—among the ones with the lowest rates of tenure track job opportunities in the United States (U.S.) As the only Latina scholar in her department, Magda soon became the sought-after instructor by a seemingly endless supply of students from under-represented groups, mostly first and second-generation Latinos. Still, she managed to skillfully balance her teaching and service obligations, keeping research and writing as her top priorities. This was also possible due to a generous start-up package that included teaching releases and a paid research assistant. By the end of her six year on the tenure clock, Magda had amassed an impressive record of publications, had secured a few impressive grants, and counted on very good student evaluations.
A few months after the phone conversation recounted above, I bumped into Magda at an academic meeting and asked her the seemingly rhetorical question of how life was “after tenure.” To my dismay, her face turned grim. “What happened? “ I asked. She replied by mimicking her Chair’s verbatim remarks: “Well, now you can start rolling your sleeves up and begin working for us.” In plain English, it was time for Magda to become in charge of key administrative tasks and a higher teaching load. So did she. In the years following her tenure, Magda took under her wing dozens of undergraduate students and sat on several cross-department committees that demanded countless hours of invisible work—including chairing the division’s curriculum committee. She even became a senate delegate and spent much of her summers, for little extra pay, taking care of other administrative tasks including supervising adjuncts’ work.
As per department’s request, Magda did not to take a sabbatical leave which, added to her already busy schedule, ended up hurting her scholarly productivity. By the end of Magda’s decade-long professoriate career, her once promising book on nineteen-century women writers in South America, a sinequanon requirement for her being promoted to full professor, was still in the trenches. Magda needed to be promoted not just for the sake of academic recognition but for a much more pedestrian reason: money! Being her household’s breadwinner, a promotion to full professor would give a much needed salary raise as she had been lately struggling to keep up with her family’s increasing financial woes that included supporting, by now, her two pre-teen children.
Magda (a pseudonym in this article) does not represent just a woman but many. Her trajectory epitomizes hundreds of similar ones we all have heard about and read about—as the ones reported by the Chronicle—and that reflect a phenomenon that has become quite pervasive in academia: once you are tenured your “protective” status is over. This is even more the case among women of color, as Magda, who for obvious and subtle reasons face numerous barriers for career advancement, including the fact that are often expected to do more (and better) than their white peers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Hispanic females represent about 1% of the total number of full professors in the U.S., with nearly to 90% of full-time professors being white. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61
Although the life of assistant professors is paved by anxiety and uncertainties, there are certain privileges set in motion that guard their research and writing time. Assuming that they are seen as collegial (AKA: liked by the chair and key department members) during their pre-tenured years, most untenured scholars will be—one way or another—shielded from onerous service obligations and extra-curricular activities. In several public universities, such as the City University of New York, where I teach, my untenured colleagues received, during their first years on the job, a generous a union-based package of teaching release credits, and have access to mentoring programs such as the Faculty Fellowship Publication Program and the Mellon foundation-based faculty development grants.
Nevertheless, the goodies that come with an untenured status tend to disappear as soon as the “permanent position” letter gets into the lucky faculty member’s mailbox. The institutional fence that may keep junior faculty away from engaging with heavy teaching and service obligations may come back with a revenge once they become permanent stuff members – meaning tenured. Following the fate of the “terminal associate” as reported in the Chronicle https://www.chronicle.com/article/Terminal-Associate-Professors/145537, the hurdles associate scholars face to joining the full professorship rank have become even more pervasive in institutional scenarios plagued by under-stuffed departments, dwindling resources and the seemingly hemorrhagic reduction of tenure track lines. All these factors have resulted into growing administrative responsibilities that keep falling on tenured professors’ laps. Shrinking budgets had made associate professors multi-taskers whose abilities to juggle among endless chores parallels the mounting footraces they encounter to build their publication and research portfolios.
Fortunately, some institutions, including CUNY, are taking the lead in helping their associate professors claim the promotion ladder. These include mentorship programs, career workshops and fellowship leaves (including sabbatical at lower salary reductions than before) aimed at “promoting to promote” a seemingly stuck army of associated professors. The fact is that having an army of “associate” professors not only may represent a financial hurdle for faculty members but a red flag for an institution. Universities need a certain number of full professors able to run departments, serve in high-level committees, keep their reputations afloat and mentor the younger.
As per Magda’s current prospectus, she has lately been seriously considering applying for one of her University’ incentives for promotion and is planning to request a semester leave to get back to, by now, her promising, albeit dusty, book prospectus. Reflecting on her trajectory, she recently told me: “Being untenured was not a bad thing after all!”