Are Colleges Denying Tenure to Improve Their Rankings?

News and views from academia.
Aug. 14 2014 7:00 AM

Pulling Rank

Is Northeastern University denying professors tenure to improve its national rankings?

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Northeastern

Photo by Jpm32/Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Most administrators would love to see their institutions move up in the national rankings. But just what would they do to make that happen? It’s a question some professors are asking right now at Northeastern University, where three tenure denial cases are under appeal. Some of the aggrieved professors and their supporters say that a new, unclear standard about publication impact, designed to improve the university’s research standing, could cost three good professors their jobs.

The university says it has raised tenure standards over time. But it calls certain details about the allegation, including that applicants must publish in the top journals in their field to earn tenure, “baseless.”

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Barry Bluestone, a professor of political economy and director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said otherwise.

“I have to tell you I am a great fan of Northeastern University—we’ve got a spectacularly devoted faculty,” among other draws, said Bluestone. “This is an exciting place to work.”

But, he said, “I worry about the future.”

The root of Bluestone’s concerns? It’s what he sees as the “unilateral” tightening of Northeastern’s publication standards for tenure by Provost Stephen W. Director. Three tenure denial cases from this year are under appeal, with each professor claiming that her application was judged against unclear, inconsistent standards—particularly about publication—at the provost’s level of review. That’s after they’d been backed by faculty reviewers and their deans.

Shelley McDonough Kimelberg, an assistant professor of sociology, was informed in a relatively short letter of denial from the provost that her publications “have not appeared in the most highly regarded journals in the field and have not yet had a clear impact on the field.”

Kimelberg declined to comment, citing the fact that her case was currently under appeal. But Bluestone, who has worked closely with Kimelberg, said the provost’s decision was surprising, misguided, and shortsighted. He said Kimelberg’s work has appeared in respectable, if not top-tier, traditional sociology journals, and centers on an increasingly important area of sociology that involves urban planning and economics.

“I would say she merits tenure almost anywhere in the country,” said Bluestone. “She’s brought sociology to a field that never had much sociological influence,” including through the development of an economic self-assessment tool for developers that’s been adopted by dozens of cities. Frequently, scholars who are moving in relatively new directions in their disciplines report that the most prestigious journals are looking for work that’s already mainstream in the field. As a result, they rely on more specialized publications.

Other colleagues appear to have agreed; Kimelberg’s bid was unanimously endorsed by a departmental committee, her department chair, a college-level committee, and a college dean before going to the provost. The departmental committee was unanimous; the college committee vote was 3–1.

Denise Horn, an assistant professor of international relations, and Kimberly Juanita Brown, an assistant professor of English, also are appealing their recent tenure decisions (although Brown has opted out of her terminal year at Northeastern and has taken a visiting professorship at Brown University).

In his tenure denial letter to Horn, Director said the “quality and impact of your scholarly productivity during the probationary period is not sufficient.” In particular, he said that “both external and internal reviewers of your scholarship raise concerns about the rigor and intellectual maturity of your published books, about the lack of range in the publication venues of your articles, and about the scarcity of reviews and citations of your work by your peers.”

Those concerns, however, didn’t stop separate department- and college-level faculty committees from unanimously recommending her for tenure, before her college dean did the same.

This was Horn’s second bid at tenure; Director also denied her bid in 2013, but offered her an extended probationary period amid outcry from students, alumni, and fellow faculty members, including a petition that earned some 1,000 signatures.

Following the most recent denial, leaders of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies section of the International Studies Association sent a letter urging the provost to reconsider his decision. They wrote that Horn’s work, including two books, “represents the best of cutting edge international relations scholarship and deserves to be recognized as such.”

Like Kimelberg, Horn’s work is interdisciplinary; she is a member of the political science department but teaches in the international affairs program, with a feminist focus.

In an email interview, Horn said working in an interdisciplinary field has complicated her bid from the start. She was offered a tenure-track line in 2007 in international affairs, she said, after a two-year stint as a visiting assistant professor. But three years later, she said, the provost decided that a tenure line could not be in a program and reassigned her to the political science department.

“At that point I had to shift gears from being an interdisciplinary scholar to focusing more on ‘mainstream’ political science,” Horn said. “I had two years to meet the new standards that moving to political science required for tenure.”

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