A 180 Degree Turn

The Dean of the School of Public Affairs was the single constant evaluator during my probationary period at AU. A fellow political scientist, he was a consistent source of support – enthusiastic support – illustrated by his letters for my 3rd and 5th year reviews (the 5th is in the Library). He often asked for meetings to discuss departmental issues, suggesting he valued my opinion and insight, and discretion. It was he who encouraged me to delay my tenure clock for two years for each of my children. And it was he who asked me to serve on the university-wide committee to write AU’s first parental leave policy. When it came time for his evaluation of my tenure dossier, a part of me truly thought he might reverse the tide of the first two letters.

Instead, and predictably, he followed the course of the others and recommended against tenure and promotion (find his letter and my response in the Library). His argument addressed the many issues already raised in previous evaluations, like external letters, standards, and future productivity. And he introduced new, ad hoc evaluative information.

But what was so remarkable about the letter was the 180 degree turn the Dean made from his prior evaluations of my work. The complete reversal was astounding.

So much so, that I actually had a moment of panic when I thought, Shit, have I misunderstood him and his evaluations all this time? I seriously thought I might have had it all wrong.

But no. I had it right. The Dean had simply ignored his previous support to reach the desired outcome.

In the 5th year evaluation letter, he began, “She is making excellent progress toward tenure at American University …” and continued, “She was and continues to be an active scholar and strong classroom teacher who serves both the university and the wider community.” (Dean, November 2005, p.1)

With regard to my scholarship specifically, “Professor Diascro’s research and publication record is outstanding,” followed by a list of my (presumably outstanding) refereed work. He then described the judicial politics reader as “a significant contribution to the field of law and politics, and the undergraduate courses taught in this field…” (p.2)

After explaining my current projects (one of which would be one of the two articles published before tenure, and another that would be a book chapter with a department colleague, also published before tenure), he concluded that, “Professor Diascro’s research agenda is diverse, lengthy, and significant. It has been well-reviewed and highly cited.” (p.3)

He ended the letter, “In short, Professor Diascro has an important record as a scholar and has demonstrated through her publications and her new projects that she is a scholar of substance.” (p.4)

Fast forward to his tenure letter. “Her scholarship … falls short of what we expect for tenure and promotion,” (Dean, January 20, p.1) and, “Her record at AU is clearly not as strong as her record at Kentucky, either quantitatively or qualitatively. This decline casts doubt on Professor Diascro’s future research productivity.” (p.1)

Now, the book chapter was “short,” and the judicial politics reader might have demonstrated substantive knowledge and editorial skills, but it was no longer a meaningful pedagogical contribution and was decidedly not scholarship (p.2).

And there was more.

I had used the time I got back on my clock after the birth of my kids to publish another book chapter and two journal articles. In other words, I used those two years to add three publications to my CV, two of which fulfilled the requirement from my 5th year review that I focus my attention on publishing in peer reviewed venues. (I’d also had an R&R at a prominent social science journal, a book prospectus in the works, and was collecting data on another project. All of this information was in my file.)

Obviously, my research production had increased in the two years since the last evaluation. How, then, did this translate into concern about my future productivity and lead to a denial of tenure?

According to the Dean (a comparativist), it wasn’t so much that my articles on judicial politics were published in Judicature (the so-called trade journal by the Chair) but rather that they were poor scholarship.

Despite his previous support for these projects and their subsequent publication in a refereed journal in my field – not to mention the positive evaluations about this work by external reviewers in my field – the research in these articles was deemed unworthy by AU’s tenure standards by the Dean, whose expertise was not in my field.

Notably, the book chapter was considered more worthy than the articles. This work was “better grounded in existing literature and has a more rigorous research design.” (p.2) I’m not sure on what basis the Dean made these judgments, but I suspect that his approval had at least as much to do with my coauthor, who (with the Chair) had been tenured recently.

This turn of events was – and is – worrisome.

Graduate students and junior faculty are regularly advised to talk to and work with senior faculty, be mentored and guided by those in the know and with power, be educated about the rules and standards, to network. These are the things that will help advance their careers.

Except that they may not, or not in a predictable way.

The Dean’s actions in my case illustrate clearly how capricious the process can be. This was someone with whom I’d worked for years, someone who had supported and advised me. Someone I trusted. If junior faculty can’t count on someone like this to be consistent and straightforward, who can they count on?

*****

Around the time that I was writing my rebuttal to the Dean’s letter, the Department of Government was compiling data about personnel decisions – including hiring, tenure, and promotion. I knew about the most recent tenure denials (both women) and the most recent tenure successes (both men), and I knew that the department had a number of female associate professors who had not been promoted during my time at AU.

What I didn’t know was that not a single woman had been promoted to any rank from within the Department of Government since 1997. By my count, the three women who’d gone up for tenure since that time were denied. During the same time period, the six men who’d gone up were promoted with tenure, and then one of them plus another were promoted to Full. There was only one female Full professor in the department at that time, and she’d been hired at that level.

As I thought about the next steps in my case, I wondered whether it was possible that all of the women in the Department were less accomplished or productive than the men. Was it possible that none of us met the AU standards for tenure or promotion? That none of us knew how to do quality political science or get our work published in legitimate venues? Was there something about us that cast doubt on our future productivity?

I wondered.