Can I exercise the right to say no, and still get tenure?

Can I exercise the right to say no, and still get tenure?

One of the common denominators in the articles I've written about faculty productivity is the concept of saying "no". I wrote a whole article on this a while back, and it's made appearances in other articles and comment threads. I have always maintained the thesis that faculty members have the right and responsibility to say "no" to work requests that compromise pre-existing commitments or aren't a good fit for their personal and professional goals. It's not just me. For example, just as I was getting this post ready, David Gooblar wrote an excellent article for the Chronicle on four ideas for avoiding faculty burnout, and #3 on that list was "finding ways to say no".

However, when this comes up, there is often pushback from faculty who say that while it's a good idea in principle, it's impractical because asserting this right will put them in danger of not getting tenure, or even losing their jobs. For example, in an earlier article I highlighted a faculty member who objected to being asked by her administration to help with student move-in day:

[F]aculty responsibilities have expanded to include wearing so many hats on the campus, in the community and in one’s discipline, that there’s hardly room for adding bellhop and concierge to the job description. [...] These pleas exert tremendous pressure, particularly on tenure-track faculty who usually believe that they must acquiesce to anything and everything to be thought of highly at tenure and promotion time.

Because I think it's vitally important for faculty to know their rights and to take a stand for themselves to create the kind of work-life they want, I wanted to take this post to explore this perception that faculty can put themselves in job danger by asserting their right to say "no".

What follows here is addressed to pre-tenured faculty --- those who are on the tenure track but not there yet. Graduate students who are contemplating a higher ed career can also think about this, since pretty soon, you'll be among the pre-tenured. I won't bother with tenured faculty, because you have tenure; and honestly a situation in which you would be removed from a tenured position for saying "no" occasionally to work requests is so dysfunctional that no rational advice other than get another job as soon as possible would be applicable[1]. I also won't discuss contingent faculty, because it's a completely different situation, and far trickier, and I have little direct knowledge of contingent faculty experience with all this. (Please leave comments if you can contribute on that.)

So, you (or someone you know) is pre-tenured and is feeling the pressure to say "yes" to questionable work requests because of a concern that saying "no" could put you in danger of failing to get tenure or be promoted. (Or, you might say, this "right to say no" doesn't practically exist.) What do you do? In my view, there's one response that makes the most sense:

Get to know your tenure system extremely well, and lean on it to help you make decisions.

It seems to me that many instances of "acquiescence pressure" result from having an unclear idea, or no idea at all, of how tenure is actually obtained at one's institution. This can happen for two reasons:

  1. The tenure system is clear and precise about the requirements for tenure and promotion and the process is carried out fairly and openly, but the faculty member doesn't know what those requirements are; or,
  2. The tenure system itself has unclear or imprecise requirements, or uses an unfair and closed process.

Take the move-in day scenario above. According to the author, pre-tenure faculty "believe" that they have to say yes in order to "be thought of highly" when they are finally up for tenure. Red flags should come up all over the place when you read this:

  • Tenure processes should not require "belief". They are personnel processes, not religions. If faculty cannot look at the tenure process documentation and know whether something is or is not required for tenure, then the tenure process is broken. Either the tenure requirements are unclear here, or the faculty haven't taken time to know what the requirements are. A red flag either way.
  • Tenure decisions should never, ever be based on whether someone above you "thinks highly of you". Tenure systems are not (any more) old-boy networks or high school popularity rankings. Tenure decisions should be based on the quality of the case you can make, using evidence you can provide, that you have met or exceeded the requirements for tenure --- period. If someone wants to "think highly of you", then fine, but let that opinion be based on your work.

Don't take my word for it. Here's what the AAUP says about the probationary period preceding tenure decisions:

A probationary period gives faculty members the opportunity to prove themselves, and it gives their colleagues time to observe and evaluate them based on their performance in the position, not just on their academic credentials and recommendations. An evaluation (several can occur in the course of the probationary period) might conclude that the faculty member is progressing satisfactorily and express the hope that he or she will continue to do so. Or it might call for improvement in specified areas and encourage attention to them. A third possibility is that the evaluation identifies weaknesses in performance, concludes that improvement is unlikely, and results in the nonrenewal of appointment. The probationary period is a time of testing.

This language is all about evaluation and testing. This implies that there are clear, objective standards against which a faculty member is to be evaluated. And it says explicitly that faculty performance relative to the standards is to be the primary means of making a tenure decision. Finally, it also says that faculty should be getting feedback on their progress relative to the standards prior to the tenure decision.

What does this have to do with asserting your right to say "no" if you are pre-tenure? Assuming you have a functional tenure system in place at your institution --- I'll discuss dysfunctional tenure systems momentarily --- it means that in order to exercise this right and have some control over the work that you do, you can and should do the following:

  • Become intimately familiar with what does and does not count toward tenure at your school. If you don't actually know what counts toward tenure, then you're flying blind, and you'll reflexively say yes to everything indiscriminately, "just in case". This is unhealthy! It could even be counterproductive, if you say yes to things that don't (according to your tenure standards) really matter to the point that you cannot finish or excel at projects that do matter. Remember: You should not have to "believe" that something counts toward tenure. Get clarity and plan accordingly.
  • Decide what your long-term professional and personal values are, and choose work that satisfies your tenure requirements and accords with those values. Deciding what work to take on is partially a function of your school's tenure requirements. It's also a function of what you personally value and feel passionate about. So there are two orthogonal requirements for your work: Choosing work that satisfies tenure requirements, and choosing work that turns you on personally. Choosing work that satisfies both of these, requires mindful choice and saying no to things sometimes. That passion for your work will leap out of the tenure portfolio --- much moreso than a longer list of accomplishments with a lower level of impact or enthusiasm.
  • Get regular feedback on whether you are doing enough.. Take every advantage to get regular feedback on whether you're doing enough to get tenure. This should be part of your pre-tenure review process, and if it isn't, make it a part of the process by specifically asking if there are deficiencies in your progress toward meeting the criteria that you need to address. I've also found that people in my department, at least, are happy to give informal feedback on my work if I just ask them. Without the feedback, you won't know how much is enough.

So, if you are pre-tenure and are in a school with a functional tenure system, then you are free to say "no" to anything that doesn't align with your personal or professional goals as long as you are meeting the tenure requirements. (The actual requirements, not the ones you "believe" are requirements.) To get out from under the pressure to say "yes", you have to believe in this, and trust in it.

What if your tenure system isn't functional? This can be the case for two reasons: Either there are no clear requirements for tenure, or the process of determining tenure isn't based on evidence. (Or both.)

In the short term, you have to get clarity from the people who will decide tenure. Back to the move-in day example: A pre-tenured faculty member would be well within her rights to go to her department chair or dean and ask whether helping or not helping on move-in day would be a consideration for tenure. She could --- and definitely should --- ask for feedback on whether what she is already doing would be considered adequate progress toward tenure, and whether she should be doing more or different tasks in this area, and whether there are areas for improvement. This should be a regular part of the pre-tenure process, preferably each year when annual performance reviews are done. But, we are discussing dysfunctional systems, right? In such cases, faculty sometimes have to take matters into their own hands.

If there are clear criteria for tenure but your system doesn't follow the rules, you will have to take it upon yourself to insist that the system follow the rules. If you have clear standards, and your portfolio is meeting those standards but the people deciding tenure want to base their decisions upon something else, then you'll need to play defense and hold tenure decisions to the standards that have been established. If you are denied tenure even though the standards are clear and you've made a convincing case, you should appeal. This is not easy, and you may need a senior faculty to advocate for or with you. But otherwise the system will simply go further and further off track.

In the long term, there are two options:

  1. Be an activist for improving your system. Faculty in dysfunctional systems should start critical conversations for improving those systems, beginning with the AAUP's documentation on tenure and the probationary period. Work with your administration or other appropriate body and ask to start discussing ways to improve the system. Or work together with a more senior faculty to do this.
  2. Leave. If you're trying your best to make change but nobody wants to do anything about it, honestly I think your best option is to develop an exit strategy for finding another job, even another career if necessary, that values your health and professionalism. Otherwise you'll either be miserable and burnt out, or perpetuating a dysfunctional system, neither of which is an option if you want to have integrity.

I'm really encouraged by the uptick in articles and social media posts about this issue of saying "no". It means that we faculty are, just maybe, starting to emerge into a place where personal health is as important as teaching evaluations or research productivity --- in fact, people are realizing that being personally healthy will lead to better teaching and better research in most cases. But I do think it would be a mistake for faculty to wait around for someone else --- an administrator, a union, etc. --- to create a healthy environment for them. Faculty have to stand up for themselves as individuals and lean on the systems we have in place for faculty protections to create real change in this direction.


  1. You can --- and I would say, should --- be removed from a tenured position if you refuse to do core assignments your job, like teaching your classes or serving on committees. We're talking about saying "no" to an occasional request that aligns poorly with what you are doing in the moment. The difficulty of doing so for a tenured faculty member is about personal psychology and maintaining good relationships with your colleagues, not putting yourself in danger of unemployment. This is a real issue, but it's not a life-or-career-death issue. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.