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The long, complicated process to achieve tenure at UW-Madison

Finding balance between research, teaching and service and managing a life outside work pose significant challenges for professors.

To tenured University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Matthew H. Brown, academic tenure can be “worrisome.” 

The six year long undertaking achieves a new prestige in higher education, which professors can acquire through an approval process. Tenure ensures job security for an indefinite period of time and allows for professors to take greater educational risks with research projects and their courses. 

A UW-Madison administrator explained that reaching the “tenured” status requires compiling a tenure record. The record must show strong work in three key areas: research, teaching and service. 

Brown explained that as a professor, not being on the tenure track or reaching the end without approval often leads to unemployment. 

“To not get tenure means to lose your job,” Brown said. “And to not get tenure means to walk away from your chance at being a major voice in a particular field of research.” 

UW-Madison Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies Kelly Marie Ward began the tenure process in 2021 and explained how there is more to approval than merely following the listed steps. 

“Departmental politics also play a role. There could be a situation where somebody in a position of power in the department just doesn't like you,” Ward said. “So, while you have worked for years to check off all the boxes, when it comes down to it, there could be politics at play that prevents you from getting tenure.”

Brown explained that receiving tenure at a university with the highest level of research activity, an R1 university, such as UW-Madison, is only achievable by proving you’re a productive researcher. In Brown’s field of humanities, this is done by publishing at least one book through a major university press and showing expertise in multiple articles for scholarly journals, he said. 

Brown explained that the anxiety of tenure often stems from the fear of not finding publishers for writing. Taking specific research and writing from a Ph.D. dissertation, and turning it into a book that appeals to and excites publishers and individuals of a wider field is nerve wracking, Brown explained.

“In the humanities, that book just looms over your head, and until you feel like you have the book under control, you're just constantly worried,” Brown said.

Harrowing questions swirled through Brown’s mind as he tried to complete this step of the tenure clock. 

“For a lot of people, this is major existential dread,” Brown said. “Questions of, ‘Can I do that work quick enough? Can I turn it? Can I get it to a publisher? Are they going to find it interesting? If I get denied by my first choice for a publisher, then what position am I in?’”

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Ward expressed similar views and concerns related to the publishing and approval of highly specific research. Fears of proving the importance and value of research can be difficult when dealing with less commonly examined topics, Ward explained. 

“You can imagine instances of a bias against an individual because of their identities or in the research that they do,” Ward said. “Researching things related to marginalized populations that are under-researched or that people in your department aren't familiar with, that could be a situation where they don't value or don't see the value in your work, and they are deciding whether or not to recommend you for tenure.”

The tenure process is often not the only thing on a professor's daily agenda, Ward explained. Finding a balance between the three areas of tenure in addition to managing a life outside of work can pose challenges, Ward noted. 

“I have two kids, I don't get to work the same way that my peers who don't have kids work in terms of just powering through, publishing tons and working nights and weekends,” Ward said. “I don't have the time, the energy or the desire to work like that.”

Both professors agreed research is the top evaluation point of the tenure record, meaning service and teaching can occasionally fall to the wayside until the process is completed. Brown described this as a drawback for students coming to a top tier research institution. 

“As long as you're a productive researcher, teaching is a secondary concern,” said Brown. “The people meeting you in class, their ability to teach might not be the number one most important part of what they do every day and may not be the biggest priority in their head.”

Ward reiterated similar views of the tenure process.

“You can do the bare minimum for service and for teaching, and that will be okay,” Ward said. “If you do the most mediocre, basic, bare minimum of research, that could be dangerous for you in getting tenure.” 

Brown explained that effective, influential teaching has always been important to him, and since becoming tenured, his focus on teaching has heightened. Now that he does not have to prioritize his writing, research and publications, he has been able to spend more time perfecting lectures and course information. 

Yet, the service aspect of becoming tenured can become extremely time consuming, according to Brown. At times, over 50% of his day was consumed by performing service work as the webmaster for the African Literature Association, he explained. This portion of his day did not help make him a leading voice in the field, he explained, but rather, it was a way to serve and give back to his field. 

Up until 2015, Wisconsin had tenure written into the state statute. The removal of tenure from state law did not change UW-Madison’s pledge to prioritize tenure and protection for teachers, according to a university administrator. 

Brown said the removal of tenure created a sense of fear regarding job security, especially considering the size of his department. The Department of African Cultural Studies being small, and possibly construed as political, leaves it susceptible to elimination, Brown explained. Before tenure was taken out of state law, elimination would not be possible. 

“The university has pledged that if you're a tenured professor, we would find a new home for you if we eliminate your department, but that's just talk,” Brown said. “Nobody knows for sure what would happen in reality and on paper, so it can have a chilling effect.”

A UW-Madison administrator explained that throughout the process, usually annually, individuals on the “tenure clock” will meet with small mentoring committees to receive guidance and advice on the portfolio they’re creating. While such groups provide support, Brown and Ward said their greatest support came from other sources. 

Ward has been relying on other non-tenured professors one or two years ahead of her in the process for guidance. Brown said he made it through the difficult six years because of camaraderie between individuals in his department also facing the struggles of the tenure process. 

“My department had several junior scholars, tenure track professors, at the same time,” Brown said. “We formed an ad hoc cohort and became very friendly, not only on campus but even outside of campus and have definitely supported each other.”

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