Tenure: The Black Box

Spring brings news of tenure decisions—not always the good kind. Stories of negative tenure bids at Penn State and Yale raise questions about whether the process is just.

May 19, 2022
 
Abraham Khan, Yale University
Abraham Khan, left, and Michael Kraus

Most professors who don’t get tenure don’t broadcast it, understandably: a negative tenure decision is an effective termination, following years of service to an institution. But two professors did make their negative decisions public this spring, and their cases demonstrate how complex and unpredictable the tenure process remains—perhaps especially for scholars doing interdisciplinary work, including that which centers on race and inequality.

Abraham Khan at Penn State

Pennsylvania State University denied Abraham Khan tenure in 2020, but he just recently shared his story in a post on Medium. His reasons for doing so? Khan says he wanted to set the record straight about his personal case, as well as red-flag bigger issues at Penn State, namely its “autocratic and inscrutable processes” and its “malign neglect” of the African American studies program, from which four Black professors have departed in one year.

Tenure is, “in its ideal sense, an affirmation that confers membership among a community of scholars,” Khan wrote. “Tenure can be risk averse and hostile to interdisciplinarity. Intellectual cultures, after all, are just as capable of errors associated with moral and political inertia as administrative cultures are. But, tenure so-conceived has at least the advantage of protecting faculty from the incursion of professional strangers swooping in on a vertical axis of untempered power, which is basically what happened to me.”

Khan, a rhetorician and scholar of race and politics in sports, came to Penn State in 2016 from the University of South Florida. He was already on the tenure track at the time but said in an interview that he couldn’t turn down an opportunity at Penn State, due to the strong reputation of its rhetoric program and the department of communication over all. Penn State gave Khan a joint appointment in communication and African American studies, the latter being his tenure home, and agreed to credit him for two years of his probationary period. So instead of going up for tenure in his sixth year at Penn State, he would do so in his fourth year.

Things went well for Khan at Penn State for a while: his work was suddenly getting a lot of attention, due in part to the Colin Kaepernick case in the National Football League; he was awarded the Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award from the National Communications Association; and Penn State named him the inaugural Laurence and Lynne Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor in the College of the Liberal Arts.

He’d also entered Penn State having published a book, Curt Flood in the Media: Baseball, Race, and the Demise of the Activist-Athlete, with the University Press of Mississippi, for which he assumed he’d receive credit toward tenure. Yet during a review two years into his shortened probationary period at Penn State, the then dean of the college said in order to achieve tenure, Khan should publish a second monograph.

Khan felt the dean had suddenly moved the goalposts with just two years left on the clock, and various colleagues assured him that the standard for tenure in his field at Penn State was one book, not two. Nevertheless, he worked on a second book for the next two years.

That book was under contract with the University of California Press—but not submitted—by the time Khan went up for tenure. His department chairs and immediate department colleagues still enthusiastically recommended him for tenure. Plus, there was a new dean of the college by then—someone who wasn’t bound to the two-book standard set by the former dean, Khan thought.

In early 2020, however, the collegewide promotion and tenure committee recommended against tenure for Khan, based on his research profile. And the new dean, Clarence Lang, himself a professor of African American studies, agreed with that committee.

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Devastated as he began his final year at Penn State, Khan filed a petition with the Faculty Senate’s Faculty Rights and Responsibilities Committee to have his case reviewed, based on a specific standard: according to Penn State’s tenure policy, college-level tenure and promotion committees must confer with relevant department heads when the committee sides against department-level recommendations.

Khan said this consultation hadn’t happened in his case, and it seems there were irregularities with the process. According to accounts from those involved in Khan’s case, his communication chair was not consulted at all. His African American studies chair, who was on leave at the time, was not consulted, either. The interim chair of African American studies was contacted but forwarded the committee’s questions to Khan himself, meaning that a tenure candidate was effectively interacting directly with the committee—a no-no.

The college-level committee had run afoul of some department heads the year before Khan went up for tenure, as well. As a result, his tenure year was a test of a new email-based consultation approach between the committee and department chairs; previously these meetings had been face-to-face.

The Senate committee agreed in writing to review Khan’s tenure case. Several months later, however, in the spring of last year, Khan said, the vice provost for faculty affairs told him that the committee had canceled its investigation—after receiving assurances from the same vice provost that the consultation had in fact occurred.

Different Views?

Khan’s lawyer eventually contacted Penn State, laying out his case for review in a seven-page letter. Penn State responded in writing that it had a “significantly different view of the matter.”

Khan is starting anew on the tenure track at the University of Arkansas in the fall, and he said he understands that taking a public stance against Penn State’s “opacity” at this time involves some risk. But he said he remains concerned about his former colleagues at Penn State, particularly in the African American studies department. While Lang, the new dean, is part of the department, Khan said, he’s failed to retain multiple Black professors who have obtained offers from elsewhere and subsequently moved on.

Lang did not respond to a request for comment about the case. Provost Nick Jones said in statement that while details about tenure cases are confidential, “I do want to note Penn State’s response to Dr. Khan’s attorneys, which Dr. Khan himself has shared: ‘The university has a significantly different view of this matter and the underlying facts. We dispute the allegations … that the university violated any faculty rights in applying its promotion and tenure process to Dr. Khan.’”

Jones continued, “Penn State, including the College of the Liberal Arts, has a robust and equitable promotion and tenure process that provides tenure-line faculty with a full review of their research, teaching and service performance during their second and fourth years with the university. We have full confidence in this process, in which both the faculty and administration share the responsibility for reviewing the performance and accomplishments of candidates. Additionally, the college has a robust mentoring and coaching program for its tenure-line faculty, including mid-career faculty.”

This year in the college, Jones said, 11 “outstanding and diverse” candidates were granted tenure (he did not say how many applied).

Regarding the African American studies department, Jones said that “Penn State remains fully committed to [its] success” and that Lang, the dean, “is providing the leadership and resources to sustain and grow the unit.”

Cynthia A. Young, who was department head of African American studies when Khan applied for tenure (and who was relieved of that role following a dispute with Lang about the case), called Khan’s account of what happened “very accurate,” and said he should have been granted tenure. 

“I know how I came down on his tenure process,” she said in an interview. "And I would not have written a favorable letter if the dossier had not been strong. That's how tenure review works. You look at the accumulated data and make your best assessment." 

Asked what went wrong, Young criticized Penn State for failing to tell Khan he needed to write another book until he had two years left to do so, when it was unlikely that the book would be finished in time, and also unlikely that he'd publish additional articles to bolster his record while working on the book. “Faculty are given five years to write a book. If you expect someone to write two books to attain tenure and promotion, then that faculty member should have the same amount of time."

Of the college-level tenure committee, Young said only, "Given its decisions, it was clear to me that this committee was behaving in ways that were unprecedented.” 

As for the greater climate at Penn State for scholars of color who do work on African American and African diaspora studies, Young said “we've now lost 10 faculty” in three years, and "my guess is that they were not offered competitive enough retention packages because that's how the system works. You have to make it too attractive to stay, or faculty leave." (A white scholar of African American studies, Oliver Baker, is also currently facing termination over an altercation with a counterprotester at a pro–vaccine mandate rally on campus, although Baker was acquitted of a related harassment charge in November.)

Khan, who is South Asian, wrote in his Medium piece that “I do not believe my story is generalizable to all of higher ed, or even my field of study, but its central lesson is: At least at Penn State, power is as power does, and no regulatory regime or benevolent decree can prevent the admins from doing what they want. The state of exception is politics. Rule always bends to power’s will.”He continued, “The ease with which universities are increasingly willing to discard tenured faculty is linked to a surging reliance on contingent faculty, who work under conditions defined by astonishing levels of precarity, a fact which illustrates at least two points for the story I [tell]: (a) the expectations for tenure and the processes by which tenure is awarded become more opaque as elite universities shift the burden of academic labor onto those they can underpay and fire at will, and (b) to put it bluntly, if they can do to me what they did to me, imagine what they can do to faculty for whom tenure is not even an option. A fortiori, who’s next?”

Michael Kraus at Yale

Social psychologist Michael Kraus, a tenure-track professor at Yale University’s School of Management, also recently announced that he’d been denied tenure by a faculty vote, at the school level.

Kraus, who researches emotion and societal inequality, including racial inequality, is well-known in his field. So in February he shocked many colleagues with the news.

“I feel many things, but not shame or regret,” he said on Twitter at the time. “I am so proud of our work during our time at Yale, and angry that this version of that work will come to an end, this end.”

Kraus attempted to appeal the decision, but he announced last month that request had been denied as well.

“Appeal denied. No review of decision necessary,” he tweeted.

According to Google Scholar, Kraus has some 11,137 citations and an h-index (a metric for scholarly productivity and impact) of 39, which is generally considered excellent to outstanding. His honors and awards include the Graduate Mentor Award in the Social Sciences from Yale, in 2020; the Society of Personality and Social Psychology’s Sage Young Scholars Award, in 2018; and the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Socioeconomic Status’s Emerging Leadership Award, in 2017. Kraus was named a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology in 2020, as well.

Kraus declined an interview request, and the ins and outs of his case aren’t as clear as they are in Khan’s. What is certain is that Kraus’s immediate program colleagues in organizational behavior supported his bid: Marissa King, a professor in the unit, said that Kraus “had the full and unanimous support of the department.” King further described Kraus as “an exceptional scholar and undeniably one of the leading scholars of status, race and inequality.”

“This decision is a huge loss for the school and university,” she told Inside Higher Ed.

Unlike many other universities’ tenure policies, Yale’s School of Management doesn’t ask departments to weigh in on tenure bids. There are two major stages of review: the first is by all 42 tenured faculty members in the school. If a majority of those professors approve, the case advances to a university-level review. The provost grants final approval, or doesn’t.

Kraus’s case stalled at the school level, where tenured professors from fields from accounting to operations would have weighed in.

Edieal J. Pinker, chief academic officer and deputy dean within the school, said in a statement that the bar for tenure in management is “very high” and that “most" who join the school as assistant professors don’t get tenure there.

Others suggest there’s more at play than high standards.

Jennifer Richeson, Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale, said on Twitter, “This is an incredibly poor decision, but as [Kraus] notes, it is not surprising. But, @Yale & @YaleSOM, if you continue to do business as usual—even celebrate doing so—then you cannot act surprised to have a faculty that is decidedly not racially diverse.” She added, “Your so-called fair procedures are not fair.”

According to data from Yale, 8 percent of tenure-track and tenured management faculty members are underrepresented minorities. Kraus is of Asian descent, so he's not counted in that group. But to Richeson's point, many universities have been criticized as not living up to their stated commitments to diversity and inclusion, including in their tenure decisions. 

Social psychologist Eric Knowles, of New York University, tweeted at Kraus, “I hope it’s encouraging to know that thousands of your colleagues recognize this outcome as profoundly unjust.”

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