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More Than a Coincidence?

More Than a Coincidence?
January 4, 2011

High-profile tenure denials have become all but commonplace at DePaul University. In 2007, the case of political scientist Norman Finkelstein attracted worldwide attention, with allegations that he was rejected -- despite a strong teaching record -- because of his criticism of Israel. But while the Finkelstein case reverberated outside the university in dramatic ways, a new round of tenure denials at DePaul is creating different kinds of tensions. Finkelstein is a white man, but all of the recent disputed cases involve minority scholars.

The last tenure denial triggered the strongest response yet from faculty members who are publicly condemning a “broken tenure system” that they see as fraught with academic freedom violations, overreaching administrators, racism and sexism.

They’re not alone: the case has drawn the ire of students on campus, too, as well as the American Association of University Professors. And while this particular case – that of a female, South Asian philosophy professor with a well-regarded academic record – has some people enraged, its outcome widely viewed as reflecting a pattern. To faculty leaders, it was one tenure denial too many.

“I think people are incensed and infuriated about this. Year after year, it’s always the same thing; there’s all these questions about the tenure and promotion process and they never get resolved,” said a tenured political science professor, Valerie Johnson. “People want to see investigation into the process…. To make sure it’s not arbitrary.”

That’s why Johnson and others are calling for an external review of DePaul’s tenure system to identify and resolve what they see as institutional biases that keep deserving women and people of color from getting tenure.

In the 2009-10 academic year, all those who were denied tenure were minority faculty members, and all white candidates won tenure. Of 43 applicants, 10 self-identified faculty members of color went up for tenure, but the University Board on Faculty Tenure and Promotion – the final committee to review candidates and, DePaul’s president said, the one with the most weight – voted to deny six of them (despite previous reports of more applicants and more approvals). The president ultimately signed off on an appeals board's recommendation to reverse one candidate's denial, meaning that in the end, 100 percent of white candidates got tenure, compared to half of minority candidates.

Johnson said that if the Faculty Council passes a proposed motion at next week's meeting, which would urge the president to adhere to faculty handbook guidelines regarding procedures in the event of the tenure appeals board majority recommending reversal of a denial, a faculty vote of "no confidence" could be on the horizon.

The administration convened a faculty committee that has been working since September to examine best practices for the institution to help professors seeking tenure, but the administration has rejected the notion that institutional biases are responsible for the gaps.

Namita Goswami’s unsuccessful tenure bid came on the heels of that of Quinetta Shelby, the only black faculty member in all the math and sciences at DePaul. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that in February, two white, non-tenure-track professors were simultaneously placed on the tenure track and tenured, without going through the standard procedures.

According to data presented to the Faculty Council, since the 1985-6 academic year, white tenure candidates have a 93 percent success rate, compared to minority candidates’ 79 percent rate. But, as last year's data indicate, the gap can at times be much more stark. “Without such a review we can hardly contend that there is no systemic bias,” Johnson wrote in a letter to colleagues.

DePaul provided statistics showing variation by race; for instance, in the past five years, Asian candidates and female candidates have been tenured at rates within a few percentage points of white candidates, while Hispanic and black candidates have lagged by 10 or more percentage points.

In November 2009, the denials of five female faculty members led to campus protests and threats of litigation (three of them are now suing DePaul in federal court). That year, of 33 applicants, seven were denied, five of whom were women; 16 of 18 male applicants got tenure.

Many of Goswami's colleagues saw her tenure as all but certain during the process: her C.V. lists numerous peer-reviewed journal articles (she wrote nine at DePaul) and book chapters, presentations and awards, and she has a book (which she wrote from scratch in three years) under contract with the State University of New York Press. But the majority on her review panel weren't praising Goswami's record, according to a report on the case by the Illinois Conference of the AAUP and minority reports from department committee members who disputed the accuracy of the majority's conclusions. Some of her critics apparently questioned whether her peer-reviewed publications were in fact peer-reviewed, or whether the reviewers were her friends. Others insinuated that her publications were "favors" to Goswami. The department criticized Goswami for not speaking fluent German given her interest in the German philosopher Adorno, even though Goswami says they knew that when they hired her (she does speak Hindi, Punjabi, French, Spanish and Urdu). One person said her best article was one written with her husband. Her colleagues cast her as a women's studies scholar, saying she was not a good fit for the department; that her focus on postcolonial philosophy was too far outside the realm of traditional philosophy (though she was hired to teach postcolonial philosophy). Their emphasis on her lacking collegiality violates AAUP standards, the Illinois report found.

The department committee – the first to review tenure applications – voted 11-7-1 against granting tenure and promotion. The second reviewers, the college committee, voted unanimously to grant tenure. Goswami also had the dean’s endorsement. But at the university level, the board on faculty promotion and tenure rejected her 6-1, and the president approved the denial.

“Knowing the kinds of records that have gotten tenure at DePaul, the arbitrariness and capriciousness I think becomes all the more apparent with my case,” Goswami said. “How is it that this record cannot get tenure at DePaul? What more is someone supposed to do? What objective standard can someone appeal to get tenure if this record cannot get tenure at DePaul?”

Goswami and Shelby both appealed their rulings, and faculty appeals board majorities recommended that both decisions be reversed – but the president, who has final say, did not acquiesce. He said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that “it is not common at all” for the president to overturn tenure denials, and he only does so in “rare and compelling circumstances.” (Only one professor of color who was denied tenure this year and appealed – one out of four – had the decision reversed. Of the four who appealed, the appeals board ruled that three should have been tenured.)

In examining Shelby's case, the appeals committee argued that her tenure denial should be reversed on the grounds of process (for the board to recommend a reversal, it must find either that there was a violation of academic freedom or that the tenure process itself was not followed). The board cited “numerous procedure violations” in the chemistry department’s review and subsequent vote to deny tenure: the department changed its processes mid-review, refused to consider relevant publications and awards, and placed disproportionate emphasis on minor negative issues, the appeals panel found.

Goswami wasn’t the first DePaul professor to look to the Illinois-AAUP for help, but she was the first to inspire a full investigation by the organization. Peter N. Kirstein, vice president of the Illinois Conference of the AAUP, said he receives “quite a few contacts from DePaul, almost like a clockwork between May and July each year,” but the inquiry usually ends after a couple of e-mail exchanges. Goswami first contacted Kirstein in July. “When I started going into her case, it just jumped out at me,” he said. “There were so many irregularities and so many errors and so many problems with basic best practices…. I felt that she was the victim of clear academic discrimination.”

Two of three appeals board members noted policy and procedure violations similar to Shelby's in their report on Goswami's case. Her sixth-year review process, they said, "emerged from and was embedded in an extremely inconsistent, arbitrary, informal and careless set of practices and procedures in earlier phases of the probationary period." For instance, in Goswami's fourth-year review, an ad hoc committee unanimously voted for contract renewal. But instead of filing a formal cumulative, probationary period review document, they filed an annual merit review, covering only one calendar year but calling Goswami's teaching, scholarship, service and overall evaluation "outstanding." Yet her fifth-year review resulted in a recommendation to the dean to terminate Goswami's contract.

The national AAUP has weighed in with a letter to the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, DePaul's president, asking him to suspend his ruling on Goswami’s tenure until she receives what the association considers due process. The DePaul faculty handbook states that when a tenure candidate’s academic freedom has been violated, the dean may either recommend another contract or recommend the case be reviewed.

While Goswami was hired to teach philosophy with a focus on critical race and feminist theory, her area of study was a driving factor in the denial, the Illinois-AAUP wrote in its report, which is highly critical of the department’s tenure committee. “The department was exhibiting a severe case of buyer’s remorse,” Kirstein said in an interview. “What they were doing was – astonishingly – punishing her for doing her job.”

Father Holtschneider takes issue with the investigation because the Illinois-AAUP did not contact anyone at the university. Kirstein said the investigation relied on dozens of documents, hundreds of pages of student evaluations (which were largely positive), and reports by the relevant units.

Father Holtschneider said that while “it’s concerning” that all those denied tenure this year were minority scholars, they were voted down by their peers, and that’s simply the way the process works. Father Holtschneider acknowledged that people believe there are problems with DePaul’s tenure process, but he downplayed the idea that there is some kind of institutional bias. “Certainly people – in the absence of more detailed information – have concerns…. They’re making a conjecture that maybe there’s something more” to the denials, like racism or sexism. “But in fact, I didn’t see it when I read through the faculty reviews.”

Like most colleges, DePaul, which operates in the racially diverse Chicago area, says that it values institutional diversity; it is one component of the institution’s strategic plan. According to DePaul’s website, “diversity is one of our greatest resources." The web page, which says students of color comprise 36 percent of the most recent freshman class, doesn’t include statistics regarding the diversity of the faculty, but Father Holtschneider said 19 percent of DePaul’s faculty members are people of color. “We’ve worked very intentionally for a long time to diversify our faculty,” he said. “That didn’t happen by accident.”

But others say recent events call into question DePaul’s stated commitment to diversity. “There’s a difference between desiring diversity in a sort of abstract or theoretical way” and actually embracing it, Johnson said. And it isn’t only a question of Goswami’s sex or race – her scholarship, which lies outside the standard western canon of continental philosophy, was troubling to others in the department, documents show. “There appears to be a club-like atmosphere and a narrow perception of the discipline in the Department of Philosophy,” the Illinois-AAUP report reads.

While the details of Goswami’s case incited a rallying cry, her supporters are looking for more than justice for one individual.

On Dec. 7, Johnson and two other professors wrote a letter to Mary A. Dempsey, chairwoman of DePaul’s board of trustees, requesting intervention in the cases of Goswami and Shelby, as well as in the “broken” tenure process. To address the latter issue, the professors asked Dempsey to back a new administrative position to be filled by a tenured faculty member who “has the confidence and support of faculty of color on issues related to faculty diversity” and could work with the provost. They also called on the chairwoman to “compel Father Holtschneider to follow procedures set forth in the Faculty Handbook related to the resolution of academic freedom violations.”

Dempsey responded the same day with a two-paragraph letter, saying that an intervention by the board of trustees would be inappropriate and upsetting to many faculty members. “From my vantage, this is not a matter of the President’s sensitivity to race, but rather a matter of a difference of opinion among the faculty, upon which the President had to make a reasoned decision,” she wrote.

As for the best tenure practices committee, it’s a less-than-satisfactory solution to Johnson and Goswami. “It allows them to pretend as if there’s nothing wrong at DePaul and the tenure system at DePaul, despite evidence to the contrary,” Goswami said. “What the president is saying is that these best practices are to help faculty of color put forth better portfolios. So the assumption is that there is something wrong with the candidates, not the system.”

A philosophy graduate student who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation is working with 29 of her peers to protest Goswami's denial. "I don't think addressing these is the end of the problem, I think it's the beginning of looking to change the culture of DePaul at a lot of levels, at departmental levels and administrative levels," she said.

 

 

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