Tenure Denied, Tenure Gained

A professor of religion at Northwestern University is denied tenure, only to receive it two months later. Was it an oversight, discrimination -- or did the process work?
September 25, 2007

When Northwestern University denied Sarah Taylor’s bid for tenure in May, many students and faculty protested what they felt was an injustice toward a talented teacher and distinguished scholar. But what happened next could have been even more stunning: the university reversed its decision and granted Taylor tenure.

An about-face in a tenure decision is hardly an everyday occurrence in academe, as recent controversy in nearby Chicago demonstrated, and unpopular denials often lead to some protest. But tenure has never been a popularity contest.

Still, that didn’t deter students in the Department of Religion and faculty from across the university’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences from mounting a sometimes vocal protest against the administration last semester, with some students alleging gender discrimination during the tenure review process.

Northwestern has a four-level process, beginning with the department’s recommendation. If the application passes the department, a confidential three-member ad-hoc committee is formed at the college level to make a recommendation to the elected college-wide tenure committee. Finally, the dean can accept or reject the committee’s vote in recommending tenure to the provost.

In Taylor’s case, both the department and the ad hoc committee gave their blessing, but the 12-member college-wide committee voted not to recommend tenure -- advice that Daniel I. Linzer, the dean at the time and now the provost, apparently took. Administration officials would not comment on the specifics of the case, and Taylor declined to comment as well.

The original decision was overruled in July, when the university notified Taylor that she had gained tenure after all. But the reversal wasn’t a result of the appeals process, which takes months and wouldn’t have begun until this fall; under the policy, tenure decisions can be challenged on three grounds: inadequate consideration of the case, impermissible discrimination and academic freedom violations.

Instead, the administration informally reconsidered the decision, in part, after hearing from faculty members who felt strongly that Taylor’s credentials merited tenure. “Several people ... expressed their opinions, and the administration was appropriately willing to go back and reconsider the case and judge it on its merits, and we were delighted that this case was finally decided positively,” said Richard Kieckhefer, chairman of the religion department, who is not on the tenure committee.

Those familiar with the process suggested that although the initial decision was a disappointment, the evaluation process itself worked as it was supposed to: The recommendation was reconsidered at the college level, with opportunities for additional input from faculty and outside experts.

“I really want to praise our administrators for being willing to say, ‘OK, we called this one wrong,’ ” said Barbara Newman, a professor of English, religion and classics.

What Went Wrong?

The fact of the university’s reversal suggests an admission that the original denial of tenure didn’t truly reflect Taylor’s contributions as a scholar and teacher, or at least that it was based on insufficient information. Why exactly the recommendation changed may remain a mystery -- proceedings in the tenure committee are confidential and those directly involved in the process will not comment.

Observers of Taylor’s bid for tenure, and professors in the department, single out a number of factors that may have played a role in the initial decision. No single one of them seems to have been a deciding factor, and no concrete evidence of gender discrimination exists in this case, despite what some critics charge is a history of bias in Northwestern’s tenure decisions.

For Taylor, one potential obstacle to tenure was the nature of her research, which encompasses religion as well as the environment, women’s studies and American studies. “In tenure cases, it can be very tricky to try to explain to people who only work in one field” why interdisciplinary study is worthwhile, suggested Cristina L. H. Traina, a professor in the religion department.

Taylor’s work spans a number of topics, including Native American and African American religions as well as the “greening” of religion in America. Her book Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology, published by Harvard University Press this year, investigates a group of Roman Catholic nuns who advocate environmentalism as theology. She has won the college’s Outstanding Freshman Adviser award and made the faculty honor roll, in addition to receiving Mellon, Rockefeller and Wilson fellowships.

Even as she has pursued a decidedly interdisciplinary approach, Taylor has been carving a niche in an emerging field with its own set of methodologies -- ones that might not have initially struck the tenure committee as standard, Kieckhefer suggested.

“Sarah is doing work of a sort that is really quite interesting and innovative; she is working with these ‘green sisters’ in a way which is entirely in keeping with current standards of field work, but the standards of field work have changed over the years, and these days the standard of aloof, detached objectivity is recognized as not the goal to strive toward,” he said. “Rather, responsible, reflective engagement with the community is seen as more the appropriate goal.” The book’s description describes Taylor’s approach as that of an “intimate outsider.”

One scholar who might have emerged as an advocate for this type of approach couldn’t serve as an outside referee for procedural reasons: He was in the process of joining the department at Northwestern. As a result, Robert Orsi, who now holds the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at the university and also uses the ethnographic approach in his work, was only able to comment on the proceedings after the initial decision had been made, according to Newman. (Orsi, who was previously at Harvard Divinity School, could not be reached for comment.)

“I think [Orsi's input] helped,” she said. Other professors in American studies, history and other departments also weighed in after Taylor’s tenure had been denied.

The Gender Question

For some, the lack of an official explanation still raises questions about whether gender ever entered into the equation, overtly or not.

According to statistics from the American Association of University Women, 27 percent of tenure decisions at four-year universities go to female professors. Two years ago, the AAUW was supporting 19 suits alleging discrimination nationwide, according to Lauren C. Kamnik, the director of the group’s Legal Advocacy Fund.

At Northwestern, the AAUW supported a case originally from the late 1970s brought by Janet Lever, an assistant professor of sociology, which alleged that her tenure had been denied in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As with Taylor, both the department and the ad-hoc committee supported tenure -- but in Lever’s case, the dean recommended a denial of tenure because the college-level committee did not achieve the required two-thirds majority. A complaint was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1981, and the lawsuit was filed in 1984 although it was never heard due to procedural reasons.

The university, for its part, maintains that it has made progress since that time, which was arguably a different world for women in academe as well as in other professions. Some of Taylor’s faculty supporters also play down the role, if any, played by gender bias.

“I don’t think there was any unfairness in the process, I don’t think there was any discrimination,” Newman said. “I think Sarah will go on to be a very distinguished and successful member of the department.”


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