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Tenure Case Hinges on Collegiality

January 22, 2010

Something’s rotten in Ohio.

Depending on whom you believe, a bizarre tenure case that has unfolded over the past year at Ohio University either represents a last-ditch effort to oust a troubled and potentially dangerous professor or a concentrated conspiracy to derail his career before it truly begins. Either way, Bill Reader’s tenure case is headed for some sort of conclusion this month.

A journalism professor since 2002, Reader’s tenure decision went before a departmental committee last January. Despite glowing teaching evaluations and no documented trace of disciplinary action in his past, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism’s Promotion and Tenure Committee agreed only narrowly to recommend that Reader receive tenure. The 7-5 vote sent a clear message of dissension within the ranks, and served as a precursor for recommendations of tenure denial from the school’s director, the college of communication's tenure review committee and the dean. In the meantime, a cascade of charges and countercharges have been made, centering on whether Reader is the kind of professor Ohio wants to have around.

Reader’s case highlights a longstanding debate within academe about the extent to which “collegiality” should be factored into tenure and promotion decisions. Reader’s director and dean have cited a “pattern” of non-collegial and even “bullying” behavior as the reason for their concerns, and those misgivings were “heightened,” his dean said, by Reader’s admittedly angry reaction to the narrow tenure vote.

Indeed, three of Reader’s colleagues said they were so concerned about Reader’s response to the tenure vote that they filed formal harassment complaints against him.

Reader is described by a number of his colleagues, who spoke with Inside Higher Ed on condition of anonymity, as a driven professor whose generosity is coupled with a sometimes strident demeanor. In faculty meetings he’s frequently the first to speak up, and he seldom backs down from a position -- even when arguing a point with his dean, fellow professors said.

“Bill’s problem is he doesn’t know when to let it go,” said one faculty member, who still vehemently believes Reader deserves tenure.

The charges brought against Reader in the wake of his narrow tenure decision, however, go well beyond garden variety stubbornness. Indeed, the three female professors who brought complaints against Reader after the tenure vote said they felt legitimately threatened when they heard -- through other colleagues -- that Reader was “out for revenge” and “out to get people” who had voted against him, according to the complaints. Human resources investigators at Ohio interviewed faculty members who called Reader a “bully,” suggesting he was “often excessively hostile and belittling.”

Reader has made his own charges, suggesting that his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act were violated because his accusers sought to deny him tenure because they believed he was mentally ill. The Office of Institutional Equity, which functions as the university’s civil rights arm, did not find sufficient evidence to support Reader’s discrimination claims.

The timing of the complaints filed by faculty is also grounds for concern, say Reader and some of his colleagues. Since the complaints concerned Reader’s behavior after the tenure decision, they necessarily came just a few days after a committee of Reader’s peers voted favorably on his behalf. Even so, Reader calls the timing “highly suspicious,” suggesting they were designed to undermine him in the final stages of the approval process. Furthermore, Reader says it’s disconcerting that Tom Hodson, the school’s director, recommended he be denied tenure before any investigation into the veracity of the charges made against Reader was complete; indeed, before Reader himself learned of the charges.

While Hodson’s denial letter does not specifically mention the then-uninvestigated charges made by Reader’s colleagues, he does mention that he has been “advised” that some on the tenure committee felt they would be retaliated against if they publicly stated their reasons for voting against Reader’s tenure.

“Incidents of this kind of volatility and bullying behavior on the part of the candidate have been brought to my attention in the past,” Hodson wrote. “They have developed into a pattern.”

There is not a single piece of documentation from Reader’s eight years at Ohio, however, that shows he was ever disciplined for any “volatile, bullying, or other anti-social behavior,” according to a report of the university’s Office of Institutional Equity.

“Just because something doesn’t occur in a narrow piece of the written record doesn’t mean there were never any discussions, conversations,” said Gregory Shepherd, the college’s dean.

Shepherd declined to elaborate on any such conversations. Furthermore, the university has not responded to a public records request for e-mail evidence that was reportedly supplied to investigators to demonstrate Reader’s pattern of “erratic” behavior. Hodson also declined to be interviewed, saying he would have no comment until after Reader’s final appeal before the Faculty Senate Jan. 29. [Date corrected from an earlier version].

What is documented before the tenure vote is a pattern of congratulatory evaluations, endorsed by the very department head who is now challenging Reader’s tenure status. In 2004, Hodson called Reader “the ultimate team player.” He followed that up in 2007 by declaring “I am proud to be your colleague."

The chair of Ohio’s Faculty Senate Promotion and Tenure Committee has noted the absence of any prior mention of Reader’s untoward behavior in the professor’s files, saying Reader should have been alerted sooner if there were concerns.

“Dean Shepherd bases his denial ‘on concern about the ability of Professor Reader to establish good and productive relationships with colleagues.’ However, after examination of [Reader's] progress toward tenure letters we find no mention of collegiality being raised as a concern,” wrote Peter W. Coschigano, the committee chair. “It is incumbent upon the school to accurately address progress towards promotion and tenure annually so that the candidate has an opportunity to take corrective action.”

But while there’s no dispute that collegiality wasn’t raised in Reader’s evaluations, Shepherd cites a faculty handbook guideline that states “favorable annual reports do not guarantee positive tenure and promotion decisions.” In Reader’s case, that much seems clear.

Not Barred From Campus

The most concrete challenge to Reader’s fitness for tenure came after the tenure vote, when three female faculty members said they began hearing talk that Reader had a “list” of faculty whom he planned to “inconvenience or make trouble for,” according to the human resources investigation. To exact his revenge, faculty were told, Reader imagined one day being able to schedule them for teaching on Friday afternoons, the report states. Reader has denied saying he was "out to get" anyone, and he's disputed the claim that he hoped to someday create undesirable schedules for those who voted against him.

None of the faculty who complained about Reader said they had heard the “threats” directly, but after hearing stories from multiple people they said they became concerned for their safety. While a human resources investigation found that the stories faculty heard “could be interpreted” as threats, the report found no statements that suggested Reader would retaliate with physical force.

While Reader has been advised not to interact with his accusers, his access to campus has not been limited in any way. The only known security measure that has been employed over the last year was when Shepherd summoned a police officer to stand outside a conference room while a college-level committee deliberated on Reader’s tenure case. Reader was not on campus on the day of the meeting, which ended in the committee’s recommendation that tenure not be awarded.

Professor Shows His Scars

While he disputes the charges against him, Reader concedes that he hasn’t always helped himself in his fight for tenure. He admits to being angered by the narrow vote. Who wouldn’t be? he asks.

Moreover, he corroborates a troubling story that Hodson has relayed to investigators. When Reader learned that Hodson planned to recommend against awarding tenure, he made the bizarre decision to expose scars on his arms where he had used a branding tool to burn the words “comfort” and “truth” into his flesh. Reader branded himself during a difficult divorce two years earlier, and he told investigators that he wanted to demonstrate to Hodson and Robert Stewart, the school’s associate director, that his commitment to work had contributed to the dissolution of his marriage.

“I just felt completely betrayed, and to be honest I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown,” Reader said. “I probably shouldn’t have shown them my arms, but I did.”

Reader has also exchanged e-mails with his dean that illustrate his anger, calling Shepherd’s actions “despicable,” adding that “power corrupts.”

“As always, though, I disagree with you collegially,” Reader wrote.

Collegiality Standard Draws Scrutiny

In denying Reader tenure, Hodson and Shepherd have cited two broad policies that govern faculty behavior at Ohio. The first is a relatively narrow policy within the journalism school, which states that, as a community of scholars, “faculty do not discriminate against or harass colleagues.”

“In the exchange of criticism and ideas, professors show due respect for the opinions of others,” the policy notes.

Whether Reader has lived up to that standard is a matter of dispute. Some of Reader’s colleagues have said he has been “belittling of their scholarly accomplishments [and] scornful of individuals for their opinions,” sometimes “questioning the integrity of some departmental procedures,” the Office of Institutional Equity reported.

A second college-level policy used to justify the denial of tenure has come under more scrutiny, given its subjective nature. The college’s promotion and tenure guidelines state that “Candidates for tenure must meet not only the expectations expressed above [teaching/advising, research/creative activities and service], but they must be judged by their peers as persons with whom their colleagues will want to have an association, perhaps for the rest of their professional lives.”

Michael Fischer, who is vice president for academic affairs at Trinity University in San Antonio and who recently helped craft a faculty conduct code, said Ohio’s school-level policy is “stated very well.” But Fischer, who has written about "collegiality" for Inside Higher Ed, said the college-level policy may go too far.

“More positive associations among colleagues may be desirable but they aren’t necessary to safeguarding free speech,” Fischer, who is dean of faculty, wrote in an e-mail. “The second guideline unnecessarily risks making ‘fitting in’ an obligation [for tenure].”

The American Association of University Professors has suggested that collegiality should not be used in isolation as a prerequisite for tenure. That’s not to say, however, that collegiality won’t emerge as an issue when examining a professor’s documented record of teaching, research and service, according to Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP. A gruff professor, for instance, is likely to see his teaching evaluations suffer as a result, and examining those documented evaluations is an appropriate step in considering tenure, Nelson said. A committee simply asking itself whether a person is collegial, however, is another matter, he said.

“When you make [collegiality] an independent criteria, then it’s subject to all kinds of subjective, political or biased principles that really have no place in a tenure evaluation,” he said.

Reader’s dean says he agrees that simply asking whether a professor is likable is an inappropriate criterion for evaluation of tenure, and he argues that the college’s policy guards against those sorts of judgments being employed. The very fact that no faculty member in the college has been denied tenure in at least 14 years is evidence that the process isn’t subject to whimsical decisions based on personality, Shepherd said.

“If a faculty member can’t work productively with colleagues, if others can’t work productively with him, if his behavior seriously disrupts the ability of the academic community to do its work, then the community can reasonably decide against granting tenure to that person,” he said. “This is, thankfully, the rarest of rare circumstances.”

 

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