Michael Ekstrand

The Tenure-Killer

Published on 9 Oct 2017 and tagged with career and academia.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings denial of tenure.

— Litany Against Fear, from Dune by Frank Herbert, adapted by yours truly.

There are a a couple pieces of advice, or rather a piece of advice and a short manifesto, that have stuck with me throughout my academic career.

The first was given at orientation when I began grad school, I believe by Loren Terveen. He said, about selecting an adviser, that “who you work with is more important than what you work on”. To this day I believe this is completely true.

The second is from Matt Might, in his article HOTWO: Get tenure, which I read in my first year as a tenure-track professor:

Then it hit me: Life is too precious and too fleeting to waste my time on bullshit like tenure. I didn’t become a professor to get tenure. I became a professor to make the world better through science. From this day forward, I will spend my time on problems and solutions that will matter. I will make a difference.

I stopped working on problems for the sole purpose of notching up a publication. I shifted gears to cybersecurity. I found a project on cancer in the med school. I joined a project in chemical engineering using super-computing to fight global warming.

Suddenly, my papers started getting accepted.

My grant proposals started getting funded.

I was talking last week with a friend about tenure and a bunch of things, and in that articulated some of how I have come to think about the tenure process at this point. I thought they might be useful to share more widely.

To the best of my ability, I refuse to worry about tenure. I think about it, and I try to avoid needlessly and knowingly doing things that will jeopardize my tenure case. But I know, at least in my more clear-headed moments, that worrying won't help anything.

Further, worrying brings the very real risk of paralysis. If I am afraid, I may be too careful. There's a good chance I won't take the risks necessary to do the work that I believe matters. And if that happens, I waste my position.

I will not throw away my shot.

I came to Boise State with a much clearer idea of what I want to accomplish, and who I want to be as an academic. I am going to work on those things and try, by the grace of God, to be that academic. And if that isn't good enough for tenure, then there are other things to do in life.

If focusing my energies on understanding human-AI feedback loops and making information systems beneficial for the people they affect won't earn me tenure, so be it.

If being kind won't earn me tenure, I don't want it.

If valuing collaboration over selfishness and competition won't earn me tenure, oh well.

If doing good work with good people isn't good enough, why am I here?

If promoting a physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy academic environment undermines my case, why do I want to remain in such a toxic space?

I love the academy and believe there is great good in it, and am going to work to promote that good and leverage it for the benefit of people. I hope that's enough.

My efforts to live these out are very much a work in progress. I write and say them in part because, as Staupitz told young Martin Luther in Luther, “We preach best what we need to learn most”. I have to remind myself of these things regularly. But I think, in the long run, that letting fear of the tenure process override these convictions is a greater risk to my life — if not my tenure case — than taking a bet on the work I believe matters, singing “Let it go!” to the rest, and maybe missing something.

I hope I'm right.