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‘Botched’

Two black scholars say UVA denied them tenure after belittling their work and their contributions to their fields, erring in procedure along the way.

June 22, 2020
 
Paul Harris, left, and Tolu Odumosu

No one is guaranteed tenure. But two black scholars at the University of Virginia who are appealing negative tenure decisions say their processes were significantly flawed, and that the work they were hired to do appears to have counted against them in the end.

Beyond flawed processes, the accounts raise questions about possible racial bias on the part of all-white tenure committees and other key evaluators. In this way, the cases echo the recent #BlackintheIvory Twitter campaign, in which black academics recalled having their work questioned and their contributions undercut more than their white colleagues'.

UVA denies that bias or procedural errors contributed to the two unsuccessful tenure bids. It did not share data on overall tenure rates, or tenure rates for black scholars in particular, saying that tenure denials are so few that publicizing such information risked compromising scholars’ privacy.

The university did share a diversity “dashboard,” showing that while UVA has made progress on diversifying its faculty in recent years, it employed just 108 black professors in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. As a share of the whole, 4 percent of the faculty are black. Some 73 percent are white.

Nationwide, black professors make up about 6 percent of the faculty, according to a Pew Research Center analysis published last year using 2017 data. That's significantly less than the share of black students they teach.

Brian Coy, UVA spokesperson, said, “Promoting and expanding the diversity of our faculty, students and staff is a central element of the university’s plan to strengthen how we educate students, conduct research and care for patients now and into the future.”

On tenure, Coy said UVA is “committed to a fair, impartial and objective review to assess each tenure applicant’s contribution to research, teaching and service.” Beyond that, he said, tenure is a private personnel matter.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris’s tenure case came to light this month in a Catapult essay by his wife, writer Taylor Harris. The piece, “Whiteness Can’t Save Us,” is about faith, love, motherhood and the disappointment and resilience that is being a black family in 2020. The year, of course, is defined by COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd. And for the Harrises, it's also the year UVA blindsided Paul Harris, an assistant professor of human services who studies identity development in black male student athletes and underrepresented students' college readiness, with a tenure denial.

As Taylor Harris wrote in her essay:

My husband knows the ropes. Black people, including black academics like him, have to be twice as good. Don’t give the university any reason, not half a reason, to find fault with you.

After eight years of making the right small talk, of doing what he was told, of publishing and presenting papers, of getting above-average teaching evaluations, of studying Black male student athletes and winning a prestigious grant from the NCAA --

My husband didn’t get tenure.

But they offered to promote him. We respect you, they said. But he just isn’t tenure worthy, somehow.

When he asked why he’d been denied, he received a document. One comment from the committee of white faculty, was that a journal that had published his work appeared to be self-published. It was the Journal of African American Males in Education. The acceptance rate for articles? About 20 percent. Some of the biggest names in his field publish in that journal.

Imagine what wasn’t put in writing.

The essay prompted a Twitter hashtag of its own, #TenureforPaul, and a webpage and petition calling on UVA to reverse its decision.

“Dr. Harris is the best of us,” reads the petition, signed by thousands of Harris’s former students, colleagues and supporters. “He is a citizen leader, an incredible scholar, an excellent instructor, and for so many of us, he has been an educator far beyond the four walls of his classroom. We would not be the men and women we are today without his influence.”

Paul Harris has shared his appeal summary on the website, along with some stats about his tenure dossier: annual reviews since 2014 stating that he was meeting or exceeding scholarship expectations, publications in journals whose impact factors were downplayed or not counted during his bid, and citation counts that are five times higher than what his college-level tenure committee counted.

To Taylor Harris’s point, the website notes that the Curry School of Education and Human Development reported the Journal of African American Males in Education as appearing "to be self-published." Yet it is a peer-reviewed journal with a 23 percent acceptance rate.

Paul Harris said last week that he had no inkling his scholarship was in doubt until an uncomfortable meeting with his relatively new department chair, Scott Gest, in 2019. His tenure dossier was already in process, but the chair seemed to question the quality and validity of his scholarship, Paul Harris recalled.

“He was asking me lots of questions that seemed funny, because the evaluation that he’d just given me was fine,” Harris said. “I was struck by it because nothing that he was talking about had ever been communicated to me.”

Among other questions, Harris said that Gest asked about the representativeness of data from an NCAA-funded project. The objective of the meeting, he said, "seemed much less wanting to know more about the study and more questioning the study."

Within Harris’s college, a three-person group of reviewers assesses a scholar’s dossier before the faculty as a whole votes on it. The dossier is reviewed once more by a collegewide promotion and tenure committee. That committee’s recommendation then goes to the dean.

In this case, the college’s promotion and tenure committee recommended against tenure. The dean approved that recommendation and informed Paul Harris in late January that he was still eligible for promotion -- without tenure.

Harris was shocked, almost speechless. The promotion offer, like the tenure denial, seemed to him a bait and switch: he’d initially been granted a non-tenure-track position at UVA in 2011. As he'd been offered a tenure-track job elsewhere the same year, and the family wanted to make a home in Charlottesville, Harris negotiated into his UVA agreement an opportunity: go non-tenure-track for three years, then transition to a tenure-track appointment, dependent on a successful three-year review.

That review came and went, with Harris starting on UVA's tenure track in 2014.

Now, a decade after starting at the university, he was again being offered a non-tenure-track position.

“It’s very uncommon,” he said of the promotion without tenure. “It's like, ‘We do like you, so we have a position for you, but you’re not invited to this club -- the tenure club.’”

Harris cut the meeting with his dean short, to process the decision. In a subsequent letter of explanation, Harris's dean wrote that the internal review committee determined that he hadn't published in journals of sufficient impact and that the Journal of African American Males in Education, in particular, appeared to be “self-published.”

While that journal is independent, it has academic editors and an editorial board and follows a double-blind peer-review process. Harris also wrote in his appeal that he's published in five other, peer-reviewed journals with impact factors since 2014, and that his Google Scholar citation count is 148 since that time, not 27, as calculated by the internal review committee.

Among other procedural irregularities, Harris's appeal quotes emails from his chair apologizing for "relying too much on the specific language in the Curry policy without understanding the actual practices/preferences/traditions in how the committee works.”

Clearly, Harris wrote, the "process I was subject to was inconsistently and unpredictably governed." 

To Harris, the school's explanation seemed to highlight the professional peril scholars risk in elevating traditionally marginalized voices, especially if they're doing qualitative work or publishing in newer venues established for that purpose. The Journal of African American Males in Education, for instance, was founded in 2010 to facilitate data-driven policy decisions about black men and boys in K-12 and higher education.

“This is a function of a system that is set up to allow bias to flourish,” Harris said of the all-white tenure committee's judgment. “African Americans, in general, have always had to work twice as hard to get the same amount of credit. A Ph.D. does not change that.”

Harris first appealed to his new provost, Liz Magill, but that bid was rejected. The provost found that nothing had gone wrong procedurally in his case, Harris said, but he and his supporters reject that determination.

Harris is now appealing to the Faculty Senate’s grievance committee, his last option.

Ramon Goings, assistant professor of education specialties at Loyola University in Maryland and editor of the Journal of African American Males in Education, described the publication as the “premier journal for research and scholarship on African American males within various educational contexts.”

The journal is open-access to ensure that research concerning African American boys and men is widely available, Goings said, and adheres to a double-blind peer-review process. It averages about 34,000 article downloads per year. Cabell’s Scholarly Analytics also shows that the acceptance rate for submitted articles is 23 percent.

Big picture, Goings said Harris’s case is a “stark example of the reasons why all-white tenure committees must reconsider how they evaluate black scholars’ contributions to the field.” The tenure committee had limited knowledge of JAAME, and instead of investigating it, “they wrote it off as not a peer-reviewed publication.”

Tricia Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University, edited a 2016 book called Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure that described different tenure standards, processes and experiences for scholars of color relative their white peers. Matthew herself was first denied tenure at the provost’s level with no warning before her president overturned that decision.

Matthew said recently that “self-publishing” seemed like a screen for not wanting to give Harris tenure, but she wondered why the committee had used that particular term.

“I have a very hard time believing that a black academic who earned his doctorate would self-publish work and include it on his CV” that way, she said. “It’s not a blog post.”

The article in question was published in 2016, Matthew also said, meaning the Curry School had three years to take up any concerns with Harris.

“If we take the committee at their word, that they believe that one journal article is the difference between tenure or not,” Matthew said, “why is it coming up in 2019? It's as if no one was really paying attention until this moment, and when that happens, I think it's a mistake to put the burden on the candidate.”

That’s especially true in programs with annual reviews, she said.

As for an all-white tenure and promotion committee, Matthew said that’s “only part of the problem.”

“This is as much about institutional structures and processes as it is about the makeup of a committee. All these gray areas become an opportunity for tenured faculty to perform quote-unquote rigor on junior colleagues, and it's easier to do that when the tenure candidate works in a field that takes up questions of race and representation.”

Referencing #BlackintheIvory, Matthew said, “I hope academics who want to help understand that, more than retweeting and shaking their heads, they need to challenge processes like the one that seems to have gone off the rails at UVA.”

Tolu Odumosu

Tolu Odumosu, an assistant professor of science, technology and society within UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, started on the tenure track in 2013, ahead of Harris by one year.

A sociologist by training with several engineering degrees, Odumosu taught in the engineering program, co-wrote a book on cycles of innovation and discovery published by Harvard University Press, co-edited another volume, and helped write a successful $3 million grant to train graduate students in cyber-physical systems from the National Science Foundation, among other achievements.

During his third-year review, Odumosu was advised to build his journal editing experience, make a few other changes and otherwise keep carrying on his work. He became an associate editor at two journals, continued to do research, teaching and service, and eventually won the unanimous support of his department colleagues for tenure.

When the case advanced to the engineering school’s promotion and tenure committee, the vote was split, however. The actual count, for and against, was never revealed, as is customary. But the engineering dean sided against Odumosu, effectively killing his tenure bid.

Like Harris, Odumosu appealed to the provost. In so doing, Odumosu focused largely on the substance of his dossier, not process. He argued that he'd acted on the feedback from his third-year review and was never warned that he didn't have enough solo-authored work, or that he wasn't a named principal investigator, or PI, on the $3 million NSF grant, for which the tenure committee faulted him. He countered that collaboration with noted engineers was a good thing. And he said that his role on the NSF grant was critical, even if he wasn’t technically a PI.

Odumosu also took umbrage with the college’s written summary of his scholarship, which said that his “main research/scholarship achievements are the publication of two books with mentors and his preparation of a sole-authored book.” It is "important for Professor Odumosu to establish his reputation as an independent researcher/scholar with original material and publish in refereed journals," the committee added.

Odumosu in his appeal wrote that his first book was written with a mentor while the second was published with colleagues. He asked why the committee would have assumed he was a mentee both times. Moreover, he said, the committee's evaluation excluded his work on five different university research clusters. Internal letters of recommendation, which were allowed when Odumosu were hired, could have illuminated these contributions.

The provost denied Odumosu's appeal, largely on procedural grounds. Yet Odumosu worried that his bid had been marred by grave procedural errors nonetheless. Most significantly, the engineering school's tenure and promotion guidelines from 2013, when Odumosu was hired, allowed for "flexibility" in judging the teaching, research and service of faculty members in the niche science, technology and society program. 

The "typically heavy, writing-intensive teaching loads of STS faculty, including their responsibilities in supervising senior theses, will be taken into account in reviewing teaching,” for example, the 2013 guidelines said. "STS faculty may not be expected to receive research grants of the magnitude or frequency of those received by researchers in other engineering disciplines. Similarly, in many STS fields, books are a more important publication vehicle than in other fields of engineering.”

These professors were further "encouraged to work with graduate students and participate in the education and research activities of the school and other units.”  

By the time Odumosu went up for tenure, the school's guidelines regarding his program had been eliminated. Yet widely followed guidelines on tenure and promotion established by the American Association of University Professors say that institutions must not change goalposts on their professors as they work toward tenure.

Odumosu, like Harris, is now appealing his case with the Faculty Senate’s grievance committee. This body has recommended that Odumosu be granted a second terminal year of employment while it continues to weigh his case. The engineering dean, Craig Benson, has not agreed to that accommodation, and Odumosu’s contract is set to end in August.

“I came to UVA with the idea that I was going to be a bridge” between the social sciences and engineering, Odumosu said. Yet in collaborating with other researchers -- in spite of difficulties breaking into networks on account of his niche program and his race -- he’s been accused of having too little research independence.

Some of that criticism seems to reflect racial bias, Odumosu said, asking why it's assumed he is riding on his white collaborators' coattails, instead of bringing something valuable to their shared work.

"I find that ridiculous, as the whole point was to work with other people and publish with distinguished faculty."

Odumosu's feedback from the college lauded above-average service. But there was no mention of how that connected to race, he said; as one of six black professors in the engineering school, he is often called on to help diversify various committees. Indeed, research shows that scholars of color carry disproportionate service loads but that this work is not professionally rewarded in the ways that research or even teaching are.

Jon Goodall, professor of engineering systems and environment at UVA and a PI on the $3 million NSF grant, said he had no role in assessing Odumosu’s tenure case but was “very disappointed” to hear he wasn’t promoted.

“Tolu and I worked together on writing the diversity plan in the proposal,” with Odumosu in the lead on a rewrite following an initial, unsuccessful application, Goodall said. “Now the project is under way at UVA and Tolu has been a co-instructor of the first introductory and only required course in the curriculum, providing important expertise and perspective on the ethics and design of cyber-physical systems,” one of the first programs of its kind in the U.S.

Goodall continued, “I want to make sure the administration knows Tolu's important contribution on this work.” While the NSF restricts grants to one PI and four co-PIs, he said, most grants are much smaller than $3 million. Odumosu is listed as senior personnel on this large project, but he’s “playing and has played a significant role in the project that would amount, in my opinion, to a co-PI role.”

Monica F. Cox, professor and former chair of engineering education at Ohio State University, said that Odumosu’s “background is amazing,” and she wondered how his annual reviews could have missed any gaps in his work big enough to cost him tenure.

“If he wasn’t on track, that should have been very clear to him,” she said, “and if he’s surprised by a decision, that means something was wrong in the feedback process.”

Cox also said there’s an onus on idiosyncratic departments situated within engineering schools to educate promotion and tenure committees on differing standards between fields. Whereas engineering programs may favor conference presentations and articles, social scientists value books highly, for example, she said.

“I just wonder to what extent that kind of preparation was made” on Odumosu’s behalf, Cox said. 

Cox said that research shows scholars of color take longer to form networks and meaningful collaborations in white-dominant departments, and the fact that Odumosu formed strong collaborations speaks volumes. Moreover, she said, any professor should be “grandfathered” into a tenure review with the criteria in place at the time of hire, or at least have that option.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor of Media Studies at UVA, said he’d worked with Odumosu on several committees and studied his case closely since he heard about the tenure denial. Vaidhyanathan said he was prepared to write letters of recommendation for Odumosu prior to COVID-19, as he was sure that some “better” institution would realize UVA’s error and hire him. Now budget cuts and hiring freezes severely limit those opportunities, he said.

Vaidhyanathan said he remained concerned about his colleague’s situation as well as UVA’s standing, in light of two high-profile tenure denial cases. Odumosu's in particular was irregular enough to chill confidence any future junior scholar might have in UVA’s process, he said.

With a social scientist going up for tenure in an engineering school, Vaidhyanathan said Odumosu's tenure committee should have recruited a social scientist or humanities scholar from Odumosu’s area of expertise to help assess his contributions to the field. That did not happen, despite the fact that responsible use of technology -- one of Odumosu’s research areas -- is a stated UVA initiative, from the provost’s office down to the new School of Data Science and Vaidhyanathan’s own department.

“I would conclude, having been at UVA for 14 years and having served on at least a dozen tenure committees in various departments, that this was the most botched process I have ever witnessed,” he said.

In those same 14 years, Vaidhyanathan said, he’s served under six provosts, none of whom have stuck around long enough, by his assessment, to initiate and supervise the full-scale revision of tenure and promotion standards that UVA needs.

“Different parts of the university are operating differently and incoherently and arbitrarily,” he said, evidenced by Harris’s and Odumosu’s bids, among others that he said he wasn’t prepared to discuss publicly. “We need to start [this revision] right away. Too many careers are at stake, and too many resources.”

Harris has a job, at least for another year, but he’s not giving up the fight for tenure.

“Tenure matters because I earned it,” he said simply. “It also matters because the voices that I privilege in my work matter.”

Shardé M. Davis, assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut and a founder of #BlackintheIvory, said, “I hope more of these stories come out so that people become increasingly more aware of the injustices men and women of color face in the academy, particularly when it comes to tenure evaluation.”

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