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Trust, Transparency, and the Troublesome Workings of Tenure

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Our tenure system is just fine, at least according to the committee of professors tasked with reviewing it. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Tenure-Track Review Committee released its much-awaited findings earlier this month, deeming their tenure system “structurally sound” despite recent controversies. The insights, part of a 105-page report, acknowledged the existence of “mistrust and low morale,” but still found the current paradigm for the most part satisfying.

The report's optimistic findings are unsurprising. The review process was severely limited from the get-go, unable to assess the secretive and controversial ad-hoc committee that proves crucial in tenure decisions, and unwilling to investigate the potential impact of race on tenure decisions and individual cases. Any assessment that stemmed from it was, therefore, going to prove limited in both depth and breadth.

Also unsurprising was the acknowledgement of ‘low morale’ and a lack of trust in the tenure process among faculty as recent, unexplained debacles have warranted this attitude. The current review was kicked off by the controversial denial of tenure to the beloved former Romances Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña and the subsequent backlash; its closing report comes merely months after Divinity School professor Cornel R. West ’74 was denied tenure consideration by the University.

West and Garcia Peña are hardly the first non-white humanities professors to be denied tenure, or to have their rejection evoke shock and outrage among colleagues and students alike. Both cases exemplify exactly the kind of unexpected tenure outcomes that have helped erode our community’s faith in the entire process, as acknowledged in the report. The University’s entire academic mission, including its pursuit of intellectual excellence, is substantially hurt by this decay of trust in the FAS’s ability to select those who will lead its knowledge production.

To repair this trust, we need more transparency. The main critique surrounding the tenure review process is its use of an entirely confidential ad hoc committee, which anonymously reviews tenure candidates and requests faculty pen private letters about the candidates to the dean. While we understand the need for confidentiality when it comes to the committee’s proceedings, the ad hoc committee must be reformed to provide detailed feedback to department chairs on its tenure decision, elucidating what strengths and weaknesses of each candidate led to the given result. This can help departments advise associate professors on their careers while protecting the crucial anonymity of those on tenure panels so they can continue to make rigorous reviews.

We know clearer feedback from the ad hoc committee won't fix bias, racial or otherwise. But perhaps the knowledge that some record will come from black-box committee decisions will encourage its members to more thoughtfully consider their approach and its concerning skew. Alternatively, it would offer students and faculty the opportunity to explicitly identify potentially concerning elements of the decisions, paving the way for more meaningful reform.

At its core, the tenure review process is a self-reinforcing system. The committee making the decisions is definitionally made up of those who have benefitted from the structure in place. We must make sure that this process of deciding what type of scholars and what sort of scholarship we deify at this University does not subscribe to the similarly self-reinforcing system of white supremacy. Thus, it’s imperative that those on the committee be aware of their position and conscious of their biases, a feat that would prove easier if FAS clearly defined the metrics and standards they use to evaluate candidates, as the Committee has suggested.

Whether this change and others suggested in the review will be implemented or not lies squarely in the hands of University President Lawrence S. Bacow, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, and FAS Dean Claudine Gay.

Trust and transparency are deficient in the FAS’s tenure system. While this report declares that the aspects of the process within its purview to investigate are structurally sound, as long as the final ad hoc committee with the true decision-making power remains completely opaque, it will be impossible to restore faith in the system.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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