Presidential Vetoes and Tenure

Gatekeeper or rubber stamp? Recent tenure denial raises questions about a president's role in tenure decisions.

September 27, 2016

Faculty advocates argue that tenure decisions are the primary domain of professors, and yet most institutions still involve presidents in the process. So what is the appropriate role of a college or university president in tenure cases?

That’s what faculty members and administrators at Lafayette College are trying to figure out in light of a recent presidential tenure veto that roiled the campus. Yet while Lafayette captured national attention -- in part because of the rejected professor’s protest method (a hunger strike) -- it’s not alone in trying to iron out the president’s role in tenure decisions.

“We do have a standard that if a president is going to overturn a faculty recommendation, it has to be for compelling reasons,” says Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the American Association of University Professors. “But that does raise the question ‘Who gets to decide in the end whether reasons are compelling?’”

Tiede was speaking generally about AAUP policy, but the “compelling reasons” language is also at play in case of Juan Rojo, the assistant professor of Spanish at Lafayette who launched a hunger strike after being denied tenure last month despite the unanimous or majority support of three separate faculty review panels.

The reason? President Alison Byerly, citing what she called a pattern of negative student evaluations of teaching, said Rojo didn’t meet the college’s standard for exceptional instruction -- its most important tenure criterion. Lafayette’s Faculty Handbook mimics AAUP’s standard for presidential tenure vetoes, namely that they should happen in “rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” And Byerly argued that just being a good teacher instead of a superb one was, in fact, compelling.

Rojo and a faculty panel disagreed with the assessment and the rationale, pointing to Rojo’s broader record of positive student evaluations of teaching and increasingly positive peer reviews. The faculty passed a motion at a special meeting earlier this month asking Lafayette’s Board of Trustees to rescind its negative decision, which was based largely on Byerly’s recommendation.

The board did reconsider -- or at least gave the request “serious consideration” before again backing Byerly, Edward W. Ahart, chair, wrote in a letter to the clerk of the faculty last week.

While the Rojo decision stands, Ahart said, “We fully support the suggestions made by [Byerly] and several faculty leaders that further discussion and examination of our tenure process is needed. … The board recognizes that this case has been painful for the community and has revealed significant differences of opinion within our community about some important aspects of the tenure review process.” Ahart asked the faculty to designate a group of representatives to “begin the dialogue that is needed to create a greater level of mutual understanding and agreement.”

A Lafayette spokesperson referred questions to Ahart’s letter, but it’s likely that the compelling reasons standard will be one point of discussion. Rojo thinks it should be, along with more general questions about the role of the president in tenure cases.

“The role of the president is understood by the faculty to be limited,” he said. “The faculty's reading of ‘compelling reasons’ differs dramatically from both the board's and the president's. So much so that over 100 faculty members have urged both the president and the board to change their positions based on what they perceive as presidential overreaching.”

Referring to Ahart’s comment to the faculty clerk that “successive layers of review provide a system of checks and balances in which the responsible parties at each level must affirm their concurrence with a preceding recommendation,” Rojo said, “There has been no balance here. The decision was overwhelmingly in my favor.”

Again, like Lafayette, AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities says that presidents and boards should normally concur with the faculty judgment, except in rare instances for compelling reasons that should be stated in detail. AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance has said a bit more about the “compelling reasons,” but not much:

“Even if the administration and governing board are persuaded that the faculty judgment is incorrect, they should reverse it only on that rare occasion when they can provide convincing reasons for rejecting the faculty’s presumed academic expertise. A compelling reason should be one which plainly outweighs persuasive contrary reasons.”

If AAUP is short on examples, it’s helpful on process. Tiede said that in the event of a presidential veto, there should at least be additional elements of academic due process, “in particular an opportunity to appeal to an elected faculty body when discrimination, an academic freedom violation or inadequate consideration are alleged.”

Rojo has publicly expressed concern that research suggests student evaluations of teaching are unreliable indicators of teaching quality, and that women and minorities are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to student bias. Lafayette’s board formed a special subcommittee to study his case, which referred it back to the collegewide faculty tenure and promotions committee -- something Tiede said was in keeping with the spirit of shared governance. Yet that committee again endorsed Rojo, to no avail.

Byerly’s not the first president to get into a shared governance spat with faculty members over personnel decisions. Phyllis Wise, former chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was widely criticized for blocking the hiring of American Indian studies scholar Steven Salaita for his anti-Israel tweets, for example.

Presidential Input Varies Widely

Scandal hasn’t scared presidents away from the tenure process altogether, however. A 2015 Inside Higher Ed-Gallup poll of presidents found about 60 percent of respondents across institution types want more of a role in tenure decisions -- at the associate degree-granting level, 70 percent of presidents say they do. Some 58 percent of presidents say they have blocked the hiring of scholars whose competence they questioned, and 54 percent say they’ve blocked scholars from getting tenure for the same reason. Presidents at doctoral-level public institutions were the least like to say they’ve blocked someone from getting hired due to concerns about competence (42 percent), but the most likely to say they’ve blocked someone from getting tenure over such doubts (76 percent). About half of surveyed presidents say they conduct their own tenure reviews.

Robert O’Neil, former president and professor emeritus of law at the University of Virginia, said a “compelling” basis for presidential reversal struck him as “imprecise” and in need of clarification. Yet he described even his own experiences with overturning faculty-approved personnel actions at different institutions over his long career as “varying widely.”

He’s reversed several strong faculty recommendations because “thin”-seeming research records, for example, he said, and reversed one negative recommendation in the interest of what he described as affirmative action. Arguments for and against tenure can differ between campuses, he said -- in which one values research over teaching or vice versa, for example -- but generally, institutions and their boards are “empowered to determine and apply the core criteria for promotion and tenure.” That’s particularly true at private institutions, he said, since boards at public institutions may be subject to statutory or constitutional restraints.

One irony of the Lafayette case is that colleges generally receive much criticism for valuing research over teaching, yet this situation centers on a president saying she is concerned about teaching issues, consistent with the liberal arts mission.

Judith Shapiro, president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College, said she wasn’t privy to private details about the Rojo case. But in general, and ideally, she said, presidents are involved enough in the tenure process that vetoes of faculty recommendations don’t come as surprises -- or don’t happen at all.

Shapiro said she read every tenure case as president at Barnard, and sat in on a collegewide appointments committee as a nonvoting member. As a result, she said she was so actively engaged in faculty-led tenure decisions that she never vetoed a single recommendation, for or against.

That level of presidential involvement is more feasible at a liberal arts college than other kinds of institutions, Shapiro admitted. But in any setting, she said the president’s role boils down to “maintaining the integrity of the tenure process.” That means making sure all procedures are followed, she said, and -- perhaps -- helping the faculty make a tough call about a colleague who isn’t living up to professional standards.

“Sometimes faculty members need to step up to the plate and make a hard decision about their colleague,” Shapiro said.

Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, said his organization didn’t have a stance on the issue of presidential vetoes, but that colleges and universities, first and foremost, must follow their own policies and procedures regarding tenure and promotion. Similar to O’Neil, Mathews said that if those rules allow a veto for "compelling" reasons, they should be clear about what meets that standard, "and perhaps allow the candidates to address any new concerns that have arisen."

Like Shapiro, Mathews also argued that presidents can sometimes play an important gatekeeper role when the faculty is truly divided over a candidate’s fitness for tenure. In one such example at an unnamed institution, Mathews said, a large minority thought the candidate fell short, but because “collegial faculty suffer few direct consequences for passing the buck, they all voted in favor, then let the tough decision fall on the administrator -- whose salary, they’ll argue, reflects the hazard pay afforded for making unpopular decisions.” Such pressure towards “collegiality” can be especially strong in small college settings, where anonymity -- both on and off campus -- is limited, he added.

In any case, Mathews said, it’s importantly to remember that the “human cost” of tenure denials “falls squarely on the candidate’s shoulders.” Careers and even one’s mental health can be devastated by rejection. So it’s important to reflect on how a candidate got so far, only to be denied at the presidential level, he said. “How many chairs, mentors, colleagues failed this poor professor? Where was the communication, the push and pull, between faculty and administration about what it takes to get tenure at this institution?”

Mathews said he looks to institutions to prove their “mettle” in the year after controversial tenure denials, through soul searching and, when appropriate, restorative justice. In one case at another unnamed institution, he said, a major research university denied five professors tenure in one year, all of them women. After determining that such outcomes weren’t in line with its values, the university made concerted efforts in some of those cases to find the professors suitable employment elsewhere.

“Universities can do (and some do) better in fully supporting their own on the way out the door,” Mathews said via email.


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