A Professor Recounts What a Tenure Denial Did to Him

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Rogério Meireles Pinto is a professor and associate dean of social work at the University of Michigan. In 2014, his tenure bid at Columbia University, where he’d studied and taught since 2000, was denied. He felt inspired to speak out after reading about Lorgia García Peña’s tenure denial at Harvard University. This is his account of his experience, as told to Megan Zahneis. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Everybody described my tenure case as, like, a slam dunk. The outcome was just the biggest surprise: “How could this happen? His record is so perfect.” I was told that I had a very worthwhile, very strong tenure case, backed by an entire school’s faculty, 20 votes, by 13 outside letters. I had been an associate professor, and I was going into my ninth year at the university. In nine years, there had never been any whiff of, “Something is going wrong.”

It’s like when somebody dies and you don’t know what to say.

I got the news in a face-to-face meeting that was set up to discuss something completely different. It was not a meeting to talk about my tenure.

I thought I was going to faint and fall to the floor because it’s almost like you’re having an anxiety attack, where you can’t breathe. The only thing that I could do was get up from my chair and ask for documentation saying that my tenure was denied.

This was on the fifth floor. I returned to the floor where my office was and went to my good friend Susan. We just held each other, and I started to cry. It’s like when somebody dies and you don’t know what to say, and you sit across from the person and you say all kinds of things, but it’s basically a repetition of the same thing.

Here I am, someone who’s an immigrant to the United States, someone who grew up in dire poverty, who just happened to find a way to come to this country, who lived in New York City undocumented for nearly a decade before I actually was able to go to school and get my Ph.D. Someone who has an accent, someone who has an identity of a gay person and a gender nonconforming person, who lives those identities very openly. The whole impostor syndrome thing is very real when you are different from anyone who can actually help you. It’s a terrible blow to your self-esteem because you’re appealing to administrators who — it’s almost like they’re making fun of you. They’re listening to you, but it’s so condescending. They really don’t get who you are, and they see you as so much less than they are.

This is exacerbated by the architecture of the place where I went to meet with people about the denial — going up those stairs at the Low Library at Columbia, and passing by the columns and the oak doors and the rooms filled with photographs of white men that had been there all along. The message that is being conveyed to you is: “You don’t belong here. You are too different from what we are.”

In September 2014, Pinto appealed his tenure denial to Columbia’s University Senate, alleging in more than 100 pages of documentation that there were “significant procedural violations” in how his tenure bid was handled, that his academic freedom had been violated, and that he had faced a “clear and consistent pattern of retaliation, harassment and discrimination” from the dean of the School of Social Work and other administrators. The following March, the senate’s faculty affairs committee concluded its investigation, rejecting all three claims, according to documents Pinto provided. Still, the appeal process was important, he says, because it allowed him to document his own account of what had happened, and to uncover more information he otherwise wouldn’t have been privy to because of the secrecy surrounding tenure consideration.

The narrative about your case, then, is the narrative of the university: “We are denying your tenure, and we don’t have to tell you why.” My main concern was that I needed to have my narrative of what happened. So that’s why I wrote that entire document. That’s why I went through all the trouble that I went through, having interviews with the senate and all of those things.

What universities hope for is that you feel so diminished, so devastated that you won’t do anything to bring the issue to light. And I did the opposite. I went to the senate and I said: “This is what’s happening in the university. What are you going to do about it?” And then they did a whole investigation.

When your tenure is denied, you can’t stop all the things that you’re doing. Your grantors are asking you for outcomes. So you have to continue doing your job, and find the time to find another job. Having to go on interviews and getting reference letters and all of those things at the same time that you’re still doing your job — you’re doing all of that when you have zero energy. And I had to write my appeal to the senate.

After your tenure is denied, you still have until the following year to work in the place. I refused not to go to faculty and committee meetings. I kept doing my research. Nobody gave me a call to ask how I was doing. All the assistant professors who were friends and people I mentored suddenly cannot come near you because you are saying to the university, “I don’t accept your decision.” All of these junior people are petrified that this same thing can happen to them, so they basically disappear from your view. They completely got away from me, not because they disliked me, but because they were afraid of how their cases would fare in the future.

Everybody who is involved with you, either as a professional or someone who is doing research with you or the participants in your research, the people who you love — everybody is affected by it one way or another, and they’re affected very deeply. There’s no way to minimize this. Everything that happens after my tenure denial, every single relationship, every single connection has suffered in some way. It has a domino effect, which is never talked about.

I know people whose tenure gets denied and they hide from search committees that that’s what it is. And I did the opposite. I mean, I’m an activist. I was talking to anybody who wanted to listen. At the very beginning of every single interview, I said, “I’m interviewing because Columbia denied my tenure, and I cannot explain to you exactly the reasons that they denied my tenure. I have a case with the senate, but I’m leaving anyway.”

Pinto accepted a job as an associate professor at the University of Michigan in 2015, and was granted tenure there the following year. Going to Ann Arbor, he says, was the best decision he’s made in his career.

At your new institution, they want to welcome you as much as possible. People don’t want to have too many conversations about your tenure denial because they don’t want to trigger you. Some people just don’t even want to know that that’s the reality, because it’s too painful for them to think about. In a community where the most important thing in your entire career is to reach this benchmark, nobody wants to talk too much about it when it doesn’t happen, because even if they didn’t go through a tenure denial, they know the potential for the pain that it can cause and the destruction that it can cause in someone’s career.

In my career, there was no destruction at all. I came to a better place — a better salary and all of those things. But this is not necessarily what happens for people; it just so happened that I landed well.

I’m at a point in my life where I am no longer concerned about getting in trouble. I have the job that I want. I have job security. And I am in some ways a troublemaker, and I just speak my mind. I feel that this is the time that my experience needs to be a little more public.

This, to me, is the last step of a long process of letting go.

A spokesperson for Columbia declined to comment.

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