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Tenure Controversy Trips Up DePaul

Faculty members at DePaul University are calling for an external investigation into the university’s tenure process after a round of tenure votes in which all of the White applicants were approved but none of the minority candidates were.

The university, at the center of a national firestorm in 2007 over the tenure denial of a high-profile Israeli-Palestinian scholar, once again finds itself embroiled in controversy over its tenure process. The university is now facing claims of racism and racial bias after it denied tenure to six professors — two Blacks, two Asian-Americans and two Latinos — but accepted all of the White tenure applicants.

Faculty and students have rallied in recent months on behalf of two of the minority tenure candidates, both of whom appealed their denial decisions: Dr. Namita Goswami, an Indian-born philosopher, and Dr. Quinetta Shelby, an award-winning African-American chemist. In both cases, a faculty appeals board recommended the decisions be reversed.

In addition, the faculty senate last month passed motions calling on Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of the Catholic university, to take a closer look at Goswami’s and Shelby’s cases and adhere to faculty handbook guidelines regarding tenure appeals. Specifically, the senate asked for a hearing into violations of academic freedom in Goswami’s case and for an investigation into bias in Shelby’s case. An earlier external review board determined that bias had played a role in the denial of Shelby’s tenure application.

Holtschneider, who is the final arbiter on tenure decisions, says he stands behind the denials but will take the faculty’s motions “under careful advisement.”

While Holtschneider maintains that racial bias was not a factor in any of the cases, he says the number of minority faculty being denied tenure is unprecedented and a cause for concern. During the 2008-2009 academic year, seven professors denied tenure included five women and one South Asian man.

During the 2009-2010 school year, just half of the 10 minority faculty members who applied for tenure received it — one after appealing the initial denial. All of the White candidates received the promotion. Three additional cases involving minority faculty are currently pending before either Holtschneider  or a faculty appeals board.

“The tenure process appears to be broken at DePaul,” says DePaul law professor Terry Smith, one of only seven Black full professors at the university.

As a result of the tenure denials, Holtschneider in September launched a wide-ranging committee charged with “gathering best practices about the tenure process.” The committee, says Holtschneider, “is being put in place because we want to find a way to help people who want to be tenured to better understand the process.”

The gesture has been met with more criticism than applause. Some observers feel the committee’s very existence implies that minority professors don’t understand the tenure process and are operating at a deficit when it comes to meeting the university’s tenure standards, says Dr. Valerie Johnson, a tenured political science professor at the school.

Goswami, popular among her students, received the Excellence in Teaching Award for 2007, the university’s highest teaching honor, and is known for culminating her introduction to philosophy course with readings from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. She says she was “hired to challenge the traditional definitions of philosophy” and “told to teach gender and race, feminist studies and postcolonial theory.” However, referencing comments from the philosophy department’s report on her tenure application, Goswami tells Diverse that she was denied tenure in part because her department determined that her research lacked adequate grounding in traditional European philosophy.

“It’s not about what Dr. Goswami is teaching, it’s about her scholarship not meeting the standards of the tenure committee,” Holtschneider says.

At the time of her tenure denial, Shelby, an organometallics chemist, was the only African-American faculty member in DePaul’s biological sciences, mathematics and physics departments. She was hired in 2004 as an assistant professor and became one of only four faculty at the university to have received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER grant to pursue her research. She’s even been featured prominently in the university’s promotional campaigns. But despite an excellent publishing and teaching record, her chemistry colleagues voted to deny her tenure last fall.

In a unanimous 3-0 decision dated November 2, 2010, the faculty appeals board “found that the evaluation of Dr. Shelby’s teaching and research was biased, and “the effects of that biased evaluation was sufficient to have altered the outcome of Dr. Shelby’s tenure and promotion case.” Shelby says the denial of tenure signals the end of her time at DePaul. “I have invested the better part of my life to building my career at DePaul,” Shelby says.

When the news broke in November, one commenter wrote on the academic blog CENtral Science: “Something isn’t right. How does one earn a prestigious and competitive NSF award and be denied tenure?”

Johnson, a former president of the University Black Leadership Coalition at DePaul, says she is hopeful Holtschneider will respect the faculty senate’s vote, reverse his decision and grant tenure to the professors.

For Johnson and other concerned faculty, these cases signal a need for an external investigation into the university’s tenure process “to make sure that it’s not arbitrary.” For years, she says, questions about bias in DePaul’s tenure process have gone unresolved. 

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