Questions emerge over faculty diversity, tenure

by Carter Brace and Joyce Lee | 9/1/16 1:41am

A previous version of this article was published on May 26, 2016 under the headline “Faculty petition calls for review of the tenure process,” and has been consolidated and updated to include additional context.

The College wrestled with questions of faculty diversity and the tenure process in the spring in the wake of English professor Aimee Bahng being denied tenure. Students and faculty members criticized the review process and protests highlighted the continued departure of prominent faculty of color over the past decade.

In May, a group of roughly 20 faculty members drafted and circulated a petition calling for a review of the tenure process, which 116 faculty members have signed as of press time. The petition cites concerns about candidates being recommended for tenure by their departments ultimately being denied by the College’s Committee Advisory to the President. The petition also raises questions of unconscious bias and a lack of transparency in the tenure process. In particular, the petition’s authors raise the use of quantitative metrics as a concern.

The authors, who call themselves Concerned Faculty, prefer to remain anonymous to preserve their collectivity and because some of the members have not been granted tenure yet, art history professor Mary Coffey said.

The petition was catalyzed, in the opinions of several professors interviewed, by the College’s decision to deny tenure to English professor Aimee Bahng. The decision was met with criticism from students, alumni and faculty in the Dartmouth community, and came despite many positive assessments of Bahng by leading scholars in her field and in her department. A petition started by faculty across the country urging senior administrations to overturn Bahng’s tenure denial has gathered 3,799 supporters as of press time.

Many of those critical of the decision said that CAP’s inability to evaluate the full breadth of Bahng’s work and service to students was a possible reason for the denial of tenure, and also voiced concerns for Dartmouth’s commitment to faculty of color and the development of an Asian American studies program.

In recent years, there have been several cases at the College where a candidate was recommended for tenure by their department and experts of their field, but did not pass CAP review. Derrick White and Sharlene L. Mollett both applied for tenure with unanimous approval from the history and geography departments, respectively, but were denied tenure by CAP. Both White and Mollett were faculty of color.

President of the Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association Leah Threatte Bojnowski ’01 said that CAP’s decision to deny faculty of color belies the College’s commitment to diversity.

“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.

According to Coffey, 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.

Coffey said that another reason for the difference between CAP, departments and external reviewers could be CAP’s increased reliance on quantitative methods, which value how much one has published, especially in established journals. People working in emerging fields with few journals, such as Bahng, could be at a disadvantage she noted.

“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 envelope while also trying to subject it to rubrics that reward the most already established.”

Bahng also expressed surprise at the outpouring of support for her and criticism of the tenure decision.

“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.”

On May 27, students held a rally in response to Bahng’s denial of tenure. Over 120 students dressed in white and marched from Wentworth Hall to Parkhurst Hall in support of #fight4facultyofcolor, a hashtag used by many students to describe their movement.

Thirty-six students also walked with numbers pinned on their shirts to represent the number of faculty of color who have left the College since 2002, and five students led the procession with a coffin representing what emails called the “death of the scholarship of faculty of color who have left.”

Many students also spoke out against Bahng’s tenure denial and the lack of faculty of color to College administrators at town hall meetings and forums organized to discuss the results of the campus climate and diversity survey results released in the spring.

In front of Parkhurst, students read statements from former faculty of color, including those from former Dartmouth biology professor George Langford, English professor Jeffrey Santa Ana and history professors Judith Byfield and Russell Rickford, which explained their reasons for leaving Dartmouth and also detailed their accomplishments since leaving the College.

Many of the statements expressed similar sentiments of isolation, stress, bullying by other faculty and a hostile, toxic and unprofessional working environment. One former professor advocated for a more “formal, fair, equitable, transparent hiring process” and asked that the College have a more consistent hiring process with less nepotism and preferential treatment. Another former faculty member said that at the College, mentorship of students of color by faculty of color is often dismissed as unimportant.

At the faculty meeting on May 23, Dean of the Faculty Michael Mastanduno said he believed the tenure system was still working, but announced that the Committee on Priorities would conduct a review of the tenure process in the next academic year. One potential change to the tenure system that Mastanduno raised was an extension of the period a professor teaches at the College before they are up for tenure review. The change would extend the period from six to eight years, in line with some other institutions, a change that Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel said she was interested in.

Mastanduno and the members of the CAP did not respond to requests for comment.

Sonia Qin contributed reporting.