Students react to tenure denial

Recently, Nathan Sanders, professor of linguistics and the single tenure-track hire in the department, was informed by the Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP) that he would not be awarded tenure at the College. The news has provoked the surprise and concern of many of his students and has spurred a campaign of letter-writing to the CAP, Bill Wagner, dean of the faculty and CAP chair, the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) and the Record. Three other assistant professors, Claire Ting in biology, Guillaume Aubert in history and Berta Jottar of Latino/a studies and theatre, were also not recommended for tenure by the CAP.

Spearheading the protest on behalf of Sanders are four seniors, all contract majors in linguistics (the Williams linguistics program offers neither a formal major nor a concentration). It is relatively uncommon for there to be multiple contract majors in the same discipline at Williams. In an interview, the four – Jacob Cerny ’09, Brian Kim ’09, Alex Ratte ’09 and Anna Scholtz ’09 spoke of Sanders as a teacher who was a presence inside and outside the classroom. Some of them have taken as many as seven classes with Sanders – the majority of a traditional Williams major. He was, according to Cerny, “A good friend to all of us, after four years, in addition to probably one of our favorite professors here.”

Scholtz spoke of discovering her passion for linguistics during Sanders’ sabbatical year. “He never had to be on campus but would make trips in just to meet with me to advise me on my contract major” – before having her as a student in class, she said. In an e-mail sent to students and alumni, the four urged Sanders’ present and former students and their parents to write in support of Sanders. “Sanders is an outstanding teacher who has- single-handedly built an amazing linguistics program from scratch at a small college,” they wrote.

Non-majors who took Sanders’ introductory course last semester expressed similar support. “I’ve never been in a class where so many people were so energetically engaged in the course material, which is saying something because some of the topic matters would probably have been rather dull with most other professors,” said Jared Currier ’09. “If [tenure] decisions are based at all on teaching ability, I think Sanders is a near-perfect candidate,” added Lindsay Bouton ’09.

The process

Tenure at Williams is awarded by the CAP, which is composed of a professor from each division, the dean of the faculty, the provost and the president. According to the Faculty Handbook, tenure applicants are judged by three criteria: “above all, interest in and talent for sound and effective teaching of undergraduates and promise of continuing growth in ability to do so; demonstrated capacity to contribute to the arts or to scholarship in the appropriate field and a perception of its relation to liberal learning; significant usefulness and contribution to the College community.” Members of the CAP have a policy of not discussing specific cases in detail, citing reasons of confidentiality.

In addition to the CAP review, a hire in a tenure-track position will traditionally also be evaluated by members of the department. The chair writes a yearly letter, known as a “Fuqua letter” after the classics professor who began the practice, that details the hire’s progress. In addition, the department submits a “recommendation,” a long memo to the CAP during its tenure review that details its stance with regard to awarding the applicant tenure.

Linguistics is not a part of any Williams department, and so a special Linguistics Evaluation Committee was created consisting of Neil Kubler, professor of Chinese whose PhD work was in linguistics, Jana Sawicki, professor of philosophy, and Julie Cassiday, professor of German and Russian. These professors authored Sanders’ yearly Fuqua letters as well as the evaluation memo sent to the CAP. “I think we did a very good job of making a process to evaluate him … that would be comparable to what everybody else does,” Cassiday said. When asked if it was difficult to evaluate the research of a colleague that was perhaps not directly connected to the committee’s own expertise, Cassiday responded that “everyone who is evaluated for tenure at the College, their scholarship is evaluated not only by the people here on campus – but also we consult with outside experts,” as was the case in the evaluation of Sanders.

When any member of the faculty leaves, that faculty member’s department must petition the CAP to replace the hire. When asked if she would do this in the event of Sanders’ departure, Cassiday said, “As chair of the Linguistics Evaluation Committee, I feel very strongly that linguistics is an incredibly important discipline in our curriculum, it has been fantastically popular – and my full intention would be to ask for a renewal of that position.” Cassiday noted that her committee had even petitioned the CAP for the expansion of linguistics in past years. She also indicated that she was less than satisfied with the outcome of the CAP decision. “I am personally disappointed that he did not receive tenure,” Cassiday said. “But I think that we [on the Evaluation Committee] have done a good job with the process.”

Curricular questions

Students at all levels have echoed Cassiday’s enthusiasm – and concern – for the curricular future of linguistics at Williams, particularly as the changed economic climate makes approval for new hires look much more uncertain than it did a few years ago. “If they decide to hire a new teacher, it will change,” said Ratté. “If they don’t hire a new teacher – which is very likely – it will disappear.”

Kim voiced the fear that, as a teaching presence, Sanders might be irreplaceable. “As far as linguists go there are very few people who can do what Sanders does and are well versed enough in each of the separate sub-fields to teach them at the College level properly.”

The Faculty Handbook specifically states that curricular issues will come up in evaluating professors for tenure: “Quite apart from the merits of individual candidates, decisions affecting tenure are subject to such structural considerations as the College’s future curricular needs, including the requirements of special strengths within a field and shifts in student interests.” According to Wagner, “the current curricular status of linguistics played no part in the CAP’s decision in this case.” Monique Deveaux, chair of the CEP, said she had “no knowledge” of the CAP’s deliberations on the matter.

Possibility of appeal

A professor declined tenure by the CAP has two recourses. First, he or she may write to the dean of the faculty and request a reconsideration of the CAP decision. If this request is not granted, the applicant must petition the Steering Committee to establish a review panel, which has the power to “request the President to initiate reconsideration of the decision by the department concerned and by the CAP.”

Although Sanders himself declined to comment on the specifics of his case, he expressed gratitude for the student support he has received. “Having so many students tell me how I have enriched their academic experience has been affirming and validating on a fundamental level for me as a teacher,” he said. “I am proud of what I accomplished here so far, and whether I have one year, 10 years, or 50 years left at Williams, I will continue to do work that I will be proud of.”