Verbum Ultimum: #Fight4facultyofcolor

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/12/16 5:30pm

If you’ve been on Facebook over the past few days, you’ve probably seen the hashtag #fight4facultyofcolor. Started in part as a response to the College’s decision to deny English professor Aimee Bahng tenure, the hashtag encapsulates a conversation that is taking place at both the College and the national level. Various higher education institutions, including Harvard University and Yale University, have seen discussions about minority faculty attraction and retention.

Although criteria to decide faculty tenure are available online, the decision process itself is fairly opaque. It seems to weigh the academic research produced by an associate professor more than their ability to nurture and educate students. There is an argument to be made for the importance of research in establishing a nationally- or internationally-renowned staff. Faculty visibility — attained by publishing in well-respected journals, giving speeches at well-attended conferences and actions in that vein — does improve the reputation and brand of a college. But at Dartmouth, an institution that routinely touts the quality of its undergraduate teaching, denying tenure to a professor who is widely recognized among the student body for her quality of teaching is disingenuous at best and calculated, cold and foolish at worst.

According to the College’s Handbook, a professor seeking tenure must submit a “list of eight to 10 individuals qualified to review the candidate’s scholarly work.” While peer evaluations are valuable, these tenured professors from other institutions should not be so influential on the decision process. This is especially unfair to minority professors who are being judged predominantly by white, male peers. Why should a tenured English professor from across the country have a say in a Dartmouth professor’s future? Why should he have a say in Dartmouth students’ education?

Although student recommendations are considered during the decision process, the College and its many governing bodies — the Committee Advisory to the President, the Board of Trustees and the Tenure Committee — have no structural obligation to consider students’ opinions strongly.

In recent years, the College has paid a lot of lip service to increasing diversity among both the student body and faculty. While student body diversity has increased, especially with the Class of 2020, 85 percent of tenured faculty is white according to the 2016 Dartmouth Factbook. Part of the College’s public plan to improve faculty diversity is a $22.5 million project to support recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority faculty. With this level of financial dedication, it seems utterly inane that the College can’t be bothered to examine its own tenure process and make an effort to keep minority faculty — especially minority faculty who have supported and nurtured students — around.

In this obscure process, we cannot discern the role that the opinions of students and fellow professors play in deciding whether a professor gets tenure. For faculty of color, this is even more problematic since they spend far more time with the consuming work of advising and mentoring students. When talented, beloved minority professors are given the short end of the stick, the College signals to prospective minority professors that Dartmouth, despite its pledges and financial promises, does not embrace faculty of color. Instead, the College continues to use a secretive, political process to decide tenure that seems to underrepresent students’ voices. To be clear, we are not suggesting that reviews of professors be made public. This would put both the institution and the professors up for tenure in potentially damaging situations. Rather, the assessment of a professor’s teaching contributions relative to their research impact should be made clearer. Moreover, the weight needs to shift to account for the value a professor brings to students more than his or her potential to boost us in the rankings. Both are important, but the first should take precedent.

In the College Handbook, the guidelines for tenure state that “It is difficult to define outstanding teaching in specific terms.” The guidelines go on to say that current and former students as well as colleagues’ opinions weigh into the tenure decision. However, consideration “is given primarily to classroom instruction.” Meanwhile, the developmnent of courses and programs, student mentorship, and outside work is “fully recognized” but given secondary consideration.

With an increasingly diverse student body, an overwhelming monochromatic faculty­ — and the least diverse faculty in the Ivy League ­— sets up more and more students for an unnecessarily difficult time at the College. All students, including students of color, deserve support and role models. We believe that as students, and as a College, we must fight for faculty of color.

The publisher, editor-in-chief and production executive editor wrote this article. The editorial board consists of the editor-in-chief, the publisher, both executive editors and an opinion editor.

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