Changing the Rules?

Tenured Washington State U extension professor says she's being forced out for not bringing in grants that were never established as one of her responsibilities.

February 4, 2016
Linda Chalker-Scott, bottom left, teaches a Master Gardener class at Washington State U.

Is Washington State University trying to fire an extension professor for not living up to research -- and attendant external funding -- expectations that were never stated upon hire? That’s what Linda Chalker-Scott, an associate professor and extension specialist in horticulture there, says is happening to her. Her many fans in the gardening world, meanwhile, are worried they're about to lose a valuable guide -- and they are advocating for the university to keep her.

“I’ve done beyond what’s included in my job description in that I have an applied research program and do primary research and publish it,” Chalker-Scott said in an interview after receiving notice that she was being investigated for incompetence. “All of it has immediate impact in a practical form.”

Lots of public and especially land-grant institutions have extension programs dedicated to translating and sharing research with the general public. Many extension faculty members don't focus on grants or basic research. But they’ve traditionally been employed to serve the public good, not to be cash cows, doing outreach and otherwise making the university enterprise accessible to taxpayers.

It was under that pretense that Chalker-Scott says she was hired by Washington State, with tenure, in 2004. The original job description says it is a 100 percent extension appointment, with the following responsibilities: providing educational programming in environmental horticulture throughout the state, functioning as an “integral member” of the department of horticulture and landscape architecture, and serving the university’s Master Gardener program (the well-known university-based community educator program originated at Washington State).

Chalker-Scott said things went well for several years after she was hired, in that she continued to speak and present around the state, read and translate horticultural research into popular articles and books, and grow her small original research project focusing on mulch. The latter enterprise was funded by small grants here and there, and wasn’t required according to her job description, but she liked it, she said. She and several colleagues also started a blog for urban horticulturalists on Facebook, “The Garden Professors,” which now has more than 4,900 followers.

But then things changed. Chalker-Scott declined to provide explicit details, citing concerns about a possible legal case against the university, but she said original research began to be a bigger and bigger focus in her annual posttenure reviews. Chalker-Scott explained that large external grants are rare in her field, since it doesn’t relate to food or other commodity crops, and that she doesn’t have a lab to pursue research intensively. Plus, she said, her work is largely outreach based, as outlined in her job description. (Her contract includes no additional responsibilities.)

But the criticism kept coming. Three years ago, Chalker-Scott received her first subpar annual review. Then she received two more. In December, she received notice that she’s being formally investigated by the university for concerns about her job performance. Allegations include lacking an “adequately developed” applied research program; repeatedly failing to obtain adequate grant funding, impeding research activity; and failing to assess and document the outcomes and impacts of the program, especially by publishing a “reasonable number” of peer-reviewed articles. The notice also cites “attendance issues” and failing to execute an applied research program funded by the extension program.

Chalker-Scott called the attendance concerns a “red herring,” saying she is often on the road giving seminars. But when she’s not traveling, she’s at the university’s satellite campus in Puyallup, across the state in Western Washington, where she also leads a state Garden Team. “I could hardly not be here and have it work,” she said.

Regarding the extension-funded research program, Chalker-Scott said she was given $5,000 to start a project on trees in 2011. The project is ongoing, she said, and she’s used the installation to train Master Gardeners on how to plant trees.

According to information provided by Chalker-Scott, in 2015 alone she spoke at 26 seminars, published two refereed journal articles, got a third refereed article accepted for publication, wrote and obtained a publisher for book titled Gardening With Northwest Native Plants, created a curricular module for Master Naturalist certification, wrote articles for and was a contributing editor at Fine Gardening, and was associate editor for the peer-reviewed journal Horticulture. She said she also brought in nearly $90,000 in grant, donation and contract money and submitted three more grants totaling more than $130,000.

A popular horticulture blog, Garden Rant, recently profiled Chalker-Scott's case, criticizing the university for seeking to dethrone a prominent figure in the gardening world.

Suggesting that financial and possibly personal concerns -- not academic ones -- were informing Washington State's investigation, Garden Rant's Susan Harris wrote, "It surprises me not one whit that Linda might have pissed off her employer in her 12 years in the job. After all, when it comes to advocating for evidence-based gardening information, she can be tough. She fact-checks anyone and everyone, including Martha Stewart and even her friends. (I know because she once corrected me, and in blunt terms, something that needed to be done.) But this is why academic freedom at universities exists: to express one’s informed views openly and without fear of retaliation."

Commenters on the story expressed their dismay, as well.

"As a former instructor and coordinator of the Gardening Department in continuing ed at the [New York Botanical Garden], I have high standards when it comes to horticultural education," wrote Ellen Zachos. "There are few people whom I recommend without hesitation; Dr. Chalker-Scott is one such person. If I see her name on a program, I attend that program. If I see her name on a book, I recommend that book. I hope that upon re-examination you realize that without Dr. Chalker-Scott, the department may be known more for letting her go than for any actual achievement."

The American Association of University Professors reached out to Washington State on behalf of Chalker-Scott in 2013 regarding the university’s absence of a policy provision for an appeal to a faculty grievance committee over posttenure reviews. AAUP recommends that faculty members be entitled to such appeals. The university said Chalker-Scott should take her appeal to the Faculty Senate’s Faculty Status Committee. Anita Levy, associate secretary of the AAUP, advised that Chalker-Scott file her grievance with that committee, even though the Faculty Manual doesn’t explicitly provide for such appeals. Chalker-Scott said she never filed, however, because she thought it would be a waste of time, and her colleagues thought the same.

But there’s a bigger question at play. According to widely followed policy recommended by AAUP, institutions must lay out performance expectations for faculty members at the point of hire. The association's Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, for example, says that “the precise terms and conditions of every appointment should be stated in writing and be in the possession of both institution and teacher before the appointment is consummated.” AAUP's Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure similarly says that the faculty member “will be advised, at the time of initial appointment, of the substantive standards and procedures generally employed in decisions affecting renewal and tenure. Any spe­cial standards adopted by the faculty member’s department or school will also be transmitted.”

Chalker-Scott’s department chair, B. W. Poovaiah, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Washington State has seen budget challenges in recent years. Chalker-Scott said many of her extension colleagues who've retired haven't been replaced. In fact, the total number of extension faculty at Washington State has declined about 20 percent over the past eight years, due to flat or declining budgets, according to information from the university. Other campuses have seen similar cuts.

Robert Strenge, a university spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on a private personnel matter, specifically, but said that the university has no plans to phase out extension completely. He said it would be a “mistake to suggest that there is any direct relationship between [the university’s] financial or cost-reduction goals" around the time of the recession and the university’s current goals.

Concerning expectations for extension faculty, Strenge said via email that such professors work for the university and are therefore “expected to engage in research and to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals.” That ensures they remain lifelong learners and contribute to the body of knowledge within their discipline, he added. And with extension faculty “there is an additional expectation that they will translate and disseminate research-based information to clientele within the state of Washington and elsewhere.”

David Demers, director of the American Center for Civil Liberties and a former professor of communication at Washington State, said that even if Chalker-Scott was somehow failing to perform adequately, the university was still violating AAUP guidelines and possibly her contract.

Demers accused the university of “academic bullying.” But he called Chalker-Scott “tough.”

“She has put up with a lot from [university] administrators,” he said via email. “She won't leave without a fight.”


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