Arrivederci, Tenure

Italian professor at Wesleyan U. solves a 500-year-old murder mystery but, after receiving faculty backing, can't figure out why he was denied tenure.
October 17, 2008

Marcello Simonetta, an Italian professor for seven years at Wesleyan University, appeared to be on his way to receiving tenure last spring. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Board of Trustees. Despite having been vetted and approved by three faculty bodies, he was not recommended for tenure by Michael S. Roth, the university’s new president. Now, as he considers his next professional move, Simonetta believes rumors, spread among faculty, that he plagiarized his most recent book were the cause of his not being awarded tenure.

The drama surrounding Simonetta’s tenure case became public Tuesday, when a group of students penned an open letter in the student newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus, demanding an explanation for what happened. The administration declined to comment on the case, saying it is a confidential personnel matter.

Last academic year, while his tenure case was up for review, Simonetta was in Italy serving as director of the Eastern College Consortium -- a study-abroad program in which students from Wesleyan, Vassar College and Wellesley College take Italian courses at the Università di Bologna. He returned to Wesleyan to defend his case when requested to do so, and said he received the initial approval of his colleagues in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department and the tenure advisory committee. Then, the review and appeals board -- typically an oversight panel -- was also called to assess Simonetta’s case. He said he was also approved by this, his third panel of faculty members. At this point, Simonetta did not say whether or not he thought his colleagues had heard the rumors regarding his work. Now, all that remained was the president’s agreement before his case could be passed on to the Board of Trustees for final approval.

In late spring, before the president had weighed in on the case, Simonetta said, he was called without warning by Joseph W. Bruno, the university’s vice president for academic affairs and provost. During the call, Simonetta said Bruno referenced rumors circulating among faculty that his most recent book had been plagiarized. The Montefeltro Conspiracy , the Doubleday-published book to which Bruno was referring, is the culmination of research Simonetta conducted in an attempt to unravel a 500-year-old murder mystery in the powerful Medici family of Florence, and it garnered him national attention. Simonetta said he was shocked by the rumors, noting that he had written at least five articles based on his research before the publication of the book and also curated a related exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

Finally, before graduation in May, Simonetta said he received a two-line e-mail from President Roth explaining that he would not recommend him for tenure to the Board of Trustees. He added that his request to meet with Roth -- who is new to the office, and someone he hadn't met in person -- to discuss the reasons for the decision was refused. Simonetta said he is still in the dark as to why he was denied tenure, since, he said, he performed well in the crucial areas of scholarship and teaching. Simonetta has written two scholarly books and numerous articles. Moreover, the students who are demanding an explanation for his departure say he is an engaging, well-liked, and respected professor. Simonetta said he believes these rumors about his recent work were circulated in an attempt to discredit him. As to why such an attack would be made on his character, he said he did not know.

“It is mind-boggling for me to understand what kind of reasoning was applied to my case,” Simonetta said. “Some colleagues, a minority, didn’t like me. That shouldn’t be enough as grounds for [tenure] dismissal. I don’t know about my future at this point, but I’m extremely saddened at the prospect of being deprived of teaching students I love and work I enjoy. I would like to get some kind of clarification. I’m still in a state of shock.”

In May 2005, Douglas Bennet, then Wesleyan president, issued an official statement on “the conferral of tenure and on the promotion to tenured full professor.” The memo, which outlines the protocol for awarding tenure at Wesleyan, notes that the president is “not bound by the evaluations of candidates made by faculty,” but that he has to “exercise this responsibility with the utmost regard for the recommendations made by the faculty.” Additionally, it notes that he must “explain presidential promotion and tenure decisions to Academic Council in a timely manner if and when they do not agree with those of the faculty.”

Robert T. Conn, Spanish professor and former chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, declined to comment on the case. Catherine Poisson, French professor and current department chair, could not be reached for comment. Both Conn and Poisson were part of the tenure review process.

It is not uncommon at other universities for a professor to be denied tenured at the ultimate or penultimate level after having been approved by multiple faculty bodies, said Claire B. Potter, a professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan and the author of a personal blog titled “The Tenured Radical.” Also, she said, a faculty member has no way of knowing the true details of their approval or disapproval at any point during the review process. If there are negative comments at any point, even in the event of an affirmative vote, Potter said these minority views in the narrative can carry over to later decisions.

It is Potter’s belief that if the tenure process were not as secretive, later faculty conflicts would not occur. She has gone on the record in the past to express her discontent with the tenure process in its cureent state. She said it is often the case that a university will work very hard to protect itself after a negative tenure decision. For those denied tenure, Potter said, it is a bad decision to file a lawsuit against a university. Not only are very few of these cases successful, she also said a professor can become “unemployable” after such a display.

Still, regardless of how the tenure process now stands, she said it remains a topic of discussion among faculty.

“I’ll hear people talk about tenure cases on which I served and they are absolutely wrong,” said Potter, who was unaware of the Simonetta situation until it was brought to her attention. “But, because of confidentiality, I couldn’t tell them what they were saying was wrong. Secrecy allows people to make up self-justifying narratives.”

Simonetta said he is consulting with a lawyer to discuss his options. David Wen Riccardi-Zhu, the Wesleyan senior who penned the student letter, said Simonetta announced to his class that he would not be returning to the university next semester. He said many Italian students would miss him.

“Some professors have really stood out in my time at Wesleyan,” Riccardi-Zhu said. “Simonetta has been one that really impressed me. I think he’s a brilliant professor.”


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