Saturday, September 4, 2010

Chapter 13

Dean Dominic DiSola entered the main office of the College of Arts and Sciences from the corridor of University Hall. Waiting for him there, as he expected, was Jacob Cohen--full professor of English, but more importantly for today's meeting, chair of the CAS Promotion and Tenure committee. The committee had met last Friday, and Jacob was bringing him the final memos on each of the ten cases it had considered. Even more important for Dominic, though, would be the "after action" account of the committee discussion that Jacob was here to provide.

"Come on into my office," said Dominic. He shut his door after ushering Jacob in. "Please sit down. I'm sorry I'm late. I was just at the presentation being made by the first of these candidates being considered for the directorship of the new Public Policy Institute."

Dominic shook his head. "What a turkey! Someone on the search committee told me that he had glowing letters of recommendations from his colleagues at NYU where he is now. From what I can tell, they must have said great things about him in order to palm him off on us and be rid of him themselves."

"Oh, yeah," responded Jacob. "I got the e-mail notice sent out yesterday about his coming. I wonder how much the provost is paying that headhunting firm coordinating the search for us. And why all the mystery about the candidates, only identifying each the day before he or she actually arrives?"

"Jeannette really has hyped this," observed Dominic, referring to the provost. "Maybe it's because she doesn't want anyone to have enough time to find out what losers these people are before they arrive."

"It sounds like this guy today unmasked himself," said Jacob.

"That's for sure!" laughed Dominic. He looked at his watch. "I'm booked up solid with appointments this afternoon, so let's get down to business."

"Right," said Jacob, pulling out the memos from the manila envelope he had brought them in. "As you know, we had ten cases altogether--three for promotion to full professor, seven for tenure.

"The committee voted unanimously in favor," Jacob continued, "of the three going up for full. Four of the seven tenure cases also received unanimous approval. The committee was, to a greater or lesser extent, divided on the remaining three tenure cases."

"Let's focus on those," said Dominic. There was little point in discussing the others since he was hardly going to recommend against any of the cases which had received unanimous approval from the P&T committee.

"Right," said Jacob. "The three split votes occurred with regard to Rob Barnes and Ann Sweezy from Political Science and Elita White from History. Rob's vote was seven in favor and two against; Ann's was four in favor, three against, and one absence; and Elita's was three in favor, four against, and one absence."

Dominic looked quizzical. "Why the absences in the latter two cases? There's nobody from Political Science or History on the committee this year, is there? Of course, if someone from Poli Sci was on it, there should have been an absence recorded for Barnes too."

"No, nobody from those departments is on the committee this year," Jacob confirmed. "I'm afraid it's a bit of a complicated story."

"Maybe I'd better just let you tell it, then," commented Dominic.

"Right," said Jacob. "Although they were mixed in with the others, I'll talk about them in the order they occurred vis-a-vis one another.

"That means starting first with Robert Barnes. The `vital statistics' are as follows: the vote of the tenured faculty in his department was thirteen in favor, two against, and one abstention; the chair was in favor (though her letter was lukewarm); and the P&T committee vote was seven in favor and two against."

"What was the argument of those opposed to Barnes in the committee?" asked Dominic. "Did they bring up this `unwanted' poster business from last semester?"

"That was not discussed," responded Jacob. "And the reason why is because at our organizational meeting at the end of last semester, Charles Gibson insisted on being Barnes's liaison. Gibson himself, as you know, later became the target of one of those posters--which was why the university stopped any more from being published. When we met last week, nobody else was willing to raise the subject in committee--especially after Gibson himself made an impassioned speech describing Barnes as the innocent victim of a malicious radical feminist conspiracy."

"How did that go over with the rest of the committee?" asked Dominic.

"If anybody else had said it," responded Jacob, "I think there would have been a huge furor. Between you and me, I think that virtually no white professor is willing to challenge a black professor who makes an impassioned statement. There were three women in the room whom I knew wanted to, but none of them did. Each, I'm sure, was hoping one of the others would, but none was willing to risk being denounced by Gibson as a racist for openly disagreeing with him. And considering that Gibson saw himself as the victim of such a conspiracy, he just might have reacted this way if anyone had challenged him on Barnes."

Dominic was very familiar with this reluctance on the part of white professors to openly challenge black ones in meetings for fear of being denounced by them as racist. It was a reluctance that he shared.

"Gibson," continued Jacob, "then presented a strong case for giving Barnes tenure based on his stellar research record. Nobody could point to any deficiency there. In fact, I suspect that Barnes has published more than most people here who already do have tenure. To tell you the truth, he made a very convincing case."

"There were two members of the committee, though, whom he obviously didn't convince," observed Dominic. "Did they present a case for why Barnes shouldn't get tenure? There's no need to mention the names of the people who made the argument--I just need know to what their argument was for when I write up my own memo."

"It was basically the standard old guard position," Jacob replied. "They argued that almost everyone (including themselves) who had been awarded tenure here at NDU had only gone up in their sixth year as an assistant professor. They had put in their dues, and so Barnes should too. They referred to Ruth Silverstein's letter stating that while she supported Barnes, she would have preferred him to go up later after proving himself a good university citizen through the performance of his share of service.

"Gibson pooh-poohed this argument," Jacob continued, "saying that while tenure may have been granted mainly on the basis of service in the past here, a strong research record was now essential if NDU was going to sustain, much less enhance, its growing reputation. One of the old guard actually said to Gibson that that was well and fine for him to say as a university professor who could more easily do research thanks to the lesser teaching and service load than the rest of us carry."

"How did Gibson respond to that?"

"Actually, quite thoughtfully," said Jacob. "He said he understood why university professors might be resented by others here. But he said that we shouldn't take it out on Barnes, who is, after all, an assistant professor who has managed to excel despite the constraints faced by the regular faculty. He even said that for someone like Barnes to be highly productive in terms of research was more of an accomplishment than for someone like himself after becoming a university professor."

"That was quite decent of him," remarked Dominic. "Was anything else said either for or against Barnes?"

"No, I don't think that there were any other points raised," responded Jacob. "We later turned to Sweezy's case. Her vital statistics are: thirteen for, two against, and one abstention in the department (the same as Barnes); a favorable recommendation from the chair (warmer, actually, than Barnes got); and four in favor, three against, and one absence in the P&T committee."

"An absence, not an abstention?" queried Dominic.


As they both knew, the difference was important. An abstention was counted as a negative vote while an absence was regarded as neutral. "Technically, then," said Dominic, "that should be recorded as 4-3-0-1," reflecting the usual order in which votes for, votes against, abstentions, and absences were recorded.

"Right," said Jacob again. "That's what I actually have here."

"Good. So what happened?"

"It was very odd. She came under attack from Gibson for having a weak research record--which indeed she has. He said that academics typically publish less after receiving tenure than before it when they face a stronger incentive to do so. And since Sweezy has published so little when she had the incentive to get tenure, he said, we could reasonably expect that she would publish nothing at all when she no longer had that incentive. He then asked us if that was what we really wanted.

"Well, you know how it is," Jacob continued. "When someone on the P&T committee condemns a candidate for a poor research record--and especially when the person doing so is someone as senior as Gibson--nobody wants to step forward and say, `Actually, I think her research record is pretty good.' It would be tantamount to saying, `My standards are lower than yours, and you should accept mine.'"

"Four people ended up voting for her," Dominic observed. "Did any of them make a case for her?"

"Her liaison did," said Jacob. "She acknowledged that Sweezy had not done a lot of research, but had met the minimum standards of her department with the publication of a book. Gibson quickly pointed out that it was only a scholarly commercial press with a reputation for not being terribly selective that was publishing it.

"Sweezy's liaison then went on to argue that the real case for her being awarded tenure was her outstanding service record. She then started to list Ann's accomplishments in this realm. And here is the strange part: when she mentioned that Sweezy was now serving in her third year on the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee, Gibson blew up.

"He said that he'd been hauled before what he termed `that kangaroo court' just recently. He hadn't paid much attention to the names of the people serving on it when they were introduced at the beginning of the session. He also said that except for the person he was serving as liaison for, he had not bothered to read the sections on service in the other dossiers we were considering, focusing instead on research records and letters from external referees. If he had known Sweezy had been on this committee which he held in such low regard, he said, he would have recused himself before her case was even discussed. Now that he did know, he continued, he would recuse himself before we voted on her--and then he walked out of the room, telling me to call him back in after we had done so."

"Wow!" said Dominic. "So he had no idea that he had just encountered her? He hadn't ever crossed paths with her before?" Now that he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and was responsible for overseeing all the departments within it, Dominic was constantly amazed at how little the faculty from different departments interacted with or even knew about one another. People whose departments were located in the same building might never converse with each other even once in their careers unless they happened to serve together on a CAS or university-wide committee--and maybe not even then. There certainly would not be anything to draw together a renowned university professor specializing in African-American literature like Gibson with a low-level assistant professor who combined public administration and women's studies like Sweezy.

"No, he had never been aware of meeting her, and had not recognized her from the parts of her dossier that he had read," said Jacob. "Well, even though Gibson left the room, we had all heard the damning case he had made against her. One of the old guard made the case that Sweezy had put in her dues like the rest of them, and so had earned tenure despite what any university professor might say. There wasn't much additional discussion and so we proceeded with the vote."

"I see," said Dominic. "And what was the story with Elita White?"

"I'm especially familiar with this case," said Jacob, "since I served as her liaison." In response to Dominic's raised eyebrows, he added, "Nobody else volunteered." Considering all the time-consuming work that being chair of the P&T committee involved, its occupant was traditionally exempt from the burden of serving as a liaison.

"Her vital statistics," Jacob continued, "were six for, six against, and one abstention when the tenured history professors voted, and a favorable recommendation from her chair.

"But when I interviewed the chair" (part of the duty of being a liaison was to interview both the candidate and the chair of the candidate's department before the P&T committee meeting), "he indicated that she was an extremely difficult person to deal with, and that he would not be sad if she was denied tenure."

"Why didn't he recommend against her in his memo then?" asked Dominic.

"I asked him that," said Jacob. "He hemmed and hawed, but didn't really give me a straight answer. I had the strong impression, though, that he anticipates her filing a lawsuit if she is denied tenure. He may have calculated that with such a weak vote from the tenured faculty, she'll never make it past the P&T committee, you, or the provost. Thus, we'd do the dirty work of axing her for him, but he would avoid being included in her lawsuit by virtue of his giving her a positive recommendation."

"And again, how did your committee vote on her?"

"Three in favor, four against, and one absence--Gibson again," replied Jacob.

"How did the discussion go?"

"Since I was her liaison, and since I had read her entire dossier," Jacob began, "I was able to state right away that White was also a member of the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee, and so I asked Gibson if he wanted to recuse himself in this case too.

"Gibson said that he would absent himself from the voting," Jacob continued, "but that he thought he should say something about her both because he had, after all, talked a lot about Sweezy before leaving the room and because he had some familiarity with this particular candidate and that it was his duty to tell what he knew. He then said something very surprising."

"It seems he was full of surprises that day," remarked Dominic.

"He told us," Jacob said, "that he really didn't hold it against either White or Sweezy for being a member of the Sexual Assault Complaint Review Committee--especially since Elita had telephoned him the Monday after his hearing to say that the committee had decided in his favor, that she had gotten him off the hook, that she was his black sister, and as Gibson put it, `a lot of other shit like that.'

"Gibson went on to say that Elita hadn't fooled him. He suspected she was calling less out of sympathy for him than because she knew, he was sure, that he was on the P&T committee. Once he'd thought about it, he said that he actually had more respect for Ann Sweezy for not pulling a stunt like that.

"Gibson then pointed out that White's research record was even weaker than Sweezy's. He stated that he was intimately familiar with the African-American studies field, and that the publications in which White's few articles appeared were not scholarly, and that her own work could only be described as polemical. I, of course, had read them myself: he was right.

"He then said that she was an extremely difficult and unpleasant person to deal with, and that he doubted her personality would improve much if she were awarded tenure. He also said that for a university to grant tenure to a candidate as weak as Elita White would be the height of what he called `white liberal condescension'--and then he left."

"In body if not in spirit," remarked Dominic. "Were any arguments presented in her favor?"

"Well, I pointed out that, like Sweezy, White has a strong service record. In addition, she does enjoy a following among African-American female students--something that the university likes, considering what a poor retention rate we have for this group. And, of course, her being here contributes to diversity among the faculty. That was about it."

Dominic wondered whether, despite making these arguments in her favor, Jacob had actually voted for her. Unlike the recommendations made by department chairs, the CAS dean, and the provost which were statements made by individuals that the candidate would see, the votes of the tenured faculty in a department as well as in the college P&T committee were conducted in secret. Each P&T candidate would see how the committee voted as well as its memo to the dean, but nobody voting against a candidate had to acknowledge having done so to him or her. Dominic would have loved to ask Jacob how he voted, but such a question would definitely be unethical.

"I guess that wraps it up," said Jacob. "When do you have to make your recommendations by?"

"My recommendations are due to the provost by the end of this month," replied Dominic. "The provost's recommendations to the president are due at the end of March. The president is supposed to make his final decisions by the end of April, and then those he approves are presented for ratification to the Board of Trustees in May."

"Right," said Jacob as he got up to leave. "I don't envy you having to decide these three cases."

"Thanks for all your hard work, Jacob. You don't have to worry about them any more. At least I have a little time to think about the three cases your committee was divided on," said Dominic as he ushered Jacob out.

Dominic, though, had already made up his mind about them. He would approve all three for tenure, but for different reasons. Barnes was a star--and the college sorely needed stars. Sweezy was just a grunt--but the college needed competent grunts, too. And as for White--well, Dominic also wanted to avoid being named in a lawsuit. If the provost wanted to ax her (and he knew from past experience that Jeannette Bobier was highly likely to), then she could face the storm Elita would raise without him.