'Leona Helmsley Tenure Process'

The late Leona Helmsley doesn't get quoted that much in faculty deliberations, but she was featured prominently in a memo circulated this spring at DePaul University -- a memo that set off an intense debate about the fairness of the tenure process.

May 27, 2010

The late Leona Helmsley doesn't get quoted that much in faculty deliberations, but she was featured prominently in a memo circulated this spring at DePaul University -- a memo that set off an intense debate about the fairness of the tenure process.

In the memo, Robin Burke, an associate professor of computing and digital media, cited Helmsley's much-derided quote that "only the little people pay taxes," to say that DePaul appears to have a "Leona Helmsley tenure process," in that "only the little people are reviewed for tenure." Burke cited the decision by Provost Helmut Epp to accept a departmental recommendation to award tenure to two faculty members in Burke's college at DePaul.
The two (whose names are not generally featured in the voluminous memos that have been flying at DePaul about their promotions) had been working off the tenure track and were simultaneously put on the tenure track and tenured -- without the standard, lengthy process that would normally be required for someone at the university coming up for tenure.

Burke and many faculty colleagues, including the leaders of the Faculty Council, say that this violated university procedures. Normally, faculty members earn tenure by serving as tenure-track professors for a period of time, and being positively evaluated; in other cases, they are hired with tenure. The latter is typically reserved for senior scholars who have undergone in a national search something equivalent to a tenure review before they are hired with tenure.

Many activists for adjuncts nationally would love to see tenure-track slots open and to get consideration for them. But DePaul faculty say that what happened at the university wasn't some sign of respect for those off the tenure track, and that great adjuncts at the university are likely to remain outside the tenured ranks -- unless they are considered key to lucrative programs, as some say was the case with the two who were moved into tenure.

Adding to the tension is DePaul's recent history with controversial tenure bids. In 2007, DePaul's president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, denied tenure to Norman G. Finkelstein, a popular teacher at the university but a highly controversial scholar whose writings on Israel have been denounced as offensive and irresponsible by many (while also attracting plenty of fans). In the Finkelstein case, which went through many layers of review -- in accordance with university policy -- the recommendation of his department was set aside and university leaders stressed the importance of careful, deliberate analysis on tenure cases. If such careful adherence to the rules and the process was so important then, faculty members want to know, why are shortcuts available to some tenure candidates now?

Others are defending the recent tenure decisions, saying that they had strong departmental backing, even if they skipped some of the normal reviews for those who have been on the tenure track. And a few faculty members who asked not to be identified are angry at some of the criticisms over the tenure decisions. For instance, faculty critics have noted that non-tenure-track faculty members participated in the departmental discussions of these candidates (which some DePaul departments permit and others do not). That criticism is viewed as elitist by some who aren't offended by the outcome of the tenure cases.

DePaul has been discussing these issues largely behind closed doors, but someone on the campus anonymously sent Inside Higher Ed a package of materials about the discussions. Several of those who wrote various memos discussed them in interviews, while declining to discuss the individuals who won tenure -- whose individual qualifications, they say, are not the issue.

The Faculty Council has now adopted a resolution calling the provost's decision to go ahead with fast-track tenurings of the two "inconsistent with principles of shared governance" as well as with university policy. The faculty body has also -- with administrative backing -- created a committee to study roles in the tenure process and to identify places where there may be a lack of clarity or problems.

Epp, the provost, has taken much of the criticism, and he maintains that he did nothing wrong. He has argued that he acted in much the way he would for a department that wanted to bring in a star professor from outside. But in a letter to the Faculty Council, he said he was worried that "however well-intended my motives were in this matter, I may have inadvertently undermined some of my colleagues' trust in my office." He wrote that he endorsed the faculty task force studying tenure and that he would "consider it a personal failure if I lost your trust in my integrity."

The letter from Burke to faculty members drawing attention to the tenure situation rejected Epp's argument, saying that it was "a truly remarkable act of doublespeak" to say that faculty members who had been in non-tenure-track positions for five years could get tenured under a system for those who have had careers elsewhere and are just arriving at the university.

Phillip E. Funk, president of the Faculty Council and associate professor of biological science, said that he viewed the concerns as going beyond the tenure cases in question to a general issue of fairness. "I think that was the nerve that got touched -- the sense that here were one or two people with a different process that didn't make sense in terms of the way we do things."

In an interview, Epp said he was "very puzzled" at the anger over the situation. He said that he believed the controversy over Finkelstein had changed the environment at DePaul in some ways. Tenure cases have generally been noncontroversial, he said. But the debate over Finkelstein led many professors who hadn't thought about the tenure process except for their role in it to start looking. "People who never read the faculty handbook started reading it carefully," he said.

Epp said that one reason he was taken aback is that while, in the Finklelstein case, the university was criticized for going against departmental recommendations, in this case, he followed departmental recommendations. He said he hoped that that the faculty review would lead to a better understanding of tenure roles. But he warned that it is hard to view tenure disputes by saying that the way one case was handled should indicate another case's outcome.

"No two cases are exactly the same," he said.

But one professor who asked not to be identified said that, while that may be true, patterns matter. This professor noted that while Finkelstein was the most prominent faculty member rejected for tenure in recent years, he wasn't the only one who was turned down despite departmental backing. And he said that if the university could always cite rules to justify the rejections, it was hard to see rules seemingly ignored in other cases.

"If you are a department, and you've put up candidates only to have them shot down," he said of the recent unconventional tenure decisions, "this all looks pretty bad."


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