The Best Way to Not Get Tenure

At the extremes, there are two ways to approach tenure. You can conform to the norms established for junior faculty. Or you can be yourself. I’m happy that I set my own course, and proud of the way that I divided my time between research, teaching, and service.

Unfortunately, my approach did not work at UB. Despite my many accomplishments and contributions, my department voted against my tenure case earlier this week. And so blue will need to find a new home.

What Are You (Not) Supposed to Do?

Junior faculty get a lot of unsolicited advice about how to get tenure, mainly in the form of many different don’ts. Don’t teach too much—​I heard that often at UB. Don’t teach too well when you are starting out, so you can create the illusion of a positive trend right before tenure—​I heard that too. Don’t try to lead a project involving senior faculty. Don’t work on a project if it might not produce a bunch of publications quickly. Don’t take on leadership roles in or work to improve the department. Don’t speak out on issues that you care about—​better not to argue with anyone.

This advice has a clear normative purpose. Tenure represents the last chance for an institution to impress its values on its faculty before it’s stuck with them for life. And, particularly for academics that have spent their entire lives pleasing a school in one way or another, the prospect of not getting tenure is scary. This is the last test that they’ll ever have to pass, so why not just keep doing what the teacher wants for a few more years? Plus, after you get tenure you can do anything you want—​right?

My Approach

I chose to push back against the institutional norms because I wanted tenure to mean something.When I started my faculty position I promised myself that I would try to resist any urges to do or not do things to get tenure. I chose to push back against the institutional norms because I wanted tenure to mean something. The burned-out post-tenure academic is a well-established cliche, and one that I witnessed first hand. The standard assumption is that junior faculty are burned out by the work that tenure requires, but I think that there may be something deeper at work. When junior faculty have to suppress their own priorities to get tenure, tenure becomes not of a celebration of their accomplishments but a symbol of their conformity. If I was going to get tenure, I wanted it to be a validation of me and my approach.

There’s also a powerful and unfortunate myth surrounding after tenure transformation. When junior faculty want to do something that they think is important but are not supposed to do, they are frequently told to wait until after tenure. But the tenure process changes you. After spending five or six years toeing the party line, will you still care about that thing you promised yourself you would get to after tenure? At least in my experience, I can vouch that the behaviors instilled in junior faculty usually continue at the senior faculty level. I tried to be the same person before tenure that I would have been after.

What Did I Do?

So what did I do? Well, not everything fell into the "should not" category. I assembled a fantastic group of students working on a variety of important projects. We wrote a bunch of great papers, including groundbreaking work in several new areas (1, 2, 3). I have multiple successful ongoing research collaborations, both inside and outside my department. I’ve been very successful in obtaining external funding to support my group—​around $3M to date. I have a CAREER award on the way, although I won’t be accepting it at UB. I’ve established myself in my scientific community and serve on program committees for the top conferences in my research area. With one exception, my eight external letters were supportive of my research program. Of course I wish we had published a few more top-tier papers. But I think that my students have gotten stronger and stronger every year, and that this is now the best group I’ve ever worked with.

The "probably should not" category contains a lot of things that I’m really proud of. I’ve continued signing my program committee reviews, despite the fact that this may have pissed off an unknown number of unknown researchers 1. I’ve gotten better at prioritizing my students' long-term development as scholars over the short-term goals of making that next paper deadline. I can see them benefiting from this. We built and operate a public smartphone platform testbed used by researchers around the world.

And there’s the many high impact "definitely should nots". I worked really hard to bring an exciting and rigorous operating systems class to UB. And then we worked last spring to build new tools to improve it further. To make matters worse, last year I willingly got involved in curriculum development. I led a complete overhaul of our department’s undergraduate computer science curriculum 2. It includes two new exciting introductory programming courses that I spent a great deal of time designing. To make matters even worse, I also volunteered to teach a new large course to freshman. This semester I’m teaching an exciting new course on the internet to 440 freshman in a flipped-classroom format. The class is going really, really well—​but I’m not sure what will become of it now, or of the hundreds of short YouTube videos that we were planning to reuse next year.

Speaking Out

But my biggest mistake was speaking out about issues that I cared about.But my biggest mistake was speaking out about issues that I cared about. Within the department I’ve pointed out problems with resource allocation, poor distribution of teaching load, lack of diversity among both our faculty and students, terrible graduate admissions systems, looking the other way regarding student plagiarism, and our neglect of our undergraduate programs and courses, among other things. I’ve pushed for us to make course evaluations public, hire more female faculty, and improve diversity and retention in our introductory courses.

I’ve also been critical of misguided policies at the school level. Our department is not growing anywhere fast enough to keep up with rising enrollments, and is also being forced to teach a large MS program without enjoying a fair share of the proceeds. UB also continues to enact research-unfriendly policies, including raising its already extremely-high overhead rates. And don’t even get me started on our efforts to encourage digital literacy. They seem to be led by the history department and involve paying for expensive and terrible MySpace-esque "ePortfolio" web portal software that we now are being required to force students to use.

Whenever I’ve been critical, I’ve volunteered to help, and in many cases devoted time and effort to solving the problems that I identified. I will admit to not always starting a conversation in the most effective way, particularly early on in my career. But with the help of a few good mentors, I’ve improved my balance between being provocative and constructive.

In the End

I knew that I had made a few enemies, but I was surprised that the final vote was so lopsided: 6 yays, 2 abstainers, and 8 nays. Once I heard the tally I knew immediately that I should leave. It’s a process that I could have continued, with the possibility of appeal at many levels. I might have even had a pretty good case, given that a colleague whose case was also being considered was voted through despite an equivalent or even slightly-weaker dossier.

But I have no interest in fighting this decision. To me, it sends a strong signal about what kind of department this is, and it’s not a place that I want to continue to work. I’ve cared deeply about my department. I wanted it to grow, improve, and change in appropriate ways, and I’ve started to accomplish that. And while I received strong support from many colleagues, I’m not interested in continuing in the face of that level of opposition. They may think that getting rid of me will stop that transformation. For the sake of our students, and the department as a whole, I hope that they are wrong.

In the wake of the vote I’ve felt a mixture of sadness and disappointment, and touches of anger. The saddest part is dismantling my lab and saying goodbye to students that I work with. I’ve spent years slowly creating a vibrant, creative lab filled with new ideas and positive energy. I love the fact that undergraduates have increasingly felt comfortable there, and that I’ve been able to provide a home for some really talented students. I’ll miss that—​a lot.

I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to stick around and continue some of the projects I’ve started. Our work on programming uncertainty is still in its infancy and may continue somewhere else with support from my CAREER award. I’ll also continue to contribute to ongoing work on smartphone quality of experience, thermal and energy management, storage optimization, and wireless protocol validation. My course on the internet is great and would get even better next year. And I have blueprints for two fantastic new introductory programming courses that combine the flipped classroom model with exciting assignments and a broad overview of computer science as an intellectual enterprise. Those courses will be really fun to develop and teach. Maybe I’ll have a chance to do that somewhere—​just not here.

And of course I’m angry with my colleagues. I trusted that they would be able to put aside historical personal grievances and act in the best interest of the department. I was wrong.

Reviewing my time at UB, I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished.I do not feel any embarrassment or shame—​hence this post. I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes that I regret. But I’m happy that most of my mistakes were in how I went about things, rather than the things I chose to do. Reviewing my time at UB, I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. Proud of the way that I’ve chosen to balance research, teaching, and service. Proud that I’ve put my students first. And really proud of my students themselves—​they are a fantastic and talented group of great people. The best part of this job has always been working with them.

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

I’ve learned a lot about myself over the past five years. I like to hack—​and I’ve gotten better at it. I like to teach, and think that teaching computer science is really important. I like to mentor students and help them explore new ideas and build exciting new computer systems. I like building things myself and trying out new ideas, and as a computer scientist I think I have the best set of tools out there for solving almost any problem. I like working closely with a team of talented people that really care about each other. I’m still outspoken, but I’ve learned to prioritize making a difference over making my point.

So what’s next? I don’t know, and I’m kind of enjoying not knowing. I will be applying to other academic departments and hoping to find one that appreciates my contributions. I have faith that that place exists, and I’m looking forward to finding somewhere I fit in better. I may teach high school, or launch a start up. I’ve always like the idea of doing an 826 Valencia-like outreach program for computer science. If I studied up for the interviews I could probably get a job at a software company, although I’m not sure I’d love having a boss. I may take the opportunity to reflect at length on my experience and some of the problems that modern research universities face, particularly in balancing research and education. If I had to guess I would probably say I’d expect to continue teaching computer science in some form or another. But I really haven’t had an opening like this for a while to really consider the question. So we’ll see.

All I really know for sure is that I won’t be working here anymore. Right now, that feels pretty OK. Except for this part:

Going away photo.
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