by Twyla Meding, PhD.
Twyla Meding is a recently retired associate professor at a large state university, with a specialty in early modern French studies. She earned her Ph.D. in 1992 from one of the top five programs in her field.
My story illustrates the peril in which tenure finds itself. What I’ve seen among people posting and commenting in The Professor Is Out FB group is a willingness to leave academia over concerns like work-life balance, financial reward, peace of mind, etc.
Those criteria were alien to me when I began my career. I believed I could make it all work even though in my gut I knew this university and its location were a poor fit.
Still, when I was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor in my field in 1992, we had a master’s program in my field, five full-time faculty members in my program, a long-running annual conference, an academic journal, many opportunities for faculty development, including seminars and privileges at a nearby research library. Despite my reservations, I dug in my heels and got married to one of my colleagues in 1995. I wasn’t really into him by then but thought I could make it work. My personal and professional lives were hopelessly and inextricably intertwined.
I got tenure in 1998 and got divorced in 2004, still believing I could make a life here that could work, mostly because I had tenure. My department was in receivership in 2007 when we hired a weak new faculty member who ended up appointed as chair because departmental politics were so toxic. He was a sexist, volatile narcissist who was fundamentally insecure about himself as a scholar and administrator. He and my ex were friends. My chair targeted me and his rage against me was palpable; I had nightmares about him from which I’d wake up screaming, but I didn’t protect myself sufficiently. I could have applied for promotion to full professor around 2010 or 2011; I more than met the requirements. But when one of my colleagues brought it up with my chair, he told her that my teaching wasn’t good enough. He was wrong; he was not familiar with criteria or procedures. As for me, one of the holdovers of an abusive and traumatic childhood was a persistent lack of confidence in myself that blocked me from proceeding without his support. He eliminated the annual conference and the academic journal, competed against me for a professorship instead of supporting my application, cancelled the M.A. program in my field, failed to promote new hires to replace faculty who had left. My discipline was diminished. But the worst was yet to come.
During the Fall 2014 semester, I went on sabbatical. In February 2015, my chair recommended me for termination in a letter less than a page long. Violating explicit procedures, he tried to strongarm the departmental committee to vote with him by meeting individually with members before they had voted on my case; they supported me anyway. He referred to none of the criteria for terminating a tenured professor and had not made a case. I talked with him and begged him to rescind his letter. He refused. It went forward to the College level, where the committee supported me but the interim dean wrote a rambling, incoherent, and unprofessional letter against me. It read like a drunken rant. (At the end of FY 2015, they made him dean for a day and then forced him to retire.)
When my case went to the university level, an associate provost took it upon himself to review my file and to find that I wasn’t as far along as I should have been at this stage of my career. (It’s worth noting that my chair promoted no women associate professors during his 11 years as chair.) At this point, the university decided to put me through a period of probation, a term they never used, that lasted two years and two months. This was likely illegal, but they knew I couldn’t afford a lawyer. The interim dean took the opportunity to strip me unceremoniously of my position as university representative on the executive committee of the nearby research library (retaliation). Meanwhile, my chair scoured my record for any little thing that he might use against me. The pressure was constant.
Ultimately, I prevailed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory that depleted me completely. It is the greatest trauma of my life, confirmed by a diagnosis of complex PTSD. I was in fight mode every day for well over two years and in the aftermath, I collapsed into alternating flight and freeze. I became crushed by shame and wished nearly every day that I could just die. Increasingly, I became paralyzed with respect to daily obligations.
I couldn’t pull things together. I tried. I believed (like my colleagues and the administration) that it was a question of willpower and competency, as if none of this had happened. The gaslighting was massive. I never knew how to talk to my new chair (hired for her youth and inexperience) about what had happened, and so I didn’t. I reverted to childhood strategies for managing difficult situations: I hid and began to neglect service duties and my email. I became disorganized and unable to manage time.
The pandemic made everything with respect to work exponentially worse and on-campus teaching last semester was a nightmare. Finally, I listened to my gut. I retired with full benefits on January 7. I didn’t even realize that I met the criteria for retirement or that they couldn’t touch my money. I had ultimate power, not them, and I exercised it.
Anyway, the point of this is that they took advantage of my previous chair’s targeting of me to weaken tenure at this institution, where there are no criteria for post-tenure review; such criteria actually strengthen tenure. My case provides precedent for taking the whims of a chair as sufficient reason to put tenured faculty through probation (the opposite of tenure) on an ad hoc basis. The fallout for me has been a shattered career and life and substantially less retirement money.