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What's the matter with (tenure in) Kansas? The Chronicle today has the story (subscription required) of a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Kansas, Albert Romke, who was denied tenure even after his colleagues and the university's promotion and tenure committee recommended him. He decided to "go public" about the university's decision, involving alumni, students, and the AAUP in a campaign to get the university to reconsider. He says that the university's decision had nothing to do with this qualifications and everything to do with the fact that he is gay. And there are no other openly gay faculty on the university's engineering faculty.

I am not familiar with Romke's case, though I am skeptical that any prominent American university is discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation -- unless that orientation is heterosexual. And the article doesn't mention any specific instances that would suggest discrimination was at work here. Nonetheless, the case does bring up some interesting features of the tenure process that are worth discussing. First, the Chronicle notes that Romke has made many of the documents in his case public:

The alumni who put together the Web site took the site's tagline, "Carefully Documenting the Case of Inappropriate Tenure Denial," seriously. Just about anything anyone would want to read about Mr. Romkes's tenure case is online.

Text of the rule that the university had not officially approved but used to evaluate his bid for tenure? Check. Mr. Romkes's rebuttal to his department chair and his dean? Check. Letters of support from professors and testimonials about the quality of his teaching from former students? Check. A letter from the provost reflecting the chancellor's final decision on the matter? Check. A list of Mr. Romkes's research grants? Check.

"We would like the world to know the circumstances that lead to this injustice in hopes of preventing similar travesties in the future," the site reads.

The Chronicle rightly notes that such documents (even at public universities) are generally kept under wraps. Why? Well, the university would be reluctant to release them, of course. The tenure process is a secretive one. And those who have been in the room for tenure votes confirm that it is often decided on the basis of personality and politics, not academic qualifications.

Interestingly, though, even the person who has been denied tenure has every incentive to keep the process under wraps, lest it impede his or her ability to get a job elsewhere. Romke acknowledges that he will have a heck of a time getting a job in academia after all this is over. The denial of tenure is a huge problem for any academic. They have put in so many years at a particular university, hoping that it will result in this job security. When it doesn't, they need to start all over somewhere else. Only now they are often perceived as damaged goods.

The university claims that Romke's research was not up to its standards and that the research grants he had received did not qualify him for tenure because he was not the principal investigator on the projects. Romke's supporters counter that this standard had not prevented other faculty members from receiving tenure. Again, the problem here is transparency. The university could, if it wanted, put online a list of all the engineering professors, along with descriptions of their research and the amount of the grants they have received. The public could compare.

That would at least clear up whether a double standard is being applied. But there are other factors in the tenure process. Universities typically say that tenure is a "three-legged stool" resting on research, teaching and service to the university. But the balance of these three factors varies significantly from university to university, from department to department, and from case to case. In other words, it would be difficult to prove that Romke deserved tenure and was denied it, unless someone uncovered a smoking gun document (saying, for example, we can't give that guy tenure because he is gay) or if he were the preeminent guy in his field. Which he doesn't appear to be.

In any field, one can claim that one should have been promoted. But because universities in general and the tenure process in particular are so secretive, the matter is more difficult to sort out. And because the denial of tenure is so momentous and damaging, the stakes are much higher.

1 thought on “What’s the matter with (tenure in) Kansas?”

  1. FredO says:

    Tenure is a scam, a device for academics to give themselves lifetime job security and eliminate their accountability to others. It’s as relevant as buggy whips or spats, and needs to be exorcised as soon as possible before another freeloading professor is given a featherbedded sinecure that other workers can only dream about.

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