Developing Contentions Over Tenure and Promotion

The cloud of tenureship hangs over the Connecticut College campus every spring. Who was accepted? Who was denied? And why? Every faculty member in higher education is familiar with the term “tenure” because in academia, it is synonymous with “security.” Tenured faculty members cannot be fired from their institution unless they do something drastically wrong, but they remain free to leave if they choose. Tenure has the “perk of stability,” even though it provides less money than many private sector careers, explained John Gordon, recently retired tenured Professor of English.

After a faculty member is tenured, he or she may be promoted, which offers a small pay raise and a title of full professor. This spring, there have been controversial tenure and promotion decisions. Assistant Professor Jeff Strabone was initially denied tenure, but a couple of weeks later, President Katherine Bergeron overrode the denial and granted him tenure. Of most intrigue were the postponement of promotion for Professor Manuel Lizarralde and Professor Mohamed Diagne. These professors are particularly noteworthy because they are both from historically marginalized groups. Professor Lizarralde, in particular, voiced his disillusionment with the tenure process in a series of email exchanges with the Voice. In an email sent to the Voice on April 16, he claims, “It is clear that there is a double standard being applied on my promotion…it seems to me that [those who benefit from white privilege] are promoted much easier than people of color or who are not privilege[d].” In order to question these promotion and tenure decisions, we must first consider academia’s convoluted process for determining employment status.

The tenure process is quite involved. When faculty members first enter the college, they become engaged in the tracking process, which includes a third year review, tenure commitment and promotion. Because the granting of tenure typically comes with a lifetime commitment by the school, the system strives to ensure that every faculty member who earns tenure is exceptionally qualified. A faculty member’s teaching and scholarship are equally weighed during tenure review, and less weight is placed on service to the college community. Promotion after tenure focuses more on publications and research. Before compiling a tenure application, a faculty member receives useful feedback and advice from a three-year committee. According to Professor Marc Forster, member of the Committee on Appointments, Promotion and Tenure (CAPT), the review meeting helps applying faculty understand “what they need to get done.”

The tenure and promotion processes involve multiple components, the most crucial of which is the verification of the home department’s support. In this process, all tenured faculty members in the department opine on the qualifications of the candidate professor. They are allowed to write whatever they believe is important for CAPT, the Dean of Faculty, and the President of the College to know. At the end of their letter, they either write, “I am in support of [professor] being hired as a tenured faculty” or “I am not in support of [professor] being hired as a tenured faculty.” If there is not a majority in favor, the candidate is unlikely to continue in the review process.

The next evaluation component is peer reviews. Peer reviewers comment on the quality and originality of the candidate’s work in the sphere of academia. They also validate the form of the work produced, which helps to eliminate discrepancies between department standards. To ensure an unbiased group of reviewers, Dean of the Faculty Abigail A. Van Slyck explained that each department provides her with a list of scholars  outside the college who may critically evaluate the quality of a professor’s work. The department must specify the relationship between the professor up for tenure and the recommended reviewer.  She then approves the individuals on the list or requests changes. These judgments are based on rules; reviewers cannot be a co-authors, dissertation advisors, family members, or close friends with the professor applying for tenure or promotion. The list should also include a balance between “gender and school type.” It can be difficult to find unbiased reviewers, however, because within certain fields, academics frequently have close professional relationships.

A candidate’s teaching ability is an essential part of the review, which is why student reviews play an important role in the decision to grant tenure or promotion. “We can’t have people here who are not good teachers,” Professor Foster explained, “but it is a problem when the only students who fill out the reviews are those who loved the professor and those who hated [him or her]. I wish we could require that students fill out course evaluations before they receive their grades.” A 100 percent response rate on reviews would be ideal, but an 85 percent response rate is more realistic and still provides a holistic evaluation of the professor’s teaching.

The remaining elements of the tenure or promotion file include the 16 page personal statement and “documentation,” which consists of course syllabi and published works. In the personal statement, the candidates are free to call attention to any information that they consider important, which might include discussion of career paths and arguments in support of their application. The complete file typically contains a large sum of information that  CAPT, the Dean of Faculty and the President are required to read. Every part of the file is read completely.

Because this is a process executed by humans, bias may naturally occur. Dean Van Slyck, with the help of her office, conducts evaluation bias training. She explained, “We talk to CAPT and the search committees. We help members become aware of self bias as well as bias in documentation.” These efforts are meant to mitigate the negative effects of bias.

Although faculty records of tenure promotion and denial are treated as confidential, some Conn professors contend that few faculty have been denied in recent years. In a 2014 interview with the Voice, Dr. Joan Chrisler, Class of ‘43 Professor of Psychology, attributed the high tenure rate to “better mentoring and more honest appraisals.” In particular, departments may discourage weak candidates from seeking either tenure or promotion. Professors, informed that they lack support within their respective departments, may opt not to face the tenure review board. Instead, they leave the college when their contracts expire. Dr. Chrisler affirmed that, “to deny tenure to an individual recommended by the department is very unusual.”

Dean Van Slyck seems to confirm Dr. Chrisler’s view. In a recent interview, she confirmed that of the 254 faculty hired between 1981 and 2014, “139 earned tenure, 61 left the College prior to the tenure review, 39 have not yet come up for tenure, and 15 were denied tenure.” Recognizing how sought-after tenure is, it is noteworthy that Conn expects departures from faculty by next year. Courtney Baker, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Africana Studies Department, and Jen Manion, Associate Professor of History and Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center on Campus, have accepted positions at other academic institutions. Their departures coincide with the recent denial of promotion consideration for Professor Manuel Lizarralde, Associate Professor of Botany and Anthropology, and Professor Mohamed Diagne, Associate Professor of Physics and Muslim Community Program Director.

These departures, as well as recent tenure denials, force one to question the premium Conn places on diversity. Students across the United States, from Yale to the University of Missouri, have protested the lack of support systems for students of color on college campuses. Non-white college professors may suffer from a parallel lack of institutional support. The Yale Daily News, chronicling the “revolving door” experience of school’s faculty of color in a November article, deemed the “institution” as “the common denominator” for professor departures.

Seeking to counter the revolving door at Conn, Dean Van Slyck commented on the school’s attention to “invisible labor.” Minority students disproportionately approach minority faculty members for advice, even when the student doesn’t necessarily have the professor for a course, because they perceive that few faculty members on campus can relate to them. Since colleges have few minority faculty members, minority professors are often overwhelmed with their official and unofficial advising duties.  To ease the responsibilities of minority faculty seeking tenure or promotion, the College categorizes this “invisible labor” as service upon request in lieu of a committee assignment. 

The Office of the Dean of Faculty also works to mitigate the issue in a multi-pronged fashion. The Office hopes that changing the curriculum to include integrative pathways with a focus on issues of power and privilege will reduce the need for “invisible labor.” This inclusive pedagogy, which attempts to ensure that  professors of all racial identities are well-versed in issues of diversity, strives to take pressure off of faculty of color. The pathways represent a large-scale reform of curriculum, but its ability to dispel racial tensions has yet to be determined.

In fact, despite efforts to compensate minority professors for their added labor in the tenure process, tenured and non-tenured faculty of color continue to cite lack of diversity as a primary factor when they choose to leave academic institutions. In recent years, complaints about lack of diversity on campuses have devolved into discrimination lawsuits. A female professor sued DuPaul University in 2012 for rejecting her tenure application due to race and gender discrimination. In 2014, Chapman University settled a suit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Commission, which alleged the school had denied an African-American professor promotion largely because of her race. Terry L. Leap, Professor of Management at Clemson University, however, observes that “substantiating a charge of racial discrimination against a university in hiring promotion, or tenure decisions is extremely difficult” given the highly subjective nature of the tenure process.

Due to the disproportionate ratio of white people to people of color enrolled in graduate school, faculty members capable of contribute to contribute to campus diversity may choose not to pursue the tenure track. Hispanics and African-Americans account for the smallest percentage of college and university faculty in the United States. In 1995, African-Americans comprised only 5% of college faculty nationwide. Conn, by comparison, has fared far above the national average. Since 2015, people of color have comprised 22% to 24% of tenured faculty at the college.

Some large colleges, to compensate for their small pools of minority candidates, factor diversity into tenure decisions. For example, Harvard’s Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning maintains a list track to junior faculty candidates with the potential for tenure promotion.  If the list of candidates becomes too homogenous, the Dean will ask the tenure search committee to update the list.

Conn’s postponement of promotion for Professor Diagne and delay in promotion consideration for Professor Lizarralde would suggest that Conn has no such list. Professor Diagne declined to be interviewed by the Voice to discuss his case, but on first glance, the postponement of his promotion is surprising given his impressive academic record and significant service to the college. A 2014 Fulbright recipient and winner of the 2016 Martin Luther King Service Award–a recognition awarded to faculty members who “exemplify and uphold the legacy of Dr. King’s work”–Professor Diagne has proven himself to be an exceptional campus presence.  He serves as the College’s Muslim Community Program Leader, a role that allows him to “act as a mentor and support for Muslim students,” according to the College website. The College further praises him for his dedication to the pursuit of “equity and inclusion, his thoughtful approach to problem solving, and his ability to build community and consensus.” Professor Diagne has more than proven his commitment to service, a criterium which bears increasing weight as a professor pursues promotion.

Professor Lizarralde, in an email exchange with the Voice, fears that implicit bias continues to play a role in the faculty tenure process, despite the introduction of bias training workshops. White professors, he fears, “are promoted much easier than people of color or [those] who are not privileged.” Underrepresented faculty at Harvard, responding to a 2015 survey conducted at the College, echoed Professor Lizarralde’s feelings of disillusionment. A little over forty percent of Harvard respondents reported feeling the need to work harder to “be perceived as a legitimate scholar” on the tenure track.

The postponement of consideration for Professor Lizarralde’s promotion seems out of keeping with the tenure policy outlined by Dr. Chrisler. Ten of the 13 of the Anthropology and Botany faculty members reviewing Professor Lizarralde’s file supported his case for promotion. The faculty opposing his case, according to Professor Lizarralde, believed that his work lacks theory, that too many of his publications are written in Spanish and have been held up in  press, and that he has been too service-oriented during his time at Conn. He further affirms that both the “Botany Department and Environmental Studies Program Chair strongly supported” his promotion.

It should be noted that Professor Lizarralde has been extremely vocal about his colleagues’ role in his promotion decision. In addition to the sense of discrimination, Professor Lizarralde believes that his promotion was denied in part because of emails he wrote to Dean Van Slyck and members of the faculty regarding “how wrong we were about Andrew Pessin.” In the emails, Professor Lizarralde suggests re-examining the events of last spring, potentially welcoming Professor Pessin back to campus and extending campus discussions about racism and discrimination. He views Professor Pessin’s treatment as caused, in part, by anti-semitism.

In correspondence with the Voice, members of the faculty and other students, Professor Lizarralde references being “personally punished” by Dean Van Slyck for these remarks. He calls Dean Van Slyck “not fit to lead our faculty” and adds: “I do not trust the administration since they have violated the Honor Code and should step down from their work. The Dean of Faculty (Abby Van Slyck), President of the College, Associate Dean of Faculty (Jeff Cole) and senior members of CAP (Committee of Appointment and Promotion, Marc Foster and Marc Zimmer), the Chair of the Department of Anthropology (Anthony Graesch) and current Chair of Anthropology (Christopher Steiner) are hypocritical liars.” Most recently, Professor Lizarralde warned students against emulating “mediocre incompetent scholars like Jeff Cole or Anthony Graesch” in their work.

The perception of marginalization, whether founded or unfounded, adversely impacts the work of minority faculty on the tenure track. Michele Lamont, a Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Harvard, finds that “when you’re isolated and the only person in your group, then it’s very easy to lose your self-confidence, and it affects, of course, your performance.” Although Professor Lamont speaks to the limited presence of minority faculty at her institution, her observation may serve as an important warning for the Conn administration. If tenured professors at Conn suspect that the school does not value their contributions to the community, then some professors may become incentivized to search for positions elsewhere.