This article is the second in a two-part series on the pressures of Chinese academia’s “up or out” tenure system. Part one can be found here.
After receiving my Ph.D. in the United States in 2015, I had multiple interviews before accepting an offer for a faculty position at a leading university in southern China. As stipulated by my employer, I would start on a standard six-year contract, spread across two three-year terms, after which it was “up or out”: Either I earned a promotion to associate professor, or I would need to find another job.
At the time, the requirements for promotion seemed attainable enough. I needed one national-level research grant, three publications that demonstrated my research abilities, about 200 teaching hours per year, and a record of public service to the college.
In retrospect, I wish I had read the contract more carefully. State-level grants are highly competitive, the school’s definition of quality publications was strict and required publishing in specific certified journals, and the course load was heavy even before taking into account all the “public services” young scholars are required to render. And that’s just the bottom line. Meeting those requirements doesn’t guarantee you promotion and tenure, it merely qualifies you to apply for the promotion.
In fact, if time travel were possible, I would travel back six years and start looking for another job immediately. I was part of a hiring spree that brought in thousands of junior scholars to help the school achieve its aspiration of moving up the rankings. This should have tipped us off that we were just instrumentalized labor destined for extraction and elimination.
There were other warning signs. Some colleagues brought on after me did not receive their agreed-upon salaries. I only realized later that the job market for academics in China has changed drastically over the last two decades, and especially since 2014. Scholars’ labor is increasingly commodified, and its price has fluctuated wildly in recent years as university and state policies and priorities change. The famous German sociologist Max Weber noted that scholarship is itself a profession. Just like other professions on the Chinese mainland, it involves a certain amount of risk — but you cannot expect every good scholar to also be a calculative businessperson. Scholarship requires a relatively stable environment and support infrastructure: It is not a field associated with job market risk-taking.
So I took the offer and spent the next five years struggling for a promotion. At first, I tried doing everything right. Soon enough, I was overwhelmed by the teaching load and began to stress out. As my self-confidence waned, all I could do was trust in my doctoral advisor and committee members’ appraisal of my previous work. I would then tell myself that I could still make an irreplaceable contribution to the field if I calmed down and kept on working.
Every junior scholar I met seemed as frustrated as I was. As colleagues, we constantly complained about the university’s unfair measurements of our productivity and the various slow, journal-dictated, and non-transparent publication timelines. Some colleagues found a way to increase their productivity — at least that’s how it appeared on their resumes — others managed to find a new job. However, not all of them could share their coping strategies publicly.
It wasn’t just school; at home, housework took up a lot of my time and attention. My family showed little respect for my work, and eventually, I found myself going through a divorce, which further sapped my energy. Another scholar I know had a parent fall ill not long after he escaped the precarity of a post-doctoral position and found a job as an assistant professor. However, life does not become any easier just because you are a scholar in a tenure track position.
I pretended that everything was fine, but it wasn’t. I kept spraining my ankles, my legs and feet started to swell up, and I didn’t know why. My liver hurt. I got new allergies. I couldn’t fall asleep before two in the morning, and usually woke up around six. I was so sleep-deprived that my navigation app would have to remind me to keep driving in a straight line. When I went through tunnels, I used to have sudden urges to drive into the walls, if only so I could rest for a little bit.
After four years of this, I was forced back onto the job market. My dean would call me every month, around 11 p.m., to ask about my progress in finding a new position, often keeping me up until 1:30 a.m. He never forgot to admonish me to “think about how I could have done better.” The school’s vice president had his own rhetorical questions: “You should have known that you did not meet our requirements for the first term of employment, shouldn’t you?”
The only help I got came from my friends, colleagues, former classmates, and even some acquaintances on social media. They used their connections and networks to find new job opportunities for me; some even invited me to join reading groups and writing groups. We supported each other when we felt anxious and helped each other carve out time to write papers. They gave me recommendations, gifts, and a shoulder to lean on. A few invited me to co-author papers and shared information about grant applications.
In the end, none of the members of my cohort were promoted and stayed on. Even those who weren’t pushed out switched to neighboring universities, which paid better and offered a more supportive work environment.
As for me, my situation improved substantially after I found a faculty position at another university, one both less prestigious and 3,000 kilometers from my original school. I am still working hard to secure my current position and get promoted, but the difference is that now I can work in a less anxious environment, and my publication record is back on track.
People I meet say I’m a survivor. While I think they’re right, getting out of a toxic environment doesn't mean I’ve made peace with it. A good university cannot be built in the span of 10 years by commodifying and precaritizing junior scholars. Many of the previous generation of professors-slash-administrators who designed the Chinese tenure system are themselves survivors of the U.S. tenure system, and truly believe this system is legitimate and useful. But few of them considered the nature of the Chinese administrative system in their arguments, like how boosting scholarly production — no matter how temporarily — can become political capital for bureaucrats to get promoted.
The data may look great, but it’s being built on the backs of an academic underclass. A great university is not a Roman coliseum, and scholars are not gladiators.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Ilana Kohn/Ikon Images/People Visual)