Philosophical Questions

William & Mary imposes outside chair on department. Is the college protecting junior faculty or punishing dissent?
June 25, 2007

The norm in academe is for junior faculty members to sit out departmental votes on tenure decisions. Such matters should be handled only by those who have already earned tenure, the theory goes.

When it comes to another key personnel decision -- whom to hire for new positions -- tenure-track professors who haven't yet earned tenure are generally included, not just in discussions, but in actual votes. At the College of William & Mary, this bothered two senior professors of philosophy. They argued that including junior faculty members in actual votes on new hires was bad for the department (on the theory that they would hurt the department's quality by voting for candidates to whom they would compare favorably when coming up for tenure) and for the junior faculty members (who might feel pressure to vote in certain ways to please powerful senior professors who would soon be voting on their tenure bids).

The two professors feel so strongly about the issue that they have pulled out of participating in departmental votes on new hires. And their actions were among those cited by an outside review team in blasting the department's treatment of junior faculty members. That team's report, in turn, prompted college administrators to take the rare step of removing the department chair, bringing in an English professor to lead the department.

Some former junior professors in the department -- who left it in part because of the concerns noted in the outside review -- are praising the college administration for intervening to deal with what they found to be a dysfunctional and hostile department. And some at William & Mary and elsewhere note that some of those who left landed in tenure-track or tenured positions at better departments, suggesting that the college is losing good talent.

But to the ousted chair and the two professors who set off the debate, the college's action amounts to squelching debate. Even if people disagree with the view the two professors expressed (as the ousted chair does, vehemently), is that view so beyond the pale that expressing it should be off limits?

Should Junior Faculty Members Vote?

In the conflict at William & Mary, many issues are at play, some apparently related to longstanding disagreements among some philosophers there. But the policy question raised by two of the professors is a simple one: Should tenure-track faculty members who are not yet tenured vote on new hires?

Paul S. Davies, one of the professors who pressed to exclude the junior professors from voting, stressed that such a shift in the rules would protect them. "If you have junior people voting, they have tenure in the back of their minds, and that would be a motivation to hire someone less impressive than yourself," he said. In any department with disagreements, Davies added, junior faculty members would also have to worry about offending (or would seek to please) the people who would soon vote on their tenure.

Davies also linked his views to a concern about "standards." Davies and George W. Harris, the other philosopher who raised the issue of junior faculty members voting, have charged that the department as a whole is reluctant to push nice people to work harder. The two have also raised questions about whether politics and gender enter in some hiring choices, although they have not restricted those concerns to junior faculty members.

"There has to be a check on conflicts of interest between those doing the hiring and the future of the institution in terms of maintaining or even raising standards when standards are at stake," said Harris. "Here there is no oversight, nor is there in many other places."

The position of Harris and Davies was never endorsed by their department or chair, and William & Mary officials say that collegewide policies govern the issue -- and that the philosophy department could not have changed its voting policy even if it had wanted to. And that of course raises the question of whether the proposal deserved consideration.

Noah Lemos, who is losing his position as chair as a result of the dispute, said that he disagrees with Harris and Davies, and thinks junior faculty should vote. But he thinks Harris and Davies have raised legitimate questions, and that raising them wasn't inappropriate. He compared the hiring decisions at colleges to those of law firms or hospitals, where the ultimate decisions would be made by senior officials, not lawyers who hadn't made partner or residents. Others noted that academic departments routinely seek no input from adjunct faculty members -- even in cases where they are the ones doing most of the teaching -- so the principle of letting everyone vote is already compromised.

In an interview, Carl Strikwerda, dean of arts and sciences at William & Mary, denied that the position of Harris and Davies was a key factor in his decision to replace Lemos. While he called their position "unfortunate," he said that it was only a "symptom" of the problems, and that they were "free to advocate their position."

While Strikwerda suggested that the two professors' position was a side issue, he cited it in his official letter announcing that he was naming an outside chair to lead the department, referring to "a request by senior faculty members to disenfranchise junior faculty."

Several experts on faculty governance -- with no connection to the William & Mary dispute -- said that they thought it was standard practice to allow junior faculty members to vote, although several said that they thought a case could be made for them not to have that right.

Roger Baldwin, a professor of educational administration at Michigan State University and author of Teaching Without Tenure, said that he had never seen junior faculty members on the tenure track excluded from voting.

Baldwin said that he has worked in collegial departments and that in such environments, the non-tenured faculty members can be protected from being dragged into conflicts that could hurt their tenure reviews. "But I can understand the arguments on the other side, too," he said. "It probably depends on the dynamics of the department and the institution. Junior faculty could be put in a vulnerable position if they expressed a point of view in conflict with those who would be voting on tenure."

The American Association of University Professors has long taken the position that junior faculty should have a full vote in hiring. "They are full-fledged members of the department, and as such, they should participate," said Robert Kreiser, associate secretary.

Kreiser scoffed at the conflict of interest issue raised at William & Mary and said that senior faculty members could have their own sets of conflicts. "You could argue that senior faculty like things the way they are, so they might not want to bring in people who would challenge them," Kreiser said. "Why not exclude entrenched senior faculty members from votes on new hires?"

The Culture of the Department

The discussion of faculty voting rights is part of a broader debate over the treatment of junior faculty members in William & Mary's philosophy department. A regularly scheduled outside departmental review this year found numerous problems in the philosophy program -- among them allegations that student credit hours have declined and that female faculty members are mistreated.

After reviewing the report, Dean Strikwerda said that there was not sufficient evidence to support those charges. But he did see cause to change leadership in the department because of the problems identified in the report with regard to the treatment of junior faculty members. "There appears to be a persistent lack of mentoring and encouragement of junior faculty coupled with a general climate in which junior faculty have been made apprehensive about meeting standards for tenure and their future in the department," he wrote in his letter to the philosophy faculty.

While Strikwerda said that the standards were "not excessive," he found that "excessive concern about standards," combined with other problems, created an "inhospitable and unsupportive environment" for junior professors. Strikwerda acknowledged that imposing an outside chair was "a very serious step to take," but said it was necessary. (In the interview, Strikwerda said it would be wrong to say that he had placed the department in receivership because he had not taken away all of its authority, only the right to pick its leader, and to have a leader from within.)

Strikwerda said that he could not get too specific because of confidentiality requirements, but that he conducted numerous interviews with current and former faculty members and saw the problem as "grave enough" to merit intervention.

Several people who have left the department praise William & Mary, saying that problems there were allowed to fester for too long -- to the detriment of their careers. One person who left and now is in a permanent position at a prestigious university said that the attitude in the department seemed to be one of looking for reasons to attack young scholars, as opposed to helping them succeed. This person and several others asked to have their identities protected because they are still early in their careers and fear making public enemies.

This scholar said that "if you hire someone into a department, you should want to help them succeed." That doesn't mean lowering standards or coddling, this former William & Mary professor said, but offering guidance that isn't seen as "an excuse" to take someone on. Such constructive guidance, even if critical, "inspires even harder work and greater productivity," this person said.

Brie Gertler left William & Mary after seeing how a colleague a year ahead of her on the tenure track was treated. Gertler said that she was so stunned about that process -- in which the department voted down someone with endorsements from some top philosophers in the country -- that she didn't feel confident of getting a fair hearing.

She wanted to get out, ended up at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she earned tenure, and is now back in Virginia, in a tenured job at the University of Virginia.

Gertler stressed that she loved teaching at William & Mary and wouldn't have looked to leave, were it not for her sense of the way junior faculty were treated by some (not all) of the senior professors. She said that the move by William & Mary to take over the department's leadership was "courageous" and demonstrated "excellent judgment."

"By enabling the department to attract and retain promising junior faculty, this decision will allow the department to achieve its potential," she said. "There are talented philosophers there, some wonderful people who are first-rate scholars and dedicated teachers. I am glad to know that those faculty are getting the administrative support they need to achieve their goals."

Lemos and other senior members of the department object not only to the decision to appoint an outside chair, but to the evidence used. Much of the evidence is anonymous, and professors say that they can't respond adequately because they don't know who accused whom of what. They say that some of the recent losses of junior faculty were inevitable -- a professor from Ireland, for example, accepting a position and saying (prior to starting) that because of an opening at an Irish university, William & Mary would be home for only one year.

Harris said that in fact there's much evidence that the department has helped junior faculty. "We once raised teaching loads for senior faculty to meet an administration request but exempted junior faculty so that they could concentrate on their teaching and research. We instituted a junior leave policy for them. We have given them smaller classes. We have reduced their teaching loads. We have made exceptions for them in terms of finishing their degrees despite the fact that it was a condition of their hire that they be finished before taking up their jobs here," he said. But "none of these things were taken into account in evaluating the attitude toward junior faculty in this department."

The administration "attempts to smear people who raise the issue about standards," Harris said, and in punishing the department "they are imposing drastic consequences on us because of the content of our speech."

The Wren Cross

There is yet another backdrop to the controversy. William & Mary has been the site of a fierce struggle in the last year over the future of a cross on display in its Wren Chapel. After much debate, the cross will be on permanent display. But critics of President Gene R. Nichol, who had ordered the removal of the cross, have continued a campaign against him.

Most of the opposition to Nichol's decision came from alumni -- and many faculty members backed him, although others said that even if they agreed with his arguments (about inclusiveness and church/state separation), he handled the situation poorly. At a meeting of department chairs and other academic affairs leaders, one professor proposed that the group issue a statement backing Nichol. The group overwhelmingly voted to do so.

One of the two chairs to disagree was Lemos. The professor being brought in to replace him from another department is Terry Meyers from English, who is staying out of public discussion of the department and who introduced the measure to express support for Nichol.

This being a dispute among philosophers, everyone agrees that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, but that doesn't mean that no one is wondering about the possible linkage.

Strikwerda, the dean who replaced Lemos with Meyers, said he had no idea how anyone voted on the resolution about the president, and that positions taken on that issue had no impact on the philosophy department's problems.


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