A friend wrote to me today, wondering what to say to a friend and colleague who's been denied tenure. Any suggestions from out there in reader land?
My own experiences with a friend denied tenure were wrapped up in some awful personal and campus politics, so much of our conversations around that involved venting and analyzing the rather idiosyncratic and personal factors that led to the situation. My friend was so angry that the anger steered a lot of the conversations.
In the friend-of-friend's case, I don't know anything about the background. But I can imagine that this general scenario is the kind in which many people don't know what to say, so they don't say anything, and they avoid the person, which could well make the person feel even worse. So what to do?
When New Kid on the Hallway didn't have her contract renewed last spring (click back to the April 2007 archives to see a set of posts about that, and here's the first long discussion of it), there was an impressive array of comments supporting her in all kinds of ways. Her most recent post, in fact, discusses what she's thinking about her future career options; it's clear that her response to the non-renewal has been to stop and consider what she wants to do with her talents and interests (not to mention moving, necessitating a new pseudonym for Long Distance Husband). That's the attitude at a moment like this, I think, to try to remember that life goes on--in or out of academia--and there are options to consider.
But still, what to say, in the moment? In the face of any kind of loss or sudden bad news, it's wise to let the friend take a bit of a lead: does s/he want to discuss it? avoid it? dwell on the sadness? anger? At the same time, the friend probably doesn't know what s/he needs, either. So bringing over dinner, or movie tickets, or inviting the friend over for lunch or out for a walk or whatever seems good. Dropping a note to say, "I'm thinking of you," or bringing by flowers. Gestures that let the person know you notice them, that they've not gone invisible, that you're trying to make their day a little brighter.
What to avoid, I think, is pushing to solutions when the person isn't ready for that. In any kind of crisis, we need to be sensitive to when someone wants a listening ear, when they want some help with strategy, when they want additional ways to look at things, when they want validation for their analysis or reactions. If the friend really wants someone to say "Ah! those b@st@rds! " and instead gets detailed advice about how to work the grievance procedure, frustration will ensue.
I remember a Tenured Radical comment at New Kid's last spring that brought me up short: as I recall, there were a number of comments about NK's non-reappointment that were focused on could she appeal, how awful it was, what should she do next, and TR said, "whoa! let's think outside the box: what do you want to do now?" (I can't find the post and comments to link to, so perhaps my memories playing tricks on me. But this seems like a TR kind of comment to me, and I can't imagine she'd be distressed to find it attributed to her.) So in the long run, I think the friend, and friend-of-friend, need to find ways to use the tenure denial as an opportunity to figure out what is the right next step. There are plenty of prominent academics who didn't get tenure and whose careers have flourished. And there are ways to take skills from academia and use them elswhere. (As college class newsletter, I'm amazed at the jobs people have that I never new existed.)
So those are some of my thoughts. Yours?