Faculty alter tenure appeals process

Faculty members voted on Oct. 5 to pass two motions amending the College’s policy on appeals in cases of tenure or reappointment denial. The motions ended months of discussion between faculty members and the ad hoc Tenure Appeals Procedures Committee (TAPC). The first of the two motions will give appellants access to a redacted version of the department tenure report submitted to the Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP). The second motion establishes new procedures whereby allegations of both improper and inadequate consideration will be addressed by the same review committee and follow the same pathway to resolution. Both motions carried by significant margains.

This month’s vote concludes a long debate between faculty members focused on attempting to reform the tenure process while maintaining the close knit academic environment for which the College is known. In March, the Tenure Appeals Procedures Committee submitted a proposal to faculty members that sought to streamline and simplify the appeals process in cases of alleged improper or inadequate consideration for tenure and also to eliminate the trustees’ ability to override the CAP’s decisions in cases of improper consideration (“Committee proposes amendments to tenure appeal process,” March 16, 2011). One issue that was not addressed in the proposal, but was fiercely debated by members of the faculty, was the lack of information available to appellants during the appeals process.

Following this meeting, a study of tenure practices at 12 peer institutions was undertaken by John Gerry, associate dean of the faculty. “That study revealed that tenure candidates at Williams typically have less access to their tenure files than elsewhere, especially when the tenure decision is negative,” Gerry said.

Under the original tenure appeals procedure, faculty members initially denied tenure by the CAP could be advised by their peers, but they could not be given access to the departmental evaluation submitted to and reviewed by the CAP in the initial tenure appointment process. This policy prevented appellants from fully understanding the reasons for the CAP’s decision in denying tenure.

The first motion during the Oct. 5 meeting addressed the issue of information available to appellants by instituting a new policy whereby appellants will be able to access a redacted version of the department evaluation report. This new procedure will require department chairs to work in conjunction with the CAP, the dean of the faculty and the department’s senior faculty to redact the evaluation report in a manner that does not compromise the information presented in the report.

The motion states that the “most desirable form of redaction” will preserve the substantive remarks of the report verbatim while eliminating any confidential information or references that could identify specific faculty members.

Faculty members believe that this policy represents a strong compromise. “This is a controversial issue, as you must weigh the rights of the individual to have as much information as possible against the needs of the institution to make hard choices about who to tenure,” said Colin Adams, professor of mathematics and chair of the TAPC. “But ultimately the faculty came close to unanimous agreement that providing candidates who were denied tenure the redacted department reports was the right thing to do.”

Under the original tenure appeals system, appellants were also obliged to pursue one of two paths in their appeal: Appellants could claim that their case was either inadequately or improperly considered. Cases of inadequate consideration are based on claims of oversight or procedural error during the CAP’s review of the faculty member and their scholarly work. Accusations of improper consideration involve allegations of discrimination or infringement on civil and academic liberties. In both instances, a review committee was appointed by the Faculty Steering Committee to hear the appellant’s case, but in cases involving claims of improper consideration, a separate hearing committee was also convened to evaluate the appellant’s accusations. According to Gerry, this policy could “potentially [have led] to parallel investigations, confusion and overlap.”

Moreover, as was observed in March, the previous appeals system required appellants to prove their accusations of improper consideration without access to the complete body of information.

The second motion expands on the ad hoc committee’s proposals last March, eliminating the hearing committee and shifting the burden of proof in cases of improper consideration from the faculty member to the College. Under this new system, a single review committee will address tenure appeals based on both improper and inadequate consideration.

This committee will be composed of faculty members selected by the Faculty Steering Committee. The committee will review the appellant’s petition to determine whether or not the allegations, if proven correct, would in fact support a finding of improper or inadequate consideration. If the review committee finds the appellant’s claim legitimate, they will initiate an investigation of the allegations.

Upon completion of its investigation, the review committee will submit its findings to President Falk, who will then reconsider the decision to deny tenure and provide all relevant parties with a final ruling.

In addition to streamlining the appeals process in cases of alleged impropriety, the second motion also places substantial emphasis on the burden of proof during the appeals process.

In the past, appellants needed to effectively prove that their application for tenure had been improperly or inadequately considered. In a faculty memo describing the Oct. 5 motions, however, Adams observed that the College has substantially more resources than appellants, and in cases involving lawyers, this can put the appellant at a substantial disadvantage.

Moreover, the appellant has only a limited access to information regarding his or her tenure application and so they are forced to creatively devise a basis for appeal without even understanding the complete rationale for the initial decision.

The new appeals procedures will require the College to initiate an investigation rather than simply hearing the appellant’s case. By shifting the burden of proof to the College, the faculty hopes to facilitate an appeals process that is fairer to the appellant while protecting the College from accusations. Rather than having to defend the College against claims of impropriety, the president and senior administrators can now make decisions and changes that are in the College’s best interests.

“To me, what was amazing was how close the vote was to unanimous,” Adams said. “It was a wonderful thing to see the substantial amount of support for these motions.”

Gerry mentioned, however, that these changes will have a limited impact on student life at the College. “The recent votes are a perfect illustration of the principle of faculty governance,” he said. “That is, these changes are being made by the faculty and for the faculty.”

The TAPC will no longer convene following the Oct. 5 vote, but it is yet to be determined whether the administration, in conjunction with the Faculty Steering Committee, will initiate a faculty discussion or review of the initial tenure application process.