Tenure Denial Raises Diversity Questions at Dartmouth College

By Rob Wolfe

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-19-2016 10:26 AM

Hanover — The denial of a popular Asian-American faculty member’s application for tenure has set off a campuswide debate over Dartmouth College’s treatment of minority scholars.

Despite the unanimous support of her senior colleagues in the English Department, as well as glowing reviews from students, assistant professor Aimee Bahng this month received word that an upper-level committee had rejected her bid for a permanent position.

The decision has sparked outrage among many who, citing the departures in recent years of dozens of minority faculty, argue that Bahng’s case illustrates a larger lack of institutional support.

Bahng, who came to Dartmouth in 2009, boasts an eclectic resume and is known on campus as a community organizer for students of color. She holds appointments in three other departments and specializes, according to her faculty page, in “transnational Asian/American literature, feminist science and technology studies, and queer theory.”

Administrators have defended the tenure process, which they contend is rigorous and comprehensive.

“Tenure decisions incorporate many voices — including external voices that the faculty member has a role in selecting — and are based on scholarship, teaching and service,” college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said in an email. “One cannot be just a great teacher or researcher, but must have the combination of excellence in both.”

Complicating matters is the confidentiality that shrouds tenure evaluations. Members of the deciding body, the Committee Advisory to the President, cannot discuss the details of Bahng’s application, and in the absence of an explanation, speculation has abounded.

Critics have picked apart her nontraditional record, questioning whether the prestige and quantity of her published works merit a tenured position.

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In an email Wednesday morning, Bahng called the experience “harrowing,” but said she had been overwhelmed by even more supportive messages.

“Students and colleagues at Dartmouth and beyond have been showing up for me in an astonishing groundswell of letters, emails, texts and phone calls,” she said. “... While being in the fishbowl of a rapidly publicized conversation can be harrowing (suddenly everyone has an expert opinion on my worth as a scholar), I have been heartened by the swift and decisive responses not only from current and former students but also from writers and activists around the country and the senior scholars I respect most in the academy.”

If the rejection becomes final, Bahng anticipates she will have to leave campus. She said she is likely to appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, her supporters are lobbying for reconsideration. On social media, they have praised her work and criticized the college under the hashtags #Fight4FacultyOfColor and #DontDoDartmouth. Petitions have circulated in support of her tenure bid, including a letter drafted by faculty that, as of Wednesday afternoon, had nearly 2,600 online signatures.

In signing that petition, Sadia Hassan, a former student of Bahng’s, said the decision was “unequivocally wrong.”

“Dr. Aimee Bahng’s scholarship is innovative and urgent,” Hassan wrote. “It is necessary. Her work stands at the crossroads of many disciplines and urges us to reimagine difference, ecological justice, and fiscal and social responsibility. I am sharper, more tender and ultimately a better scholar citizen because of Aimee’s intervention. It is no question this brilliant scholar deserves tenure.”

Bahng hasn’t yet received written confirmation of the rejection, but on the morning of May 6, she took a call from the dean of the arts and sciences faculty, Michael Mastanduno, who informed her of the committee’s decision.

In a Wednesday interview, Mastanduno said he has seen individual departments’ tenure recommendations overruled before, but added that he understood why this case had provoked such ire.

“This one I think is particularly difficult because the candidate in question played a very important role in communities that are traditionally underrepresented at Dartmouth,” he said, “so it’s understandable that there’s a lot of concern and sadness over the process.”

The controversy plays off Dartmouth’s public commitments to faculty diversity. The college recently promised to raise its share of minority scholars to 25 percent by 2020 — the proportion now is closer to 16 percent — and has devoted an annual $1 million to recruitment.

But Ivy Schweitzer, a tenured English professor who supported Bahng’s application, questioned whether this case undercuts the college’s stated goals.

“We have to look at not just what they’re saying, but at what they’re doing,” Schweitzer said. By rejecting Bahng, she said, “you’re not really putting your money where your mouth is.”

Schweitzer pointed out that, in a recent climate survey commissioned by the college, 21 percent of respondents said they had experienced “exclusionary, intimidating, offensive or hostile conduct,” and 16 percent of this group felt the conduct was related to their ethnicity. Less than half of tenure-track faculty respondents (42 percent) said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that standards for tenure or promotion were applied equally for all faculty.

Over the past year, 69 percent of tenure-track faculty said they had considered leaving Dartmouth.

Mastanduno countered that, despite the symbolism of this one case, Dartmouth still was working to attract minority faculty.

He noted that the college recently hired eight scholars of color who will start within the coming year.

“It’s a hard system, and not everyone makes it through, but that in no way diminishes the commitment of the institution,” he said. “To the extent that you’re talking about a quantitative game, the commitment is still there.”

Mastanduno acknowledged the upset the decision has caused, but said that granting tenure is a high-stakes decision for universities, too.

“I fully understand that it’s wrenching to the community when the institution makes a decision that a certain person is not going to be offered what is essentially a position for life,” he said.

Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon offered a similar disclaimer last week, though he did not mention Bahng’s case specifically.

“The decision to grant tenure is the most critical personnel decision made by the college, involving a long-term commitment that has the potential to last for decades,” Hanlon said in a statement. “It is, therefore, essential that the process is thoughtful and deeply rigorous.”

Members of the English Department met with Hanlon, Mastanduno and other senior administrators this week to discuss the decision.

Schweitzer said she raised concerns with the college president that Dartmouth’s current tenure standards threatened to “homogenize” the institution.

Part of the difficulty for faculty of color, Schweitzer said, is that they often are working in emergent fields or are themselves inventing new scholarly domains, which complicates evaluation by current standards.

Bahng’s work, which intersects a hodgepodge of seemingly distant disciplines, does not fit what Schweitzer called a “cookie-cutter trajectory.” Her first book, for instance, was published anonymously as part of a collective.

“It was hard for the department, and I think it must be hard for the committee, to evaluate,” Schweitzer said: “ ‘Well, what was your role in this? Did you write half of it? A third of it?’ ”

“That’s courageous,” Schweitzer said, “but courage doesn’t get rewarded, necessarily.”

In a separate interview, Mastanduno said tenure evaluators were “very sensitive” to the differing forms of scholarship that faculty of color often pursue.

“The Committee Advisory to the President sees all different types of scholarship across all different kinds of fields, some traditional, some nontraditional,” Mastanduno said. “There are some people who do nontraditional scholarship whom the committee accepts. There are some whom it does not.”

Mastanduno said that Hanlon has final say over tenure, but declined to comment on how often the president overrules the committee.

Schweitzer, who has taught at Dartmouth since 1983, said such reversals were few and far between.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.