The 11 August 2014 issue of Inside Higher Ed has a scary but fascinating article by Colleen Flaherty (link here) titled “Northeastern professors raise questions about three tenure denials”, speculating how their provost might be using more stringent tenure decisions to raise the university’s research rankings. The article mentions that all three denials of tenure were of female faculty members engaged in various forms of interdisciplinary research and that the stated basis for these adverse decisions was that the candidates for tenure supposedly did not publish enough in big enough journals. All three candidates had been recommended for tenure by their departments and two of the three had been recommended for tenure by their faculty, in some cases unanimously. All three denials of tenure are currently being appealed. Assuming the factual content of that article, three matters arising from these cases at Northeastern University in Boston are striking and relevant to Carleton.
First, why were all denials of tenure at Northeastern of female assistant professors? Does Carleton disproportionally deny tenure to female faculty members? Carleton has always seemed a bit sexist to me, which therefore could crop up in tenure decisions. For instance, the university recently accepted over $5 million from the Old Crow club towards men’s-only football, without insisting (or even asking?) that any monies be donated towards women’s athletics. The university apparently also accepted large gifts-in-kind for the new training facility that is pretty much exclusively for use by the men’s football team. For details, see David Sali’s cover story in the 18 August 2014 issue of Ottawa Business Journal titled “Revived football ravens winning over sponsors” (pages 1, 8-9). At least in my own department, since I started in 2006, if statistics are a decent indication, there seems to be a strong bias against hiring or even interviewing women for faculty positions. And I am in a field where the majority of PhDs are now earned by women. As a final anecdotal example, many in senate will recall the provost publicly belittling the current clerk of senate and marshal of convocation when she started the job for not having as good a beard as the previous clerk/marshal. What should Carleton do as an institution to eliminate gender bias? This is really important, to make Carleton more welcoming and fair to women, whether faculty, staff, or students.
Second, why were all denials of tenure at Northeastern to people doing interdisciplinary research? It is certainly harder to publish interdisciplinary work in top-tier journals, journals that invariably are the height of editorial orthodoxy. People in fields related to interdisciplinary work usually recognize this, whereas ‘bean counters’ are often oblivious. This will become an ever-greater problem at Carleton given that we seem to be forced more into silos over time, especially as many of those silos are now for boutique programs. Compounding this problem, as I reported in this blog on 28 March 2014 and 9 June 2014, this winter/spring Carleton eliminated its two premier interdisciplinary programs, making it more difficult for interdisciplinary scholars to get adequate institutional support. Interdisciplinary interest and expertise still exists at Carleton, but this seems to be despite the administration’s erosion of support for such subjects, especially as Carleton’s administration chases provincial dollars vis-à-vis trying to turn us into a vocational college, especially with all of our new diploma programs, certificate programs, course-work-only masters programs, and joint programs with provincial colleges (what U.S. readers of this blog would call ‘community colleges’). Carleton’s reputation could really improve if we became a center for genuine interdisciplinary research, including for interdisciplinary research where nobody yet knows of practical benefits.
Third, the situation at Northeastern highlights the importance of unit standards for tenure. According to Inside Higher Ed, all three people denied tenure claimed that this denial was based on “unclear, inconsistent standards – particularly about publication”. For example, one denial of tenure letter stated the reason was that the candidate’s publications “have not appeared in the most highly regarded journals in the field and have not yet had a clear impact on the field.” Another denial letter broached “the scarcity of reviews and citations of your work by your peers”, as though academic research is a popularity contest. This is why I love the editorial guidelines at PLoS One (here), which state, “Unlike many journals which attempt to use the peer review process to determine whether or not an article reaches the level of ‘importance’ required by a given journal, PLoS One uses peer review to determine whether a paper is technically sound and worthy of inclusion in the published scientific record.” Unit standards, if they incorporate substantial inputs from rank-and-file faculty members, could potentially preclude denials of tenure as occurred at Northeastern. While not foolproof, unit standards could keep Carleton’s administration from ratcheting up tenure standards too quickly. By ‘quickly’ I mean within the span of a collective agreement and within the span of specific unit standards. Note, I am all for change, so long it is deliberative and done with meaningful and respectful consultation with all affected parties. Institutional inertia is acceptable, especially compared with extreme institutional volatility. Unit standards truly matter, and I am proud to be at one of the few universities that recognize this.
Northeastern University’s denials of tenure provide a lesson that Carleton University can and should use to improve our reputation in three important areas: gender equality, interdisciplinary studies, and university governance.