Universities most often respond to junior faculty members’ concerns about tenure and the tenure process with workshops offering tips and strategies for how to conduct their work lives optimally pre-tenure and how to prepare the best case for winning tenure. While these workshops are helpful, they assume a basic meritocratic structure, uniformity of objectivity, and fairness across departments, an assumption that is more myth than reality.

Universities most often respond to junior faculty members’ concerns about tenure and the tenure process with workshops offering tips and strategies for how to conduct their work lives optimally pre-tenure and how to prepare the best case for winning tenure. While these workshops are helpful, they assume a basic meritocratic structure, uniformity of objectivity, and fairness across departments, an assumption that is more myth than reality.

The idea that pre-tenure life for junior faculty must be fraught is another myth that has taken on ritualistic proportions. Yet we can see how the journey to tenure could also be an exciting time, in which new scholars are learning how to obtain grants and manage research labs, mentor and integrate their teaching and research, publish with colleagues and graduate students, or publish alone for the first time. New scholars experiment with trying to publish in a host of different journals or are engaged in writing their first book manuscript. These are deeply enjoyable aspects of academic work that need not be experienced as stressful. Often, it is divisive departmental cultures, rather than the tasks of the job, that spoil this meaningful launch into becoming a professor and reverberate beyond the pre-tenure period.

Rather than encourage young scholars to see the problem of tenure as a sojourn they alone are responsible for successfully or unsuccessfully traveling, it might also be useful to train them to conduct institutional analyses of their departments in ways that might help them prepare better for the journey. In other words, if one plans to bicycle some great distance, it would be sound to investigate the road quality and weather before embarking, regardless of the quality of your bicycle.

Rather than think of their departments in institutional terms, young scholars locate problems either in themselves or other individuals in their departments. This, too, is a mistake. Often in toxic departments, many partake in destructive behavior without being wholly villainous. For example, they yell at one junior faculty member while drunk at a department function but include another in a significant research grant. Toxicity in departments is marked by a dominant culture, ethos, or mode of operation in which power is abused by many people who sometimes help and sometimes torment the junior scholars in their midst.

What follows are some useful questions junior scholars may want to ask about their departments so that they can think about and better understand the concept of institutional culture. If the answers to several questions are worrisome, it might be wise to meet with their dean to discuss the best way to work effectively in and with their departments, and to ask for some degree of intervention. These questions might also be useful for tenured faculty who are feeling as though their department is depleting them but who can’t exactly pinpoint how and why.

  1. Does the department have a cosmopolitan approach to research? Are numerous methodologies and foci encouraged and rewarded? Or are hierarchies explicitly and implicitly advocated? For example, when a senior member of the department states that everyone should be publishing in X journal or disparages emergent fields in the discipline, this creates a stressful work environment and encourages a narrow conception of the field.
  2. Are associate and senior faculty generally happy and secure? Do they generally feel appreciated and respected? If senior scholars in the department invite new hires to lunch or coffee only to disparage colleagues and express frustration at their perceived marginal status in the department, this should set off alarm bells. In these cases, tenure and Progress Through the Ranks (PTR) can become opportunities for “enacting justice,” making others feel as miserable as they do, or hazing junior faculty in ways remarkably similar to the treatment they received at a comparable stage. Departments in which everyone feels underappreciated tend to be the places in which the practice of “eating their young” rather than fostering their survival and growth becomes common.
  3. How does the broader institution and discipline view the department? Reading the last external departmental review report, and asking the dean to discuss the department’s strengths and weaknesses frankly, often empowers new faculty members, especially if they don’t trust their initial observations.
  4. How consistent and substantive is mentoring in the department? Many senior scholars understand mentoring to be a form of gossip – filling in junior colleagues about the scandals and dramas of years past or telling them whom to mistrust and with whom to ally. Similarly, invitations to coffee in which senior scholars disparage junior colleagues, discuss the details of past tenure cases, argue those who received tenure didn’t deserve it, and offer shepherding through the process should not be understood as mentoring but, rather, as signaling the production of a culture of fear and manipulation. In some cases, junior faculty can observe demonstrable differences in mentoring. While some mentors simply gossip, attempt to clone themselves, or are largely absent, others read the work of those they are mentoring, make suggestions about how to manage research assistants, or provide opportunities for them to present their work, to name some more productive examples. Wildly inconsistent mentoring can produce serious inequalities of opportunity among junior scholars.
  5. What is the department’s tenuring history? How many negative and positive cases exist in the last five years? How does your department’s tenuring statistics compare with the university average or the average in comparable departments in other universities?
  6. What is the sexual climate in the department? Are there a comparatively high number of senior men on the faculty coupled with former or current graduate students? Do graduate students complain of sexual harassment but stop short of reporting incidents out of fear? Do senior men ask junior women faculty out on dates with some frequency? These patterns signal that young women are not seen centrally as scholars in the department but as potential sexual partners, which can create serious climate problems and retribution if advances are met with rejection. While one needs to note the way in which this behaviour is patterned by gender and generation, it is also important to note instances of controlling, sexualized behavior among men, such as back slaps, shoulder massages, arm punches, emailed sexual jokes, comments about a spouse or partner’s attractiveness, or competitive jibes focused on sexual prowess.
  7. Is the department split generationally? If a significant period of time has passed since your department has hired new faculty, or two distinct cohorts exist, say, one hired in the 1970s, one in the 2000s, senior colleagues will be out of touch with university practices such as participating in the tenure review process and third-year review committees. And senior scholars may not like the iteration of the discipline their junior colleagues represent and, therefore, will not fairly evaluate their research and teaching. In such instances, the chair and dean should be encouraged to hold training sessions for senior colleagues to better prepare them to undertake this work responsibly.
  8. How are identity differences contended with in the department? How are race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender discussed? Is diversity valued? How, how not? For example, does a white colleague say, “I’m all for diversity, but minority applicants just aren’t strong.” Or, does a straight faculty member announce the sexual orientation of other colleagues at department functions as though it is great currency for gossip?
  9. Do senior scholars discourage graduate students from working with junior colleagues? They can do this by disparaging them directly, devaluing their areas of research, or raising questions about their mentoring capacity.

Departments which have four or more of these problems should be seen as having institutional climates that are equity, diversity, and generationally hostile, requiring a somewhat different set of pre-tenure strategies, enumerated below.

  1. Avoid committee work. While junior faculty should always be wary of committee work, they should particularly avoid it in departments with hostile institutional cultures. Committee work will put junior scholars in needlessly stressful and vulnerable positions, and committee work is never considered in tenure decisions. Agree to do committee work that is personally beneficial: for example, junior faculty members can serve on colloquium committees in which they invite and host outside scholars, improving their networks. Additionally, they can serve on graduate admissions if such service is the only way to ensure students will be admitted with whom they can work.
  2. Save emails. Any email or written communications from colleagues experienced as intimidating, disparaging, hostile, or lecherous, for example, should be printed and saved in a file. These emails should be sent to supportive chairs, mentors, or deans. Often abusive behavior occurs in public. If a senior faculty member disparages, yells at, threatens, or touches a junior colleague in front of other people, the junior colleague should ask those witnesses to write an account of the experience for their records. Should junior scholars wish to disqualify hostile colleagues from serving on their tenure committees, they will need evidence of lack of suitability. Also, this kind of evidence can be used by chairs and deans to manage abusive behavior in the department.
  3. Seek affiliations, colleagues, mentors outside your department. Research centres are good places to affiliate. They often host conferences in which to meet scholars from other universities, get involved in inter-campus or community based research projects or initiatives, and present emerging scholarship. Finding colleagues outside the department can also give junior faculty access to best, or better practices, which they can then introduce to their home departments. Mentors from other departments can offer valuable perspectives, advice, and validation.
  4. Meet with the chair once a year. Update him or her on work progress and interests in a way that provides a much clearer picture than annual activity reports do. This is a forum for expressing enthusiasm for existing projects and initiatives, as well as voicing pointed concerns. If the chair is hostile, make these appointments with the dean.
  5. Speak up. Caving in to a culture of fear pre-tenure leads to a career marked by anxiety and depression. Very few people can create organizational change once they achieve a modicum of institutional security if they have no prior experience speaking up. There is no correlation between bucking the status quo and being denied tenure, despite popular advice to the contrary. Optimally, junior scholars should work together to name divisive and unproductive aspects of the institutional culture within which they all work, and develop mechanisms to support one another in the short term and change unhealthy practices for the long haul.
  6. Junior scholars should invest the bulk of their work lives in building their profiles internationally through conferences, papers, publications, and associations. They should view themselves as independent scholars with current university affiliations. The external evaluation of their scholarship is the single most important factor in tenure decisions. And the more junior scholars are known in their fields, the more they benefit both themselves and their department’s standing at the same time.

The practices and strategies lists here for junior scholars to evaluate their department’s culture and achieve tenure in the absence of a healthy one are not exhaustive. However, they do build muscles in institutional analysis, making it more possible for junior scholars to identify other kinds of problems and attendant solutions. In addition, these lists may help scholars identify positive and ideal department practices they may take for granted. These should also be shared with deans and senior level administrators, who can help disseminate them. Thinking through institutional culture can be an important corrective to the dominant modes of thinking about tenure – either as a purely uniform and meritocratic process or as something that can be secured by avoiding a few choice “villains.” Abusive and supportive practices alike reflect larger institutional cultures in departments and say very little about the junior scholars hired in to them. Understanding this dynamic and strategizing within it is crucial for both achieving tenure in the short term and creating a healthy department in which one would actually like to work for successive decades.

Judith Taylor teaches in the Department of Sociology, Women and Gender Studies Institute, at the University of Toronto.