Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chapter 8

When several political science professors suddenly walked past her open door on the way either to class or a long-delayed lunch, Ruth Silverstein could tell that this year's departmental promotion and tenure meeting had finally ended. This meeting was always held in November during those years that the department had promotion and tenure cases to consider. The meeting was open only to departmental faculty who already had tenure--but not to the chair of the department.

After this meeting, a professor designated during it would draft a memo stating what the vote on the candidate had been and summarizing the discussion held. A second meeting would then be held a week later to review the draft and propose any modifications. This second meeting, though, was usually less well attended as the draft memo was available several days ahead of time for the faculty to review and informally suggest changes to its author--something most professors preferred to do privately rather than in front of others. After being revised by its author (without any further recourse to the rest of the department), this memo would be placed in the candidate's dossier, which already contained both the material he or she submitted as well as letters received from external reviewers. Unlike these outside letters which the candidate wasn't supposed to see, he or she would receive a copy of the memo written at this and all subsequent stages of the review process--the next step in which would be the memo from the department chair. The chair would also receive copies of the memos about the candidate generated at later stages.

As Ruth knew, the memo from the chair would have the greatest impact if the vote of the faculty was divided. In other words, if the faculty unanimously supported a candidate for promotion and tenure, a chair who recommended against this would be seen as out of touch with his or her department at later stages in the process. Similarly, if the faculty voted heavily against a candidate, a chair's positive recommendation would probably not do much good. It was when the tenured faculty was divided on a candidate that the chair's recommendation--whether positive or negative--was most likely to carry crucial weight later on.

As Ruth anticipated, it was Trond Knutsen who came into her office and closed the door behind him. He looked exhausted; it was clear that the meeting had been difficult.

"Our colleagues decided to punish me for my past sins as chair by appointing me to write memos for both Barnes and Sweezy," he said, trying to sound jovial.

"I'm not surprised," said Ruth. "After all, you had a lot of practice at this when you were chair. So what happened? What was the vote?"

"The vote was the same for both of them," Trond informed her. "Thirteen for, two against, and one abstention."

"That's not good," Ruth observed. As she well knew, one vote against a candidate for tenure was usually not harmful. Two votes against, though, was considered evidence of the faculty being divided. And since an abstaining vote (as opposed to an absence from the meeting) was given the same weight as a no vote, this meant that both actually had received three negative votes--evidence that the faculty was seriously divided. "So tell me what was said."

"These two dossiers brought out all the divisions within the department--young vs. old, male vs. female, research vs. service, and political science vs. public administration."

Ruth shuddered. It was this last division that concerned her the most.

Trond continued: "Let me start with Ann. Those for her pointed to her record of service to the department. They argued that she had put in her dues, and that she was owed tenure. And while it wasn't said explicitly, it was clear that those who favored her most strongly were the female members of the department."

This didn't surprise Ruth. She knew from her own experience that being female and carrying a heavy service load usually went together.

"But those against her argued quite strongly that her research record was woefully insufficient, and that awarding her tenure would be an embarrassment to the department. At a time when other units in the university are raising their standards, our voting to give her tenure would signal that this department is not doing so."

Before becoming acting chair, Ruth had--like most professors--focused on her own department and was barely cognizant of what went on in others. Since attending the monthly meeting of College of Arts and Sciences department chairs, she had begun to perceive that there was a hierarchy among departments in terms of how favorably they were regarded by the dean's office as well as the central administration. And the Political Science Department, Ruth had come to realize, was not at the top of that hierarchy here at NDU.

What all departments always wanted from the dean and the central administration was new faculty positions. What had been brought home to her through her interaction with other chairs and the college dean, Dominic DiSola, was that new faculty positions did not necessarily go to departments with the largest enrollments, like political science. They tended to go instead to the departments that brought in the most grant money, such as psychology, economics, and those in the natural sciences. Indeed, the fact that these departments were bringing in ever larger grants was a testament to President Michaelson's policy of seeding them with the bright young professors who were now bringing them in; the older faculty--teachers, not researchers--had not done much of this.

Ruth remembered how Trond had constantly exhorted the political science faculty to aggressively seek research grants. Doing this, it had appeared to Ruth before becoming acting chair, was extremely difficult for a professor with a heavy teaching and service load who barely had time to work on her own individual, unsupported research. It was, she realized now, a vicious circle: the department would not be able to raise its status at the university without establishing a record of regularly winning major research grants, but it was unlikely to win such grants unless it could somehow raise its status and acquire the necessary resources from the dean and central administration that would allow it to acquire the additional bright young professors who were most likely to win these grants.

This, Ruth thought, was yet another reason why she was annoyed with Rob Barnes. Winning himself an individual fellowship to go up to Harvard last year had allowed the department to redeploy most of his salary (Trond and Dean DiSola, she had learned to her amazement, had allowed him to keep part of it), but did not bring in any funds, including the all important overhead which major research grants came with, to the department or the university. Rob was someone who could--was in fact, she remembered, hired with the expectation that he would--bring in research grants. His winning an individual fellowship which benefited him personally but not the department or university was just one more sign of his unwillingness to be a team player.

"The fear was expressed," Trond continued, "that a strong vote from our department for a marginal candidate would be reversed by the college P&T committee. Instead of helping Ann, we would only be worsening our own reputation.

This was a consideration. Since becoming acting chair, Ruth had learned that while political science was not considered to be one of the best departments in the college, it was not considered to be one of the worst either. The departments which tended to get little or no additional resources were low enrollment ones like philosophy, religion, sociology, and geography, or worse still, high enrollment but low research productivity ones like foreign languages and communications. These last two departments in particular had a reputation for awarding tenure to time servers--and for having their decisions reversed at the college level. Ruth realized that it was crucial that the Political Science Department not let itself fall into this category.

"I think Ann would have gotten fewer votes than she did," said Trond, "except that the public administrators in the department were afraid that if she didn't get tenure, the department would eventually lose her position to the new Public Policy Institute."

This, Ruth knew, was a possibility to be taken seriously. No department had a rock solid claim to a faculty position once it was vacated. The dean could reallocate it to another department. Far more likely in this case, though, was the prospect that the provost could take the position away from the College of Arts and Sciences altogether and give it to the new Public Policy Institute that was being formed.

"By the way," asked Trond, "have you been able to learn anything more about how the search for the institute directorship is going?"

Ruth shook her head. "Ever since the provost decided that the initial screening should be done by an outside headhunting firm instead of the search committee, there's been no news. I heard that even the members of the search committee are not being shown the list of applicants until the headhunters present them with a short list of ten."

This had never been done before at NDU. Up to now, search committees for high academic administrative positions (deans, their equivalent, and above) had been carried out solely by search committees. Although supposed to conduct their business in private, information about who all had applied for whatever position was being filled had always leaked out. Individual professors would then lobby committee members they knew either for or against particular candidates. News of what was happening would sometimes reach some of the candidates themselves, who would then actively--and usually unsuccessfully--lobby the committee too. Creating a short list of ten from a hundred or more candidates was difficult enough by itself, but doing so in such a public manner made it more so. By entrusting this task to an outside search firm, the provost ensured that the short list of candidates for the institute directorship would definitely be conducted in secret.

"I also heard," she continued, "that after the search committee narrows the short list down to the four or five who will be interviewed, the names of those coming to campus won't be released until the day before each one actually arrives." What this meant was not only would there be no opportunity for any of the faculty to lobby to include someone on the short list, but there would be no time for anyone not on the committee to bump a candidate off the short list before being interviewed either. Since this new institute was likely to impinge more on her department's turf than any other, Ruth regretted more than ever that the Political Science Department had not managed to get one of its faculty members onto the search committee for this position.

"Rob's strengths and weaknesses were assessed rather differently," said Trond. "Those for him emphasized his stellar research record. His teaching evaluations also show that he is popular with the students--as do Ann's, I should note. On the negative side, there was some complaint about his going up early and not having all that strong a service record, but these weren't considered serious problems by the majority."

Ruth understood that Trond was one of Rob's supporters, as were virtually all the men in the department. Many of them, of course, had published little but served the department and the university much before getting tenure in their sixth year. Ruth thought it strange that they--unlike the women in the department with similar records--did not seem to resent Rob for going up early without having performed much service. But since there were only three women in the department besides herself who had tenure (undoubtedly the source of the two no votes and the abstention that he received), Ruth knew that what the department's tenured females as a group thought about Rob mattered little in this process. But what she as chair thought about him, she knew, would matter much in it.

"As you might imagine," Trond continued, "those most opposed to Rob focused on this statement about him that was printed in the student newspaper--`Prof. Barnes touched me inappropriately.' And on this, Ruth, the faculty divided strictly on male-female lines. The men argued--quite heatedly--that such a statement written in a lavatory stall was meaningless. Just because such a statement was written there doesn't make it true. Indeed, statements written in lavatory stalls, by their very nature, must be considered suspect. The three women in the meeting, by contrast, argued just as heatedly that no woman would write such a thing if it was not true--or, at least, if she did not believe it was true. They thought that since Rob was going up early anyway, he should withdraw his application for promotion and tenure until this matter could be investigated and cleared up. That, of course, was a ridiculous suggestion."

"Was it?" asked Ruth.

"Of course it was," said Trond, obviously irritated. "Look, I've spoken to Rob at length about this matter. He told me that nobody has notified him about any sort of complaint being filed against him. He said he's had absolutely no problem with any of his students and that he has no idea who would have written anything like this about him in a lavatory stall or anywhere else."

"But wouldn't he say that even if--especially if--he did touch some girl `inappropriately?'" Ruth inquired.

"Rob says he cannot think of any incident that could have remotely inspired any student to write such a statement about him. He thinks the whole think is some sort of malicious prank perpetrated by someone who wants to derail his tenure application."

"That seems a little farfetched," commented Ruth. "I doubt if any of the students even know he's going up for tenure." She realized that just as Trond had revealed his support for Rob, Ruth was revealing her lack of it for him. "I suppose I could try to find out whether a complaint has been filed against him. The trouble, though, is that it could have been done at any of a dozen different offices--the NDU police, the dean's office, the Sexual Assault Services Office, the Minority Student Affairs Office, or several other places."

Trond looked increasingly annoyed. "Even if a complaint has been filed," he said, "that information is confidential. If a negative finding is made in the case of a faculty member, it is referred to the provost who is responsible for deciding upon any disciplinary action."

"Oh, so the chair is not automatically notified if a complaint against someone in her department has been filed?" she asked.

"No," said Trond. "The only way you would know is if the faculty member informed you--or if the complaint was made to you in the first place."

Ruth was relieved that nobody had filed a complaint about anyone in the department with her--yet. It would obviously be a nuisance to have to deal with.

"Some of these offices are so byzantine," Trond continued, "that they might not even inform the person accused that a complaint about him or her has been filed for months--if at all."

"So a complaint could have been filed against Rob without my knowing it," observed Ruth. "You know what bothers me most about Rob's case? It would be one thing if a sexual assault charge had been filed against him and I didn't know about it--or even if I did but it was kept confidential. Because of this damned `unwanted' poster, though, the whole thing is so public. If we recommend him for tenure, we'll be sending a message that we're not concerned about whether he gropes the girls here. It really would be better if he withdrew his application and submitted it again next year after everything has either been cleared up or forgotten."

"He's not going to do that, Ruth."

"Well, then, it will be his own fault if he's turned down as a result."

Trond sat back in his chair. "I can tell you this," he said. "The memo from the tenured faculty in the department that I am writing will make no reference to any anonymous, unsubstantiated charge made against Rob either in a woman's lavatory or the student newspaper. The memo from the faculty will be based on the material in his dossier alone. If you, in your memo, should choose to cite such a charge as a reason to turn Rob down for tenure, you will be leaving yourself open to a lawsuit from Rob later if he is denied tenure."

Ruth wondered: Was this a threat?

"And if and when the time comes at the end of the academic year for the dean to decide whether or not an acting chair should be confirmed for a full four year term," he continued, "I sincerely doubt that he would look favorably on her if she were facing a lawsuit filed against her by someone with an absolutely stellar dossier but whom she recommended not receive tenure on the basis of an anonymous, unsubstantiated complaint."

Yes, Ruth realized, this was definitely a threat. "Thank you for your report about the meeting, Trond," she said in an icy voice. "I will expect to receive your two memos after the meeting next week. That will be all for now." Looking surprised, he immediately got up and left.

The problem with Trond, Ruth decided, was that he didn't seem to understand that he was no longer chair of this department.