Committee proposes amendments to tenure appeal process

This month’s faculty meeting saw the presentation of a proposal to amend the tenure appeals process, the most significant change being the elimination of the hearing committee, which presides over appeals cases involving accusations of improper consideration for tenure. Other proposed changes include a more expeditious timetable for the appeals process and the elimination of the trustees’ ability to override the president’s decision in cases involving accusations of improper consideration for tenure. One issue that was not addressed in the proposal draft, but that was nonetheless heavily debated at the faculty meeting, is tenure appellants’ lack of access to information concerning their cases during the tenure appeals process.

According to Bill Wagner, dean of the faculty, the tenure review process is “the final and most comprehensive step in a process that begins in the first year of an assistant professor’s appointment.” Each year, a tenure-track faculty member’s respective department or program submits to the Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP) a report that outlines and details the faculty member’s teaching performance, scholarly, research or creative work and service to the department, the College, the wider community and his or her respective profession. These annual reports are shared with the faculty member. In the third year, the report is more extensive and includes a recommendation concerning reappointment to a four-year second term.

The tenure review then takes place in the fall of the faculty member’s sixth year, when the tenured members of the relevant department or program solicit outside assessments from several specialists in the relevant field, which both the tenured members of the College’s department or program and the CAP take into account when making an independent judgment of the faculty member in question’s merits for tenure. “The CAP clearly weighs the department or program’s recommendation very heavily in its deliberations, but makes its decision independently,” Wagner said.

Currently, if a faculty member is denied tenure and appeals this decision, the faculty member can meet with the dean of the faculty to discuss reasons for the denial as well as request that the CAP reconsider its decision, and must base his or her appeal on either inadequate consideration or improper consideration. Accusations of inadequate consideration are based on claims of procedural flaws or oversights within the CAP’s consideration – for example, the committee not considering an area of the appellant’s research or a scholarly work that has been submitted to a publication. Improper consideration, on the other hand, involves accusations of discrimination or infringement of academic freedom or free speech.

In cases of accusations involving inadequate consideration, if the CAP refuses to reconsider its decision or if it reconsiders and still denies tenure to the faculty member in question, then the appeals case moves to the Review Committee, which is comprised of members of the Faculty Steering Committee and the faculty review panel, a group of faculty who are ready to serve on the Review Committee if chosen for duty. The Review Committee then determines whether inadequate consideration occurred. If so, the case is sent back to the president who, along with the dean of the faculty and the CAP, determines at what level the faculty member will be reconsidered for tenure, either at the departmental level or by the CAP itself.

However, in cases of accusations involving improper consideration, a hearing committee, comprised of faculty members appointed by the Faculty Steering Committee, holds a formal hearing to determine whether improper consideration has in fact occurred.

The proposal set forth at the March faculty meeting suggested dissolving the hearing committee because of its structure. Currently, the hearings situate the president on one side of the table and the faculty member on the other, forcing the president to defend the College against accusations that may in fact be valid.

“We thought this was really inappropriate,” said Colin Adams, professor of mathematics and chair of the Ad Hoc Appeals Committee, which was created in the fall by the Faculty Steering Committee and the dean of the faculty to consider changes to the tenure appeals process.

“People definitely perceived that there were some problems with the current system,” Adams said. He noted that, concerning the hearing committee, “the goal should not be to force a faculty member to prove that something happened, but rather to determine the truth.”

Adams said that another fundamental problem with the current appeals process is that if a faculty member denied tenure alleges both inadequate and improper consideration, the two different appeals cases move forward in parallel. “That could cause incredible confusion,” Adams said, noting that it could potentially give faculty members “stronger incentive to claim both” inadequate and improper consideration for tenure.

The proposal suggests that the Review Committee make the final decision in cases of either alleged inadequate consideration or improper consideration, as well as in cases of both. If the Review Committee does not uphold the appeal, that would mark the end of the process. However, if the Review Committee upholds part or all of the appeal, then the case would either go back to the department or program or to the CAP for reconsideration, with the errors corrected.

While this suggested logistical change comprised much of the proposal draft, what the draft did not highlight is the issue of appellants’ lack of case-relevant information during the appeals process. During the March faculty meeting, faculty members stressed the importance of this issue, many calling for more transparency on the part of the College during the appeals process.

“When you appeal, you have to provide grounds for appeal,” said Mark Reinhardt, professor of political science. “The first and probably most serious decision you have to make is whether your appeal concerns grounds of inadequate [consideration] or improper [consideration] or both.” Reinhardt, who was denied tenure in 1996 and won his appeal, said that a faculty member denied tenure “will almost certainly know if there were concerns about your teaching or concerns about your scholarship or both, but there are very important details about the nature or bases of those concerns that you might not learn.”

Under the current system, the dean of the faculty is supposed to create a CAP explanatory letter that outlines the reasons a faculty member was denied tenure. In the letter, the dean of the faculty can comment on what was lacking in this particular faculty member, whether it was teaching ability or depth of research or even weakness within certain academic papers. “That’s how [appellants] determine whether they think it was inadequate or improper consideration,” Adams said.

Documents that are used during the tenure process and the appeals process but to which tenure candidates and appellants are denied access include a departmental report, which essentially is the faculty member’s respective department providing comprehensive review of a faculty member and ultimately either vouching or not vouching for the faculty member to be granted tenure, as well as letters from outside reviewers who comment on the faculty member’s scholarship and research work.
While the College does not allow its faculty to see these documents during the tenure process or the appeals process, many other institutions do, according to Adams and Reinhardt.

“We tell [outside individuals] who are writing these letters that the candidate will not see them in the hope that they will be more honest,” Adams said. He noted that often in smaller academic fields faculty can figure out who wrote the letters, leading to potential tension within the academic community. Similarly, if faculty members were to know what their own department said about them, this could lead to potential awkwardness within the department, Adams and Reinhardt said.

Reinhardt noted that while “highly opaque processes are more common at small elite private colleges … not all small private colleges are as opaque as we are. On the continuum of transparency and obscurity in higher education in America … we are at one extreme end.”

Reinhardt added that after so much comprehensive review during a faculty member’s first six years at the College, more transparency and access to information is necessary in both the tenure process and the tenure appeals process.

“I’m hoping, since the committee has spent months studying this issue, that having heard from the faculty, they will issue a revised proposal that provides appellants with more information,” he said. “I think that appellants at least should have the right to read redacted versions of their departmental reports and possibly redacted versions of the outside reviews as well.

“Having spoken since 1996 with the vast majority of people who have been denied tenure about their situations and whether they’re going to appeal and what they think the issues are, it is very clear to me that the fundamental problem in most cases for appellants is that lack of information,” Reinhardt said. He noted that even for the more common charge of inadequate consideration, “in order to appeal, appellants have to allege that not all relevant information was sought out or the information gathered was not weighted properly or was not judged by the relevant standards. And yet, Williams lets appellants know very little about any of those things.”

Transparency within the tenure appeals system has become a relevant topic of discussion with last year’s departure of Nathan Sanders, former professor of linguistics, who left the College last spring after being denied tenure and losing his appeal. Sanders’ departure led to the loss of the College’s linguistics department, as the College’s hiring freeze allowed no new linguistics professors to be hired.
“There are pros and cons to both closed and open tenure systems, but on the whole, a more transparent tenure process and a more level playing field between the faculty and the school results in a fairer situation,” said Sanders, who currently teaches linguistics at Swarthmore. “A closed tenure system puts a faculty member at a tremendous disadvantage when appealing a tenure denial, since they have only a summary of the decision to work from. Worse, this summary is filtered through the eyes of the very people that rendered the decision, which means any flaws in the decision could easily be downplayed, masked or left out, even unintentionally.”

Sanders added that a closed tenure system “essentially penalizes faculty members for their lack of creativity in imagining ways in which their colleagues could have made a mistake and for their unwillingness to suspect, let alone accuse, their colleagues of having made certain kinds of appallingly inappropriate decisions.”

According to Reinhardt, the goal of the Ad Hoc Appeals Committee should be to level the playing field between the faculty member who is appealing and the College. He noted that the asymmetry of information is to the advantage of the College.

“Having been through the process and having spent a lot of time over the years talking to other people going through the process, it has become very clear to me that the most important resource that every appellant could have is information. We are very stingy with that resource.”

Reinhardt added, “ultimately, the College as a whole has an interest in ensuring that the best decision has been made. In that sense, the current opacity isn’t in the institution’s best interest either.”
According to Wagner, between the 1989-90 academic year and the 2009-10 academic year, the percentage of tenure-track faculty who received tenure was 79.4 percent, and over the past five years this number has climbed to 88 percent.

“Tenure rates have been much lower at some previous moments and could be lower again,” Reinhardt said. “It seems to me that a moment in which the number of appeals and controversial cases is relatively low might be one in which we can have a less heated conversation about what ought to make for good policy for the long term. This seems an appropriate moment to fix the system.”

According to Adams, the Ad Hoc Appeals Committee will continue its work over spring break and into April, leading up to next month’s faculty meeting, during which the faculty will vote on a finalized proposal.

“Things are going to happen pretty fast,” Adams said. “Certainly we’re taking all the feedback we’re getting,” he said, referencing the discussion at this month’s faculty meeting, as well as other individual feedback that he and the committee have received. “It’s definitely conceivable that things could change.”