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Faculty Challenge Tenure Denial

February 17, 2010

In denying a qualified Ohio University journalism professor tenure, university administrators violated principles of due process and failed to produce sufficient evidence to justify their opposition, a faculty committee has found.

An ad hoc committee of Ohio’s Faculty Senate on Sunday issued a report recommending that Bill Reader be granted tenure status and labeling the process up to this point as “tainted” and “compromised” by a variety of administrative missteps.

Facing allegations of non-collegial and bullying behavior, Reader has seen a positive tenure vote from his colleagues in the journalism school overturned at every other level. The ad hoc committee’s favorable recommendation now goes to the university's president, who has 30 days to decide whether tenure should be awarded.

Reader’s case has become a flashpoint on the campus, where a Faculty Senate hearing on the issue last month reportedly drew more than 100 people and resulted in some contentious back and forth between administrators and Reader’s supporters. Apart from the campus-level interest, Reader’s case fits into a continuing national debate over the extent to which “collegiality” ought to be considered in the awarding of tenure.

Although the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism’s Promotion and Tenure Committee narrowly recommended Reader be awarded tenure -- in a 7-5 vote -- subsequent recommendations by the journalism school's director, a college-level review committee and dean have all come out negatively. All those opposed have cited the closeness of the school’s vote, and both the dean and director have cited a “pattern” of non-collegial and even bullying behavior.

The only formal allegations made against Reader during his career at Ohio came after the tenure vote, when three female faculty members filed harassment complaints against him. Prior to that, Reader had received nothing but glowing annual evaluations with no mention of untoward behavior in his file. The faculty members, however, said they felt threatened by Reader upon hearing from other colleagues that he was “out for revenge” against those who had opposed his bid for tenure. While not addressing the merits of those allegations, the ad hoc committee argued that it was inappropriate to consider uninvestigated charges in the context of tenure deliberations, as appears to have been the case with Reader.

“The procedures for handling these allegations and violations are entirely separate from the promotion and tenure process,” the committee wrote. “Conflation of these independent processes jeopardizes the integrity of them both.”

Tom Hodson, director of the journalism school, notified Reader in May that he was initiating formal ethics proceedings to explore the allegations against Reader, documents show. But that process has lurched along without conclusion while the uninvestigated allegations have continually been used to justify decisions in the tenure process, Reader says.

“The politics now are very delicate, but basically the Faculty Senate’s findings were [consistent with] the argument that I and my supporters have been making since last February," he said. "Mixing these two procedures is inappropriate, and it’s inappropriate to deny somebody tenure based on the allegations alone.”

Reader was notified of the ethics proceeding only after Hodson, the college committee and Gene Shepherd, the college’s dean, had all recommended against his tenure.

Hodson declined an interview request, and Shepherd said via e-mail that the case is “in the president's hands.”

Allegations Tainted Process, Committee Says

The extent to which Hodson may have relied on unsubstantiated allegations to formulate his tenure denial decision was a matter of concern for the committee. While Hodson’s denial letter does not directly mention the allegations, his intimate knowledge of them cannot be overlooked, the committee stated.

“Regardless of when Director Hodson decided to recommend against tenure and promotion, it is certain that the pending allegations must have been in the forefront of his thoughts when he composed the letter,” the committee wrote.

The allegations continued to taint the tenure process as it moved forward, the committee found. When Reader’s case went before the Scripps College of Communication’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, the committee included a non-voting member from the journalism school who had filed a complaint against Reader, as well as another faculty member from the school who was aware of the allegations. The faculty members’ participation, and the absence of any advocate for Reader, created a “highly irregular” process that was subject to “improper influence by a hostile committee member,” the ad hoc committee found.

During their deliberations over Reader's tenure, committee members were also informed that a police officer had been summoned by the dean to guard them from any potential interference by Reader, who happened not to be on campus that day. Informing the committee of the police presence may have also affected the tenure decision process, which ended in a unanimous vote for denial, the review committee said.

While bringing a police officer to the hearings may have carried the implicit suggestion that Reader could pose a danger to his colleagues, human resources investigators found no evidence to suggest he would be violent.

For those who fear a faculty member disappointed by a tenure decision might become violent, Friday's shootings at the University of Alabama at Huntsville are hard to ignore. The extent to which Amy Bishop’s tenure denial played into her alleged killings of three fellow faculty members remains in dispute, but the unfavorable decision has been considered among possible motives.

Reader’s supporters and colleagues said they were hopeful that the Alabama incident would not be used to justify any action in his tenure case, or his continuing ethics investigation.

“I really can’t imagine -- and I would be highly disappointed -- if any of the people involved made any reference to [the Alabama shootings] in any way,” said Mary Rogus, associate professor of broadcast journalism.It’s an unfortunate coincidence of timing, but there is absolutely, positively no relation.”

E-mails Don't Warrant Denial, Committee Says

While the names of the complainants have been publicly available before now, the committee’s report was the first official documentation to state that those who brought the allegations against Reader were among the faculty who voted against his tenure in the closed school-level session. Subsequent to the publication of this story, however, the ad hoc committee's chairman informed Inside Higher Ed that the committee did not in fact have independent verification of how the complainants voted, and that the supposition was based on Reader's belief. [Story updated to reflect new information].

"We don't have any record (of the votes)," said Greg Van Patten, the committee's chair. "We know what Professor Reader believed their votes were."

As the tenure candidate, Reader was not present during the session.

Van Patten said the report may need to be amended, but added that "I don't think it changes the overall findings and recommendations."

The suspicion that the complainants voted against Reader has given rise to speculation among the professor's supporters that trumped-up charges made after the fact were used to derail Reader’s career when he managed to win the school’s tenure vote.

Eddith Dashiell, an associate professor in the school of journalism, said she believes the controversy surrounding Reader’s tenure dates to his being hired over another candidate, a choice that was approved by a narrowly split faculty vote within the school.

“My theory is this was a six-year planned event to get Bill fired by the ones who didn’t want him hired in the first place,” said Dashiell, assistant dean for undergraduate programs and services in the Scripps College of Communication.

Dashiell, who has been on the faculty for 17 years, has emerged as a vocal advocate on Reader’s behalf. To that end, Dashiell appeared Jan. 29 before a hearing of the ad hoc committee, where she suggested that any acts of non-collegiality on Reader’s part paled in comparison to the behavior she’s seen exhibited by other faculty in the school.

“What Bill has said has never reached the level of what some of my colleagues have said in meetings, in the hall and in e-mails,” she said.

In response to a public records request, Ohio officials provided several of Reader’s e-mails and other relevant documents held by the university’s human resources office. One series of e-mails shows a contentious exchange between Reader and his colleagues when Reader implores them to sign a farewell card for a departing faculty member.

“The paltry number of signatures [on the card] is embarrassing,” Reader wrote March 12, 2007.

“She was a challenging colleague -- some might say too challenging -- but in the end, nobody can accuse [her] of not caring deeply and selflessly about this school and its students,” Reader added. “In return, she is being sent off with a deafening silence and, even worse, a few backstabbing whispers by the ungrateful.”

Reader’s e-mail prompted responses from Patricia Cambridge, an assistant professor in the school, who said “In the future, I would prefer to be addressed with the civility and respect that I give to my colleagues.” The exchanges continued with Reader noting, “I opted for vitriol. I have no regrets. Before my e-mail, there were few signatures; afterward, there were many.”

In February 2009 -- about two years after that exchange -- Cambridge was among the three faculty members to file complaints against Reader.

University officials did not respond Tuesday to a request for all e-mail evidence submitted to the ad hoc committee, but the committee’s report makes clear that none of the correspondence was considered sufficiently troubling to warrant tenure being denied.

“In some of these e-mail exchanges Reader was undeniably sarcastic, rude, and/or argumentative,” the committee wrote. “We assume that these e-mails represented the extreme of Reader’s deportment; however, even in these we did not find anything exceptionally offensive that would likely warrant loss of tenure or denial of tenure or promotion.”

As for whether collegiality warrants consideration at all in the tenure process, the committee deferred to each school’s sovereignty on such decisions. If collegiality is to be used as a criterion for tenure, however, then annual evaluations should specifically address a candidate’s progress in this arena, the committee suggested.

The committee was also clear in its opinion that if there’s a reason for denying Bill Reader tenure, it’s not in his file.

“The denial of tenure and promotion to Professor Reader does not appear to be based in any way on his dossier, on his accomplishments, or on his ability to work effectively with a significant number of his colleagues,” the committee wrote. “Rather, it appears to have resulted from an improper conflation of the tenure and promotion process with processes for dealing with allegations of misconduct.”

 

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