Feckless. Utterly Feckless.

I’ve struggled with this post because the next step in the process was such a let down. I don’t know what I expected after I wrote the rebuttal to the Chair’s letter, but it wasn’t what I got. What I got was the realization that my career at AU – and probably in academia – was over. The decision had been made – in all likelihood, long before the chair had written his letter – and there wasn’t going to be anything I could do to change it.

*****

There are many steps in the evaluation process. At AU, this included three steps in the School of Public Affairs: the Department (through the chair), the Rank and Tenure Committee (composed of faculty from all three departments in the school, including the Department of Government, the Department of Public Administration, and the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology), and the Dean. Then evaluation moved to the university level, with review by the Committee on Faculty Relations (a university-wide faculty committee) and the Provost.

I always assumed that the process of review by multiple levels was to provide independent evaluations of the tenure candidate’s file with the goal of protecting the individual and the institution from explicit and implicit bias and discrimination in the review process.

But when I got the Rank and Tenure (R&T) letter, it was clear to me that no number of independent steps in the process – and no number of rebuttals from me – was going make a difference. You can find both letters in the Library.

The chair of the committee – a colleague in the government department– wrote that the group had undergone “a long and thorough discussion of the merits” (R&T Letter, p.2) of my case and unanimously recommended denying tenure.

But where was this long and thorough discussion? After the complete demolition of my record by the department chair and my extensive reply, the R&T Committee produced two pages that included only a handful of sentences about my research record. It said nothing – not a word – in response to the disagreement expressed in the more than 20 pages between the chair and me.

One might reasonably argue that this is exactly what an independent review of a dossier should do. That it should not rely on prior reviews but rather make its own evaluation to provide an objective appraisal of the record.

But short of saying that my record was insufficient, this evaluation said almost nothing. Most of the letter was a listing of my accomplishments drawn directly from my dossier narrative. Where was the evidence of the “long and thorough discussion of the merits”? What did they discuss? Even if there was little disagreement, which the (mostly) unanimous decision suggested, what evaluative criteria had they applied to my work? They counted the number of publications and conferences, and judged the quality of the journals that published my research, but provided no benchmarks against which to evaluate my record. Not once did they provide any foundation – not a single standard from the department, the school, or the university – for their recommendation to deny tenure.

If this was an independent review of my dossier, I found the Committee’s work perfunctory, at best, and a denial of due process, at worst.

The Dean would say in his letter, several weeks later, that he had confirmed with the Chair that the Committee did indeed have a full discussion of my file; moreover, “the Committee is under no obligation to address in its recommendation every issue that Professor Diascro would like it to address.”

To be sure. But shouldn’t a candidate for tenure expect that the Committee would be under some obligation to address something of substance, particularly if its recommendation was to deny tenure?

The chair of the committee had his office across the hall from mine; it was difficult for him to avoid me as nearly all of the senior faculty had since the review process started. To his credit, he stopped in my doorway and asked me how I was doing.

I took a deep breath. At least he’d asked.

In our brief chat (the notes I made after we spoke are in the Library), I reminded him that I’d met the requirement to publish my work in peer reviewed venues; he replied that I had done the minimum.

Deep breath.

I asked him if they had read the exchange between me and the department chair; he replied, yes, but that they didn’t really want to get involved in that.

Deep, deep breath. Keep breathing.

Feckless. Utterly feckless.

*****

Still, I needed to respond. I wasn’t going to let any negative letter go unanswered. And I had a bit more time to react to the R&T letter than I did to the department because we were on winter break. Presumably since no one would want to be reading my rebuttal during this time, the administration gave me the holidays to work on my response.

With the extra time to reflect, I noticed something that I had been aware of only vaguely the first few times I’d read the R&T letter: one of the committee members had abstained from voting. Why? Did this person abstain at the beginning of the discussion, or after deliberation? Did the person participate at all? The Dean’s verification notwithstanding, I wondered what happened in the committee meeting and whether the discussion was as undisputed as the letter suggested. To this day, I have no idea who or why someone didn’t vote in my case.

I might have made an issue of this in my response, but at the time I was less focused on the abstention and more on what it made me remember about the Department Chair’s letter.

It’s funny what the brain recognizes and when. I’d read the Chair’s letter dozens of times but only in a nebulous way did I notice the Chair’s references to the division among the senior faculty. He mentioned the unsatisfactory assessment of my record by my “AU peers,” and that my “AU colleagues” were more critical than the external reviewers. He suggested that I had some supporters but that the senior faculty were “highly polarized” and “mixed” in their evaluation of my file.

But as I read the letter several more times, it occurred to me that he was talking about the faculty as a group, as if they’d had a meeting.

And then I remembered the email.

The norm in the department was for the chair to canvass the senior faculty for their views on tenure candidates. Presumably, the faculty read the dossiers of candidates before weighing in on the decision, which they did in one-on-one meetings with the chair.

But in one of his first official acts the summer before I went up, the Chair emailed me that he was going to gather the faculty instead; this, he argued, would increase accountability of the chair and make the process more transparent. He wasn’t asking my permission to make the change, but I responded positively to his announcement because I’d argued for years for greater accountability and transparency in the tenure process. I didn’t really think about the implications of a faculty meeting for my own case – and I didn’t inquire about accountability and transparency for whom – but I did register my concern that this process be thought through carefully to protect its integrity.

In retrospect, I wondered what affect the group dynamic might have had on the conversation about my case. How many of the senior faculty were at the meeting? If the debate was highly polarized, what were the specific points of contention? What were the rules of debate? Were those not in attendance included in the discussion separately? Were they allowed to vote? And what was the vote? Was there a vote? As far as I knew, this was a new practice without any codified procedures. And if the accountability and transparency promised by the chair was realized among the senior faculty in attendance, it certainly didn’t trickle down to me.

Later, I would learn more about the legitimacy of changing the procedure on faculty input and how the meeting of senior faculty transpired. In another post, I’ll return to these issues and how the faculty dynamic may have affected my case.

At the time, though, the R&T letter gave me the impetus to continue challenging the tenure process at AU. Despite feeling that the Committee’s recommendation represented the nail in my academic coffin, I still held out a small amount of hope that the Dean would see through the failures of the first two stages; after all, he’d been a constant and supportive evaluator of my record during the probationary period. But regardless of his actions, I was going to go on record about what I saw as clear violations of due process in the system.