Students and faculty react to Bahng’s denial of tenure

by Carter Brace | 5/18/16 7:55pm

The College’s Committee Advisory to the President’s decision to deny tenure to Aimee Bahng — an English professor who is also affiliated women‘s, gender and sexuality studies, comparative literature and African and African American studies — has been met with criticism from students, faculty and alumni in the Dartmouth community. The decision came in spite of many positive assessments of Bahng by leading scholars in her field and her own departments.

Those interviewed cited the inability of CAP to evaluate Bahng’s experimental and cross-disciplinary work and the lack of credit given for her extensive service commitments as some of the possible reasons for the denial of tenure. In addition, the decision has raised questions about the College’s commitment to faculty of color and the development of an Asian American studies program.

A petition started by faculty across the country urging senior administrators to overturn Bahng’s tenure denial has gathered 2,808 supporters as of press time.

Bahng said that dean of the faculty Michael Mastanduno called her on the morning of May 6 to tell her that CAP recommended she not receive tenure and that College President Phil Hanlon agreed with this recommendation. There is a way to overturn the CAP’s decision, and Bahng said she has already taken the first step in the appeals process: meeting with a member of the Review Committee, which is another standing Arts and Sciences committee separate from CAP. Bahng, however, cannot start an official appeal until she receives an official letter explaining the reason for her rejection, which she has not yet obtained.

If Bahng is ultimately denied tenure through the appeals process, she will have to leave Dartmouth next spring and find a job at another institution.

Bahng’s tenure process began about a year ago. The first step was for her and the English department to separately identify influential academics in her field with full professor status at Ivy League or peer institutions. Associate dean for the arts and humanities Barbara Will then created the official list of professors who would write letters concerning Bahng’s merits as an academic.

Upon receiving the letters and reviewing Bahng’s work themselves, the senior faculty in the English department unanimously approved Bahng’s candidacy for tenure.

“They called me from the room cheering and very enthusiastic,” she said.

After the department review, tenure cases go to CAP, whose deliberations are confidential. CAP is comprised of the dean of the faculty along with two faculty members each from the arts and humanities, social sciences and science divisions of the College. In an email statement, Will wrote that her role as an associate dean is to communicate the work that is done in fields within her division to CAP and the College President, as well as any other dimensions of a candidate’s profile that the members of CAP or the College President may not be familiar with.

The associate dean presents the case, CAP deliberates, usually with the President and Provost, and comes to a decision to either reject or accept the case for tenure, art history professor Mary Coffey said. If the President approves the request, the case is then sent to the Board of Trustees for final approval.

The College is able to promote faculty members, however, without granting them tenure. Two years ago, three female faculty members were promoted without tenure, two of whom were unanimously approved by their departments. One of those two received tenure this year, while the other one was rejected.

Bahng said several people told her case could have received promotion without tenure.

There have been several cases in recent years at the College in which the department and experts in a candidate’s field recommended tenure but the appointment did not pass CAP review. Last year the history department unanimously approved Derrick White for tenure, but White was denied by CAP. Three years ago, the same situation occurred with Sharlene L. Mollett, who was unanimously recommended for tenure by the geography department but was denied tenure by CAP. Both White and Mollett are also faculty of color.

For president of the Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association Leah Threatte Bojnowski ’01, CAP’s decision to deny faculty of color belies the College’s commitment to diversity. The College recently released the results from a campus climate survey conducted last October, which focused on diversity and inclusivity amongst students, faculty and staff.

Minority faculty recruitment and retention is part of Hanlon’s “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative. A January report on faculty diversity outlined a goal of having 25 percent faculty of color by 2020.

“The Bahng decision coupled with Derrick White last year raises a lot of questions for us about when are we going to see real changes and not just reports,” Bojnowski said.

In 2014, a student organization, the Asian American Students for Action, was created to advocate Asian American issues. One of their biggest foci has been to establish an Asian American studies department at Dartmouth. In February, alumni created a petition to push for the creation of a Asian American studies department, which garnered 376 supporters as of press time

Pei-yun Chu ’18 said that when Asian American Students for Action met with Mastanduno and others, the group was told that administrators would support getting Asian American studies on campus. The fact that CAP denied tenure to its only Asian American studies professor makes it seem that the College’s actions are not matching their words, she said.

Bojnowski said she was confused as to why Dartmouth would deny tenure to professors who were both recruited by the College and, as she understood it, had work that was promoted by the College’s Dartmouth Now website and received unanimous support in the tenure process from their departments.

According to Coffey, the reason deans give for the difference between CAP decisions and the earlier steps in the tenure process is that departments favor the candidates they know and external reviewers are pressured to only write positive letters. CAP then has to read between the lines, she said.

The current situation puts departments and external reviewers in a difficult situation in which enthusiastically positive letters are discounted as uncritical and more measured letters that acknowledge weaknesses are interpreted as ambivalent, Coffey said.

Coffey said that another reason for the difference between CAP, departments and external reviewers could be an increased reliance on quantitative methods by CAP. These quantitative metrics value how much one has published and, in particular, published in established journals, which tend to have relatively rigid disciplinary boundaries, she noted. This can disproportionately disadvantage people working in emerging fields with few journals, she noted, particularly scholars in the emerging fields of ethnic studies such as Bahng. In turn, the lack of journals for more interdisciplinary studies can lead scholars to publish more in anthologies which are less valued in tenure evaluation, Coffey said.

Ethnic studies can face a broader problem of legitimacy, Bojnowski said. Faculty of color in ethnic studies departments — like Bahng and White, who also teaches in African and African American studies — need to establish why their work is valuable in ways more established departments do not.

“The economics department does not need to decide why economics should exist,” Bojnowski said.

Bahng said that Mastanduno told her that one of the issues with her candidacy was that some wanted to see more progress on her scholarly output beyond her dissertation project.

“One of the tough things to hold together in the tenure process is how to identify cutting-edge, emerging, great work while at the same time toeing a certain procedural line of already established excellence,” Bahng said. “A case like mine, I can easily imagine being subjected to that incommensurability, wanting to recognize scholarship that is pushing the enveloped while also trying to subject it to rubrics that reward the most already established.”

Coffey said that she feels that if Bahng’s case was viewed holistically and “with an emphasis on qualitative metrics,” she would have been granted tenure.

Students, faculty and alumni very positively assessed Bahng as a scholar, teacher and mentor.

“This is a scholar who is working at the cutting edge of certain fields, whose work is experimental and theoretically complex,” Coffey said. “She is incredibly well-known within her fields of literature and Asian American studies and science studies.”

Kevin Bui ’17 has taken two classes with Bahng and currently has her as their major advisor. Bui said they do not understand why the College would deny her tenure.

“I can unequivocally say with every interaction I’ve ever had with her, I’ve come away learning something new, because she is absolutely brilliant in everything she does.” Bui said.

Bui says that when they attended a conference with Bahng, scholars described her as having the potential to push the boundaries of Asian American studies.

Laura Sim ’16, who has Bahng as her thesis advisor, said that Bahng academically and emotionally supports her students.

Coffey noted that faculty of color tend to be more heavily involved in service commitments which can be undervalued in the tenure process. Whenever there is a committee to discuss diversity issues, people of color are gathered and asked for their opinions on fixing Dartmouth’s “perennial problems” with diversity, Coffey said. She added that she thinks Bahng has done far more in terms of service than most other faculty.

As the undergraduate student body becomes increasingly diverse, with almost half of undergraduates being non-white, faculty of color are increasingly finding themselves inundated with students who are seeking mentorship and advice, Coffey said.

Chu said that mentoring and supporting students is a particular burden on faculty of color because there are so few faculty of color and an increasingly more students of color.

“It’s really disproportionate how much work they have to put in compared to white faculty,” Chu said. “I don’t really see it as something that the administration takes into account.”

The effect of these service commitments is that those who are demographically under-represented in academia, such as women and faculty of color, have less time for research productivity, Coffey said.

Another reason why both tenured and non-tenured faculty of color leave Dartmouth is because of a scholarly environment Bui described as racist and toxic.

A common complaint of faculty of color who left the College is that their white colleagues did not value their work in ethnic studies, Bui said, and did not treat them with the same respect they did their white colleagues.

Coffey pointed to some of the experimental nature of Bahng’s work that may have disadvantaged her in the tenure process. Bahng published a book called “Speculate This!” as part of an anonymous collective, but she was the primary author of that text, Coffey said. As a result, the book was not counted towards her productivity even though there were ways of verifying her authorship.

When Coffey came to Dartmouth 13 years ago, the deans would tell faculty members specifically what they needed to do to get tenure, such as how many articles they needed to publish. The College is now more vague on its standards, she said.

The decision has provoked an outpouring of support and outrage on Bahng’s behalf.

“It all just happened so quickly,” Bahng said. “It was a swift and decisive coalescing of forces, of undergrads, past and current students, people I didn’t even know, friends and colleagues from Dartmouth and beyond.”

Bahng and student activists cited transparency as a problem in Dartmouth’s tenure process.

Bui said that the decision to deny Bahng tenure reflects the opaqueness of the tenure process.

“A supposedly racially blind process is constantly producing racially skewed results,” Bui said.

Moreover, some pointed to a larger effect of Bahng being denied tenure — discouraging more Asian American studies scholars from joining the Dartmouth faculty, who might feel their work will not be valued and might not want to take the burden of establishing an Asian American Studies program as a new faculty member.

“When other institutions see that Aimee Bahng is denied tenure, no [Asian American studies professor] is going to come here,” Todd Huang ’19 said.