“I had a baby, not a lobotomy”* and Other Irregularities

It seems like I’ve been working on Part II of my gatekeeping post forever. And I’m not done. Sigh. So (not) funny how the specter of failure creeps into all of life’s crevices, even a personal blog with no deadlines, no commitments, no expectations. Yeah, right.

I fret about not getting my next post out, yet I’ve been attending to all the other parts of my life: kids, live-in parent, and that pesky career thing, to name just a few. A conspiracy to impede my progress! Like it is for so many others, time is my most valuable – and scarce – resource. I have to remind myself that there’s only so much of it, and that priorities have to be set. Or, rather, they’re set for me.

Life. The primary theme of my tenure denial …

Failure or not, I will adapt. I may not be ready for my planned post, but I can make progress by writing about my appeal instead.

Besides, the appeal is a perfect segue to a post on gatekeepers in the academy.

Here, I give you the last two arbiters of my tenure case at AU: the Committee on Faculty Grievances (CFG) and the University President.

******

Actually, I have (relatively) little to say about this part of the process.

When I read them again after so many years, I realized how remarkable the letters were in representing the whole of my tenure denial experience.

The university committee—an external, independent evaluator of the process—arguing point by point the irregularities in the process.

The university president, seemingly disinterested and dismissive of each and every point.

You can read them for yourself in the Library, along with my appeal letter.[1]

It was—and is—rather anticlimactic.

Not that the CFG letter didn’t give me hope—less for myself, but for the larger issues I’d presented in my appeal. This was a committee of seven faculty, none of whom I knew personally, and only one by reputation. They investigated my claims by examining—and recording for the record and to provide some degree of transparency—relevant documents and interviewing relevant actors in the process. They found procedural and discriminatory irregularities in the evaluation process.

Most rewarding was their finding that the Dean had indeed changed his evaluation of my scholarly record after I delayed my tenure clock. The Committee flatly rejected the Dean’s explanation that his views were consistent over time, and they suggested that the President look carefully at the assessment of my scholarship.

Additionally, the Committee found that the focus of the Chair, Dean, and the Provost on future productivity and potential—at the expense of my previous work—was inconsistent with the Faculty Manual.

Similarly, it concluded that the Chair’s consultation with the senior faculty was not in keeping with routine procedures of the Department or the School, as the Dean had claimed. This violation of the Manual—which informed the evaluations by the Chair and the Dean—led the Committee to suggest that the weight of these reviews should be lessened in the President’s review of my case.

Furthermore, the Committee argued that I’d made a prima facie case for gender discrimination in the Department. They suggested that one sign of discrimination might be the Chair’s and Dean’s—and then Provost’s—dismissiveness of the external letters submitted in support of my tenure and promotion. Importantly, the Committee argued that the source of discrimination might not lie (only) in the evaluation process, but perhaps in the Department’s hiring and mentoring of junior faculty. The Committee asked the President to initiate an investigation.

Alas, as far as I could tell, there was no investigation by the President of any part of the process.

The review of gender discrimination in the Department by the Interim Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Academic Affairs mentioned in the President’s letter (and in my appeal) took place many weeks before the CFG made it’s independent determination that there was a prima facie case for discrimination.

Notably, her review—which she indicated was stimulated by the letter of support from my colleagues—was conducted many weeks after that letter was submitted and after the Provost had made the decision to deny tenure.

I do not know who else the Interim Vice Provost spoke to or how she conducted her investigation. I don’t remember hearing anything about a final determination about gender discrimination in the Department until I received the President’s letter. Indeed, it seems from the CFG letter that the Committee didn’t know anything about her review either as it is not mentioned in their letter to the President.

In the absence of transparency, I have no way of knowing if the President carried out his own, independent review of my case.

******

The failure of my appeal didn’t come as a surprise. I’d hired a lawyer several months before knowing full well how this story would end. Familiar with the tenure process at AU, she’d laid out a number of options for me to consider.

With the standard terminal contract in hand, I had a year to figure out what to do next.

 

 

Notes:

*Quoted in Williams, Joan C. and Nancy Segal. 2003. “Beyond the Maternal Wall: Relief for Family Caregivers Who Are Discriminated Against on the Job,” 26 Harvard Women’s Law Review 77, 77. [Accessed November 9, 2016, at http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol26/williams.pdf]

[1] One of the most distasteful parts of writing the appeal was comparing my record to the records of my colleagues. I have redacted these portions of my letter.

Gatekeeping: A Self-Fulfilling Cycle, Part I

I’m pausing from the details of my tenure case to reflect a bit. Since my ultimate goal for this blog is to think critically and broadly about success and failure in the academy, it seems like a good time to start piecing together some thoughts about higher education and academia. I’m starting with gatekeeping, which I view as central to success and failure in the academy.

******

I believe that the fundamental goal of higher education is to educate the next generation to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical thinking members of society. That’s a complex statement and may be controversial, but when asked over the years by students, friends, and family why I was a professor (and not a lawyer, for example), this has been the essence of my elevator speech. I don’t think it’s the only mission of universities and colleges – or faculty – and it certainly varies among types of institutions, but for me it’s the most important. And I think it’s true especially for political science.

I think we do our best in pursuit of this goal when we combine our dual roles of teachers and researchers (I could add service of many kinds, but that’s for another time). It’s wonderful when the connection is made by a single person, in a single class. I love when I can share what I know about a topic and how I know it as a model for thinking about and evaluating the world.

But the combination of teaching and research is not always applicable, and arguably, it doesn’t need to be. Instead, faculty rely on each other to provide the knowledge that we impart to our students. We are a community and our ability to fulfill the mission depends not only on our individual contributions, but our collective contributions. As researchers, we vary in the substantive and methodological focus of our work; as teachers, we vary in our topical expertise and pedagogical style. Some of us do more research than teaching; others do more teaching than research.

As a scholarly community, we do it all. Together, we are able to meet the goal of educating the next generation.

So the decisions about who gets to participate in meeting this goal—who succeeds and who does not—are extremely important.

If our value as a scholarly community in advancing subsequent generations depends on the sum of our parts, then the parts really matter.

******

Viewed in this context, the academic gatekeeping process – at least as I’ve seen and experienced it in political science – is terribly flawed.

It is a self-fulfilling cycle, based on a narrowly defined playing field that supports and promotes like-minded players who reject those deemed unqualified by the narrow standards that they themselves have devised and from which they have benefitted.

I’m sensitive to overgeneralizing without systematic data on hiring and promotion processes and results—and oversimplifying, given the variation among institutions. But one needs only to talk to colleagues from different universities and colleges to understand that decisions about who plays and who stays usually favor (and significantly) research over teaching.

And it’s not that research is so highly valued—as it should be—but rather that (at many places) teaching is so undervalued—and it shouldn’t be.

Assuming the goal for most of us is a tenure track position, then the cycle often looks something like this:

Some level of published research is required to compete for tenure track jobs, which provide the only path to tenure and the primary path to advancement in the academy.

Publishing depends not only on merit, but on time—perhaps the most valuable of resources—and other resources (ranging from funding to mentorship), which vary in availability among graduate programs.

Competition for tenure track positions is fierce, so many talented people (some with research on their CVs and others without) turn to contingent positions as a stop-gap on the way to tenure track jobs. Yet, contingent positions—because they demand enormous teaching loads—provide little time and resources for research. This makes it very challenging to attain a tenure track job later, leaving many permanently outside the traditional academic gates and unable to participate in the gatekeeping mechanisms of the academy.

If one is fortunate enough to have the time and resources to publish—and then lucky enough to successfully compete for the relatively few tenure track positions—then promotion to Associate and eventually to Full depends, again, on sufficient research, which requires time and resources.

For many reasons, though, not all faculty are similarly situated—either professionally or personally—with regard to time and resources, and thus are limited in their ability to pass through the tenure and promotion gates. Thus, they are prevented from attaining status among the gatekeepers.

Those who do successfully navigate this system—not only on merit (and for some, not on merit at all) but on good fortune—are those who have benefitted from the time and other resources required to succeed. And they go on to perpetuate it by holding the gatekeeping positions. And the cycle of “success” continues.

This cycle is even more complicated. Not all research is equal, and the definition of “good” research is often very narrowly defined—not only by substantive focus, but by methodological approach.

The definitions are made by the very people who get the tenure track jobs and who advance to positions of seniority. And the value of that work is narrowly defined by publication in particular venues, which are ranked in ways that are also a product of those who have succeeded by meeting the status quo standards for advancing in the system. And they, then, perpetuate those standards through their status at their institutions.

And this says nothing about those venues themselves, publication in which often requires vast amounts of time and resources that are often available only to those who have had previous success.

And all of this at the expense—often—of teaching. There are some faculty who excel at both research and teaching; in my experience, this is uncommon and usually the product of ideal workers who are able and willing to dedicate themselves fully to professional productivity.

Teaching often takes a back seat to research for those who want to succeed on the tenure track. The saying—that I continue to hear graduate students repeat—is that your teaching can hurt you for tenure if it’s terrible, but it can’t help you if it’s good (no matter how good).

Thus, if teaching is a strength and something in which time and resources are invested, it will usually be at the expense of research. And this is likely to put the tenure track—and tenure—out of reach.

And if the tenure track or tenure is out of reach, then full participation and advancement in the profession and the institution are out of reach as well.

It is worth noting, too, that one of the institutionally valued and encouraged ways of obtaining more time and resources to do the research that will earn promotion is to buy out teaching with research funding. And, the likelihood of funding is greater for those with prior research accomplishments, which met the narrowly defined standards.

Among the many effects of this cycle is that it puts the burden of teaching additional courses on other faculty, who then have less time to do their own research and whose professional fortunes are increasingly limited because they’re less likely to break into the cycle that would bring success. And, it contributes to the need for more contingent instructors, for whom the ever-increasing teaching loads diminish the opportunity for research, the key to the academic gate and kingdom.

I could go on.

The implications of this failure to think broadly and inclusively about what constitutes meaningful intellectual contributions to higher education are serious.

Not only does it result in the inability of many individuals with multifaceted skills and expertise as researchers and teachers to participate and advance in the profession.

But it results in significant loss for students, who—in my view—are educated best by their exposure to faculty with a range of skills and intellectual approaches that help them develop the tools to sort through the complexities of the world and make informed judgments about their place in it.

In the end, this is a devastating failure by and for institutions of higher learning.

******

I’ve been both outside and inside the gates, and I like to think I’ve been a thoughtful and attentive witness to and participant in the gatekeeping process. But I know that because I was largely successful in overcoming the many hurdles in my academic path, I didn’t understand or appreciate as well as I should have how problematic the process could be.

Sometimes it takes failure to understand success.

"I regret to inform you ..."

I’m at the end of my story of the formal tenure review. After the decisions in the School of Public Affairs, the evaluation process moved to the university level where the Committee on Faculty Relations (CFR) reviewed my file and then the Provost made the final decision. It’s all a little anticlimactic because we know I was fired. The Provost’s letter was completely predictable, a rehashing of Chair’s and Dean’s letters about the inadequacy of my research record, emphasizing that I had little potential and no promise of an upward trajectory in the future.

If memory serves, I got through the first line of the letter, had a few choice words that reflected my incredulity about any remorse he might have had in ending my career, and put the letter aside.

Picking up the letter some time later, I noticed that the Provost hadn’t actually signed it; the Interim Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Academic Affairs initialed it on his behalf. This might have been the most upsetting part for me; so relatively trivial, but so significant as an indication of how little he actually cared about the decision he’d made.

I also noticed that he hadn’t referenced the letter of support from the senior colleagues in my department (not surprising) and had summarily dismissed the possibility of gender bias in my case (also not surprising). I’ll return to his complete disregard for the pattern of discrimination in the Department and School at another time.

Particularly notable in the context of his evaluation of my dossier, though, was the Provost’s failure to acknowledge at all the tenure evaluation by the Committee on Faculty Relations.

Presumably, the CFR plays a meaningful role in the tenure process. I’ve always understood that this type of committee is the first defense against the potentially parochial decision making in department and school evaluations—defense not just for the tenure candidate, but for the institution as well. At AU, the CFR has responsibility for evaluating the dossier with fresh and objective eyes.

It is a major understatement to say that I was surprised and relieved when the CFR letter recommended tenure. After months of devastating, negative evaluations, I had to read it several times to appreciate it fully. Not only did a majority of the Committee find my contributions to the University valuable but they viewed my past productivity as a positive sign of my future success. They seemed to appreciate what the others had ignored, that the slowed pace of production was a function of child-bearing, and was not a sign of future potential.

It was not a sign of failure.

And the Committee’s acknowledgment of bias in the process—whether explicit or implicit—was a welcome change from previous evaluations.

But as a procedural and practical matter, I wasn’t sure what to make of the CFR recommendations. I don’t know how common it is to separate tenure from promotion as the CFR did. To be sure, granting tenure without promotion was certainly preferable to me than being promoted without tenure. And it seemed like a serious rebuke of the Chair’s and Dean’s evaluations.

At the same time, it’s clear that the Committee was trying not to overly censure the Dean and the School. By suggesting that the School had a reputation of fairness and objectivity, they tried to balance their recommendation that the review process be examined in light of the arguments I’d made in my rebuttal letters.

And by not recommending promotion, they seemed to be preserving some authority for the School to develop standards by which to frame and evaluate the research agenda required to earn promotion.

From a dispassionate view, I understand why they tried to walk the line they did. But as a practical matter, it’s hard to see how they thought this would play out for me or the School. The powers-that-be hadn’t just denied me tenure, they had completely decimated my research record. I couldn’t imagine how we would have worked to develop a plan that would have earned me promotion to Associate Professor.

Alas, it was all conjecture in the end as the Provost ignored the CFR altogether and denied tenure.

But then, this was not a surprise to anyone familiar with tenure cases at AU, including my lawyer.