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A 'Perplexing' Tenure Decision

September 11, 2006

Since 1999, Gabrielle Stryker has been an assistant professor of biological sciences at Oakland University, in Michigan -- one of a handful of women specializing in the hard sciences at the institution. In her years of work, she helped pull in a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and published numerous interdisciplinary research papers with colleagues from other departments. She was well liked by her peers and students, despite common perceptions that she “speaks her mind” and “expects a lot from others," according to interviews with several colleagues. 

When she came up for tenure review in 2005, her department and university faculty review committees voted unanimously to approve her tenure, writing that she “meets or exceeds promotion criteria in all areas.”

But tenure was not to be in Stryker’s future. After what many of her peers have called a “perplexing” decision by Provost Virinder Moudgil to deny her tenure last summer -- and a lengthy, yet unsuccessful, arbitration process requested by the local American Association of University Professors union that represents Oakland’s professors – she has spent the last few weeks packing up her office. Her employment contract has expired and she is no longer an employee at the university.

"I'm still sort of in shock," Stryker said Sunday, adding that she has applied for unemployment and will be forced to sell her home because she and her family now cannot afford it. Her husband, an officer in the Marines, has recently been recalled to active duty because of the continuing war in Iraq. She has two children, one in middle school and one who is college age. Stryker says has begun sending her C.V. to institutions nationwide and anticipates having to move from southern Michigan in the near future. 

Todd Estes, a professor of history at Oakland, said that in the three years he’s sat on the university’s Faculty Review and Reappointment Committee and in his 11 years on campus, he’s never quite seen a case like that of Stryker. “If a provost -- seemingly without a shred of negative evidence turned up in the preceding reviews -- may summarily dismiss a candidate who has cleared three rigorous reviews with unanimous support, then no candidate for tenure no matter how strong a record they had would be safe,” he said. 

Moudgil, who was the chair of the biology department when Stryker was hired, could not be reached for comment regarding the situation. Last summer he asked that the institution’s Board of Trustees not reemploy Stryker due partly to “her lack of independence as a researcher.” He felt that too much of her work had been conducted jointly with other professors both inside and outside of her department, although this practice is not against the department's rules.

The board ultimately approved Moudgil’s recommendation in August 2005.

After the board’s decision, the AAUP quickly decided to request that an arbitrator review the situation, and many expected a quick decision in favor of Stryker. However, after a yearlong process, which ended on August 14, the arbitrator ruled that the university had acted within its authority to deny tenure.

During the hearing, Moudgil testified under oath that he was not "predecided" on whether to grant tenure to Stryker, but some professors at the institution say they've seen a document written by Moudgil that said he "had it in for Stryker" because she had voted against some of his recommendations when he was her department chair.

During arbitration, Moudgil said that Stryker's research was not sufficient and that she had not done enough service to warrant tenure.

Stryker said that she did as much research as other faculty members who have received tenure both inside and outside of her department. She also noted that she served as the chair of a departmental technology committee, helped bring in influential speakers, and assisted in rebuilding the department's Web page in service to the university. 

"What more could I do?" she asked through tears during an interview.
 
Fay Hansen, an associate professor of biology – who was directly involved in her department’s review of Stryker – said that something went “terribly wrong” in Stryker’s case.

Hansen has sat on numerous review committees and says that Stryker’s case for tenure was “much stronger” than many colleagues she has seen receive tenure. It’s the first time she can remember a professor not receiving tenure in her department. She’s been at Oakland for 21 years, and received tenure in 1992.

Hansen said that Stryker's research met the biology department's requirements and she believes that Stryker met all existing policies on research independence and service to the institution for promotion and tenure. She added that Stryker’s background in epidemiology and molecular immunology was an “excellent fit” with the biology department’s needs.

Kathy Pfeiffer, an associate professor of English at Oakland, says that many professors were “shocked and disappointed” in Moudgil’s decision because he had been, to that point, “singularly supportive of faculty.”

“I myself have benefited enormously from his support and am very grateful for it,” said Pfeiffer.

Hansen said that this situation proves that there is “no consistency” on granting tenure at Oakland. “Are they suggesting that we should have med school research credentials when we already have lots of teaching responsibilities?” she asked. “To almost all of this, this is incredibly scary.”

The AAUP also says it has done all it can. “Our bargaining agreement calls for binding arbitration in cases such as this,” said Jim Cipielewski, president of the local AAUP chapter and chair of the Language and Reading Arts Department at Oakland. “As a result, there is no recourse for the association to continue this particular case.”

Cipielewski added the group’s “resolve is to do everything we can to prevent such cases in the future.” Faculty leaders have recently negotiated a tentative bargaining agreement that provides more guidance from the university to untenured faculty at earlier stages of the tenure process. “Our expectation is this will allow these assistant professors to understand more clearly what the university expects,” said Cipielewski, who added that he did not agree with the arbitrator’s decision in Stryker’s case.

Stryker said that she is considering filing a lawsuit against Oakland, but says she may not be able to afford a lawyer.

 

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