Fighting for tenure brings realization


I am not a “joiner,” I dislike conflict, and I harbor deep suspicions about organizations. So, how did a pedestrian History professor who preferred a low profile become more active? My career at NMU was threatened, and that threat motivated me to try to prevent it for others.

When I came to NMU, I was told time and again that this was a teaching institution. It was a good fit for me, since that is what I love to do. Over the next five years, I threw myself into teaching, with little time left for activities that were not class or student centered. However, I did the work necessary to fulfill the standards of the History Department for professional development (in my case, research and writing) and service (for me, committee work).

I applied for tenure and for promotion to associate professor in 2007-2008. My tenure and promotion processes were regulated by department bylaws, which list standards, and by procedures contained in the contract between the university administration and faculty. My lengthy applications were reviewed by a faculty committee and an administrator at the department, college, and university levels; six review steps in all.

My department’s committee and administrator (head) judged that I had met or exceeded the appropriate standards as contained in our bylaws. The college faculty committee agreed with the History department.

However, the college-level administrator (dean) judged that I had not met the professional development standards and rejected my applications. I appealed the dean’s decision, as allowed in the contract, and was strongly supported by the university-level faculty committee. The university-level administrator (provost) finally, on the last day, approved my applications.

Three groups helped to turn the tide away from my termination at NMU, which probably would have been the result of rejection. A large group of students advocated for my applications by writing letters on my behalf and creating a Facebook page.
My faculty colleagues strongly supported my applications. Finally, one of the officers of the faculty union continuously fought for my appeal, right up until the last day.

Yet, troubling questions arose for me during this painful process. Why did the rules seem to change without prior notice, from an emphasis on effective teaching (which I had, without question from anyone, done) to an increasing emphasis on research and publication?

That felt like bait and switch to me. How can professors at a teaching institution, who spend over 40 hours per week on teaching and service, also accomplish the amount and quality of research and publication that seemed suddenly to be expected?

These frustrations, and the threat that caused them, have motivated me to become more active in university governance. I now serve in several faculty groups that help protect vulnerable faculty from unilateral, arbitrary management decisions.

Had my applications sailed through without trouble, I probably would have remained simply a minimally-active associate professor trying to keep a low profile. That complaisance, in the long run, might have been more troubling.

Editors note : Keith Kendall is an associate professor of history at NMU. Professors interested in appearing in The North Wind Professor’s Corner should contact the Opinion Editor at [email protected]