Tenure controversy provokes student outcry
This article was co-authored by Susanna Bowers.
The news that Assistant Professor of Spanish Alberto G.* did not receive tenure came as a surprise to many on campus, provoking confusion and sparking conversation about the tenure process among students and faculty.
Achieving tenure is among the defining events in a professor’s career. For many students, however, the particulars of this process remain locked in the ivory tower of academia.
“Personally, I was upset and concerned because I didn’t know if my experience of his teaching was something that had been overlooked somehow,” said senior Meghan Bill of the decision.
Alberto, who arrived at Whitman in the fall of 2006 directly after completing his doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures at Princeton University, sought tenure and promotion to associate professor in the fall of 2011 at the start of his sixth year of teaching.
This timeline of Alberto’s career at Whitman is standard for tenure-track professors. According to Provost and Dean of the Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, after three of years of teaching tenure-track professors may have their contracts renewed for another three years, eventually going up for tenure in their sixth year of teaching.
The subsequent decision to deny Professor G. tenure by the Faculty Personnel Committee, a faculty-elected group of six faculty members representing all three academic divisions as well as the President and Provost and Dean of Faculty as non-voting members, elicited significant reaction from students in the Spanish and Race and Ethnic Studies Departments. The current voting members of the Faculty Personnel Committee are Professor of English Roberta Davidson, Professor of Biology Heidi Dobson, Associate Professor of Chemistry Frank Dunnivant, Professor of Economics Denise Hazlett, Associate Professor of Philosophy Patrick Frierson and Associate Professor of Anthropology Jason Pribilsky.
Several students convened to prepare letters to President George Bridges and Kaufman-Osborn in support of Alberto at the beginning of the semester under the name “Students Supporting Professor G.” A meeting with President Bridges has since been scheduled for Feb 15.
“I welcome the meeting. Among the goals I have are to give students an opportunity to speak with [Kaufman-Osborn] and me about the tenure and promotion process and to listen very carefully to students’ concerns and views,” said Bridges.
“We would like to meet with President Bridges and to basically express our support for Professor G. and to communicate how much he has affected our Whitman experience,” said senior Spanish major Grace Evans.
Chair of the Spanish Department Nohemy Solorzano-Thompson echoed this support for Alberto’s promotion and noted that professors in the department wrote letters of recommendation on his behalf.
“From the Spanish Department’s perspective, we are supportive of Professor G., would like to see him receive tenure and were surprised and very disappointed by the committee’s decision,” she said.
In accordance with the Faculty Handbook guidelines, Alberto has requested that a Review Committee be formed to evaluate the decision of the Faculty Personnel Committee. The Review Committee, comprising the three most senior members and two most junior members of the full-time tenured teaching faculty, will determine whether adequate consideration was given to Alberto’s qualifications for tenure.
Kaufman-Osborn chose not to comment on any specifics regarding Alberto’s denial of tenure. The Faculty Personnel Committee and college administrators are prohibited from discussing personnel cases because of rules about confidentiality.
Alberto also declined to comment on the particulars of the case, but emphasized his appreciation of his students’ support.
Alberto noted that one of his advisees was struck by the deep connection made between the late Dr. George Ball and his students after attending the memorial for the late professor on Jan. 28.
“My student explained that the memorial was an amazing archive of the connection that took place between an excellent teacher like Dr. Ball and his students. To my student, the parallels were evident. I have immense respect and gratitude for this student and all the other students, former and current, who in these Kafkaesque times, make words and take action,” he said.
Students have certainly taken action in the last month, using various platforms to voice opinions about the Faculty Personnel Committee’s decision around campus. For the last several weeks, a petition has circulated to the broader Whitman student community in an effort to gauge support for Alberto beyond the Spanish and Race and Ethnic Studies departments. As of Monday, Feb. 6, the petition had garnered over 700 signatures.
“The idea of circulating the petition is to gather a sense of how many people’s Whitman experiences have been affected by him and how many people on campus would be sorry to see him go,” said Evans.
Evans pointed to Alberto’s visibility around campus, whether as a panelist in various symposiums or a judge at Mr. Whitman, as part of the reason so many Whitties have coalesced behind this issue.
The petition states: “We believe Professor [Alberto] embodies the spirit of excellence in teaching through his consistent efforts in the classroom and the broader Whitman College community. In recognition of the strong commitment the college makes to a rich student experience shaped by dynamic and passionate professors, we urge the Board of Trustees, the President and the Provost and Dean of Faculty to grant Professor [G.] tenure.”
Students also tabled in Reid in support of Alberto all last week, encouraging students to sign the petition and wear white ribbons to raise awareness. As part of this effort, concerned students initiated a “whiteout” last Thursday, calling for students to wear white in support of Alberto.
Senior Spanish major Zoe Kunkel-Patterson also argued while tabling in Reid last week that students should play a more visible role in the tenure process.
“Their decisions impact our day to day lives and we are paying greatly for it,” she said.
Despite her surprise at the Faculty Personnel Committee’s decision in the case of Alberto, Bill emphasized that she can’t presume to know the complexities of the tenure process.
“I can see how there is possibly a need for distance between Whitman as an institution and faculty as members of that institution and students that are just passing through. I see the value in having some kind of distance in that process, but as a student of [Alberto's], while he was still in the process of awaiting a decision, I would have liked to have had a chance to voice my opinion,” said Bill.
Frustration over student representation in the assessment of professors is also felt by many students in the art department, who dispute the college’s decision to deny Lecturer of Art Mare Blocker a tenure-track position. According to Kaufman-Osborn, the lecturer position held by Blocker was converted to a tenure-track position after the college was awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant last June.
“In the case of Studio Art, we conducted a national search in order to identify the most qualified candidate for the position. In this instance, Nicole Pietrantoni was recommended as the most qualified by the search committee, and that recommendation was endorsed by the Committee of Division Chairs as well as the president. She signed a contract with the College in December 2011,” said Kaufman-Osborn.
“All I can say about this issue is that Professor Blocker was hired as a visiting assistant professor. She was not hired on a tenure track. Consequently, she has never been eligible for tenure and never been eligible to apply for tenure,” said Associate Professor of Art and Department Chair Charles Timm-Ballard.
Blocker declined to comment on the specifics of her case.
Blocker’s students are disappointed by the college’s decision, and wish they could have had more of a say in the process.
“All the art students that I’ve talked to about it are very upset and disturbed at what little attention seems to have been paid to the people Mare taught, who should be considered the most informed judges of her teaching ability. The faculty in every department at Whitman should be taking a very critical look at their tenure processes, and seeing whether they accurately reflect the needs and desires of the student body. I think it’s pretty clear that right now they’re failing to do so,” said senior art major Sam Alden.
Senior art major Sarah Canepa also emphasized Blocker’s popularity among students.
“I knew that conflicts over her rehiring had come up before, but her students, including myself, had successfully advocated for her in the past, and I was optimistic that the strong support demonstrated by the student body on her behalf would continue to have an impact,” she said.
In addition to calls for reassessment of their particular cases, Alberto’s and Blocker’s denials have raised more general questions about the role of students in the decision-making process.
Currently, student input in tenure decisions comes mainly from the course evaluations that students complete for each of their classes at the end of every semester. The evaluations are included in the Faculty Personnel Committee’s assessment. Students may also submit letters of recommendation on behalf of a professor, however, these letters are not openly solicited by the administration.
“Students have on occasion submitted such letters, but, at present, there is no formal policy for soliciting such letters,” said Kaufman-Osborn.
Bill and Evans both regret that they did not submit letters of recommendation on behalf of Alberto last semester, and wish that the administration advertised this outlet for additional student perspectives.
“We really weren’t aware I think until the very, very last minute [that] we could have written letters, that we could have done something. It was literally sort of the day before the Personnel Committee was meeting that we were made aware that we could write letters of recommendation,” said Evans.
Student evaluations weigh heavily alongside peer reviews, as well as a written statement by the professor seeking tenure and his or her course materials, in an effort to measure what Whitman terms “Excellence in Teaching,” the “most important criterion” in the Faculty Personnel Committee’s decision, according to the Faculty Handbook.
Evaluations of a professor’s “Excellence in Professional Activity” and “Service to the College” are considered after this Excellence in Teaching criterion. A professor’s writing and research that appears in peer-reviewed publications, other peer-reviewed professional activities and involvement in professional organizations are among the elements included in the Faculty Personnel Committee’s assessment of a tenure-track professor’s qualifications.
Service to the College encapsulates a professor’s involvements outside of the classroom. A professor’s service to the Whitman community may include involvement on college committees, initiation of new programs, mentoring and more general efforts to enhance student life and Whitman’s commitment to diversity, as outlined in the handbook guidelines.
Associate Professor of Religion Melissa Wilcox argues that the Service to the College category may not receive the attention it deserves in Faculty Personnel Committee decisions.
Wilcox noted that professors who belong to under-represented groups often engage in service to the college that is not openly recognized in the tenure process.
“Women faculty are far more likely to see students in their office hours or in private meetings elsewhere who are dealing with things like sexual assault. For the queer faculty, the queer students come to us with coming out issues or just any issue because we are someone they are more likely to identify with. For faculty of color, students of color disproportionately come to them. So there is all of this unacknowledged service time that most of us are very passionate about putting in . . . but how often, or do we even feel that it’s right to put it on our annual self-review?” she said.
According to Wilcox, this service to the college often detracts from research time, which is weighed more heavily in the Excellence in Professional Activity category.
While there are concerns about the juggling of these various components in the tenure process, in recent years the number of tenure-track professors awarded permanent positions has been high.
“[Of] the 10 persons considered for tenure over the course of the past two years, nine were awarded this status,” said Kaufman-Osborn.
“Students Supporting [Professor Alberto]” is hosting an information session for those interested in learning more about the tenure process and Alberto’s case. ASWC representatives will be present at the event, which will take place Thursday, Feb. 9 from 7-9 p.m. at La Casa HispaÃ±a.
*Editor’s note: The professor’s full name has been changed to his first name and last initial, at his request.