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Career Strategies for Librarians
Your First Year on the Tenure Track: Temperamental Advice for Junior Faculty in Toxic Work
Environments
by Michael Matthews

A Confession

Tolstoy once remarked that all happy families are the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in their
own way. The same could be said for my career in academic librarianship. While I have encountered
many sane librarians who are kind and forgiving to a fault, and who share their time, patience, and
intellect like so much bundt cake, I have also had the singular and nightmarish dread of working with
those who are the very antithesis of this popular image. And though my experiences are extraordinary, I
believe they could also be shared by others grimly attempting to survive the circumstances of their own
dysfunctional workplaces. What you will find in this article is slightly hyperbolic advice wrought from
harsh experience and bitter disillusionment with the human race. Gentle readers, you have been warned.

Prior to my employment at Highly Religious University—that source of everlasting sorrow—I worked as
an instruction librarian at a Carnegie II state university. Life at Big State University was demanding,
competitive, and highly political. Librarians would attack each other in committee meetings, and openly
promise bloody revenge on some minor matter, such as the lowering of interlibrary loan fees for
graduate students. Plenary faculty sessions would sometimes disintegrate into two or three senior
members carping over a moot point, one that had been moot for over a decade and whose main
stakeholders had either retired or died. Frequent re-organizations created an atmosphere of extreme
anxiety, and faculty returning from sabbaticals would sometimes find their offices moved and their
Internet ports shut off. When I asked a trustworthy colleague about the future of his department, he took
me into his office, bolted the door from the inside, and admonished me in a whisper: “Jeez! you can’t say
that out loud!” Good Lord, what’s next? I thought. Electronic bugging of faculty offices? Monitoring of
Internet usage? Would some homunculus in the IT department start to read our emails? And those
surveillance cameras in the lobby started to look particularly menacing.  

So when I received the job offer from Highly Religious University, I was elated. I would escape the Big
State boiler room, where everyone’s job was in perpetual jeopardy, and join the library faculty of a
conscientiously Christian university where everyone followed the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”). As a
Highly Religious person myself, I was certain that my employment somehow fit into the Universal Plan.
After all, the interview went smoothly, everyone was friendly, and the campus was an Olmsteadian
masterpiece. I was to be given full authority over my own program, with a generous budget attached. At
bureaucratic Big State, I would have to wait several years to enjoy such a privilege.  

Now, I am going to importune the reader to imagine a scenario which could be immeasurably worse
than working at Big State University. Yes, that’s right, imagine working in a place where ulterior motives
are carefully disguised, faculty committee meetings are suspiciously silent, and performance
evaluations are handled in such a secretive process your local Masonic temple would take notes. The
Golden Rule at HRU was in cruel actuality the Lead Rule: “Terminate first and ask questions later.”

Of course, such revelations are arrived at only by small degrees, and over a period of several months. If
you are lucky, a faculty mentor will shepherd you through the difficult times, alert you to the typical
intrigues of any workplace (“Jane Doe despises Jack Roe because…”), provide you with experienced
insight into administrative decision-making, and prepare you for your annual evaluation.

Remember, I said if you’re lucky. Perhaps you are naïve, vulnerable, and adrift in an organization whose
personalities and unwritten rules are a total mystery. And if you are really unlucky, you may be working
with people who gladly exploit your weaknesses in order to improve their own chances of success. In
order to equalize the odds, I kindly offer the following.           

The Joys of Participant-Observer Status. During your first year, you should practice what anthropologists
refer to as “participant-observer” status. When anthropologists begin their investigations of a particular
culture, they study the individual and group behaviors of key actors. Like Dian Fossey among her
gorillas, you must find out what the true power relationships are. The actual hierarchy and reporting lines
may differ dramatically from what is printed in your employee manual. Because every organization has
its history of triumphs and defeats, and victors as well as vanquished, cliques will necessarily arise.
Once you discover the existence of a particular clique, note its members, their influence, and the
existence of any “counter-clique” which may seek its neutralization. Most importantly, ask yourself how
your job performance is linked to the unspoken agendas (and the most effective agendas are always
unspoken) of the various cliques. For example, your supervisor is usually the most influential person
when it comes to your reappointment, but her influence may be diluted by other senior faculty members
who wish her department were dissolved for purely personal reasons. Or, let’s say you’ve accepted a
position in a cataloging department that is reviled by the public services librarians because they believe
all catalogers to be culture snobs. As a new employee, your behavior will be closely scrutinized for any
particularly galling characteristics, and if you let slip an uncharitable canard concerning the intellectual
simplicity of a reference librarian…well, vaya con Dios, amigo! You will only know after subtle
investigation and cautious questioning whose opinion can secure your first year reappointment. Usually
it is your supervisor, but not exclusively.

Free-will Employment. Remember that during your first year, you are at your most vulnerable to the
whims of senior faculty members. As the years slowly pass toward tenure and you find a comfort level
among your colleagues, you minimize the chances that you will be fired for advancing your own political
agenda, or for speaking with your mouth full. Yet you should not celebrate your growing professional
viability with a show of hubris. Instead, take this to heart: In 1984 the 4th circuit appeals court ruled that
ALL tenure-track employment constitutes “at-will” employment. As more universities follow the corporate
model, at-will work agreements are infiltrating pre-employment packages. These agreements guarantee
an employer’s right to terminate your employment at any time. Faculty who sign these at-will work
agreements run the risk of being terminated from employment with little or no warning, and without
cause—or more perversely “just because.” It is more difficult to fire a librarian if he or she has an
excellent record of job performance over several years, if for no other reason than the sheer tonnage of
his or her cumulative faculty activity reports. Conversely, a first or second year faculty member can be
unceremoniously ejected because of their comparatively slim output. In any case, tenure is your only
shield against summary termination.

Records Retention: Even Paranoids Have Enemies. In the course of pursuing reappointment make sure
you keep everything. By “everything” I mean correspondence, meeting minutes, reports of conferences
you have attended, planning documents, assessments, lesson plans, unequivocally positive
assessments of your work from colleagues and teaching faculty, and copies of published or forthcoming
articles. You may also wish to include formative assessments of your teaching if they are made by your
supervisor.  

With such assiduous, even obsessive, collecting you may well wonder when you have gathered enough
material to develop an airtight case for reappointment. If you keep too much you may be mistaken for a
spinster with OCD. Don’t keep enough, and you may be collecting aluminum cans and food stamps by
this time next year. As for myself, I keep two series of reappointment files, the briefer of which contains a
“digest” version of the documents listed above. I include this digest in my annual activity report. The
longer and more comprehensive series contains all materials pertaining to the documents which are
showcased in the annual activity report.  

Even after you are tenured, NEVER toss out your old activity reports. You never know when you may need
them.    

Spin the So-called “Truth”… When writing your narrative, you must be able to highlight all of your
accomplishments while maximizing plausible deniability of your failures. Of course, you should never
include a complaint or negative appraisal from any source in your faculty activity report. But you should
also file these documents in a separate folder, and detail your amendatory actions with specific dates
and times. If you are ever called upon to defend against some ancient mistake, you can reach into your
desk drawer and startle your supervisor with the facts. This “black file” will serve as a reminder of how
you have handled professional mistakes and may help prevent an ambush.  

…With a Little Help From Karl Rove. Most importantly, be sure to be the first to “frame the debate”
surrounding any mistakes or misunderstandings. It is an antique and cynical adage that if you get to your
supervisor first, you stand a better chance of getting a fair hearing. Like Karl Rove, you should not
hesitate to “spin” the particular “reality” of a potentially damaging “situation.” Rest assured, the offended
party (a recalcitrant employee, a snooping colleague, a livid patron) will use whatever rhetoric or wiles at
their disposal to portray you as hideously grotesque. But if you act quickly and calmly, and defend
yourself on the grounds of principle—and any principle will do—you will be perceived as decisive,
forthright, and most of all, principled. Finally, never forget to add a subtle dash of sympathy when
defending yourself against negative criticism. By giving the illusion of sympathizing with your detractors,
you exude warmth and collegiality, while you silently and imperceptibly undermine their authority.  

Peer Evaluations…“Oh What a Tangled Web.” You may also be called upon by your supervisor or dean
to evaluate the work of a fellow tenure-track colleague. This practice is euphemistically referred to as
“formal peer-reviewing.” Many administrators have embraced the peer-reviewing trend as a means of
building a sense of employee morale and accountability, though it often creates an atmosphere of
mutual suspicion. The politically savvy quickly realize that one can gain recognition at the expense of his
or her colleagues by trashing their work. Of course, no one would be so crude or pernicious as to act
alone in this endeavor, but a loose band of conspirators united in self-interest can brutalize the career of
an unpopular colleague. As in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Lifeboat, ethics are abruptly jettisoned when
competition for survival is keen, and if someone dies overnight from thirst, then there is more fresh water
for those who remain alive.  

When in Rome…

The Importance of Orthodoxy. If you are going to work for a religious institution, you must make
absolutely sure that your own beliefs do not conflict with accepted orthodoxy. Or if your beliefs differ, you
must be prepared to be silent and circumspect when in general company. You must also take an
accurate reading of the predominant organizational culture, and precisely rate the levels of liberalism
and traditionalism among the important faculty members. When in casual contact with a traditionalist, be
sure to mention something about the “decay of universal values,” or the “threat of modernism.” When
speaking to a liberal, express your devoutly progressive views and your love of “solidarity.”   

Personal Behavior Clauses. Private employers may also invite you to sign a contract that requires your
personal behavior, both on and off the job, to be consistent with the mission of the university. Because
such judgments are wholly subjective, and often based on gossip (“I heard Abe/Sarah talking about
[insert ribald subject here]”), one should be very scrupulous concerning how one’s behavior could be
interpreted. Prosecution of behavior agreements usually requires a university president’s signature, but
one should not regard them as harmless. Most behavior agreements are requested by small and/or
religious colleges, where influencing administrative opinion is easy, given the involuntary intimacy of
such settings.   

Personal Faith Statements. A religious college may ask its employees to write and sign a “personal faith
statement,” a curious hybrid of the innocuous and the legally binding. At some conservative colleges, you
may be required to “write 1000 words about your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and His role in
your teaching.” Never, ever believe for one moment that it won’t be read by the dean, provost, or
president. Your reappointment contract depends on how carefully you choose your words. Therefore,
use caution when describing your beliefs, and make certain that they meet the standards of the
ascendant orthodoxy. For guidance, refer to any constitutions or catechisms that are recognized by your
employer, and discreetly weave the tenor of the prose with your own.  

Most of All: Have Fun!

On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t. As I’ve learned, it all depends on the environment. Laughter
could be interpreted as a sign that you’re not taking your work seriously. And since this is your first year,
you must be serious at all times, even when you’re not. As you proceed from the paranoia of the first year
to the anxious leisure of tenure, remember the trials, tribulations, and travails you endured while
alongside your fellow fungible comrades. When you are finally tenured and have some scintilla of job
security, quietly take aside a starry-eyed junior faculty and impress them with your hard won and sage
advice. They may thank you profusely, flee in terror, or both.     

Until that wondrous day, you must doggedly pursue that elusive shibboleth, the “continuing
appointment.” So stop reading this and get back to work. NOW!

Notes

N.B. The 1984 4th circuit appeals court case mentioned in this article was Siu v. Johnson, which found
that the fourteenth amendment (due process) does not obtain in cases involving denial of tenure. This
ruling was based on the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Board of Regents v. Roth. These and other
disturbing cases are discussed in “Getting Tossed from the Ivory Tower: the legal implications of
evaluating faculty performance” by John D. Copeland and John W. Murry Jr., Missouri Law Review,
Spring 1996.

About the Author:

Michael Matthews, dedicated librarian and dour Calvinist, wanders the countryside and spins his sad
tale for any one who will listen. He also tells an excellent story about shooting an albatross while on a
pleasure cruise in the South Atlantic.

Article published Oct 2005

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