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Raising the Bar

August 11, 2014

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 in 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.”

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 publications standards for tenure by Provost Steven 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 three to one.

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 says the “quality and impact of your scholarly productivity during the probationary period is not sufficient.” In particular, he says 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 relations 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.”

Even though her department approved both her bids, Horn said Director appears to be using an undefined but “very narrow metric of citations” to assess scholarly impact. Beyond that, she said, the denial ignores her excellent service and teaching reputations; she’s been nominated three times for a major teaching award and is popular with students.

Similar to the petition Horn’s students started last year, a new petition is circulating asking Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun to approve the professor’s bid. It was started in part by Abhi Nangia, a recent graduate who has taken several courses with Horn, including a seminar on social entrepreneurship in Bali. That overseas experience inspired him to start his own nonprofit venture, he said, and Horn’s teaching generally has changed the way he sees the world.

“She’s the kind of professor that I wish every kid could have,” Nangia said of Horn, comparing the student reaction to her first tenure denial to a kind of “uprising.” He added: “She’s done what she’s supposed to do – but at the same time it’s really, really unfortunate that research seemingly is valued more than teaching.”

In the third tenure case, Brown – a member of the English department whose work also is interdisciplinary, relating to African diaspora literature and visual culture – was unanimously endorsed by her department, her chair and her dean. A college-level committee recommended against her bid, as did the provost.

In an email, Brown said the “only consistency in this process has been inconsistency.” She declined to comment further, saying that doing so could jeopardize her appeal.

Horn says she was never warned her bid was in jeopardy. Bluestone said Kimelberg had every reason to be confident she would earn tenure. Brown, too, earned positive evaluations along the way.

Northeastern’s publication standards, as articulated in the Faculty Handbook, leave room for interpretation. But the handbook says that the “quality and originality of the scholarship, as judged by the experts in the individual’s field, provide the most important measure of the work.”

It’s unclear what, if any, hard metric the university is using to define the “most highly regarded journals,” as referenced in Kimelberg’s denial letter. Bluestone said he believes it may be limited to the top three journals in each discipline. He based that assertion on the fact that faculty members of the College and Social Sciences and Humanities were asked by their dean earlier this year during a meeting to put forward the top three journals in their respective disciplines; Director was not at that meeting.

Bluestone said such a metric would adversely affect the university, in that faculty members seeking tenure would “have every incentive to focus their attention on this to the exclusion of teaching and service.”  He said such a standard also would make it difficult to recruit new faculty – particularly those who love teaching, or pursue interdisciplinary work.

A university spokeswoman called the top-three journals allegation “baseless," and provided the following statement: “While we don’t comment on individual personnel matters, including the tenure review process, it is certainly true that academic standards at Northeastern have increased significantly in recent years.”

She added that "the quality of scholarship plays an important role in tenure and promotion review, as it does at all major research universities. However, despite rumors to the contrary, the dean has never asked faculty to identify specific journals to create new metrics for the tenure review process."

Richard Daynard, a professor of law at Northeastern and chair of its Faculty Senate Agenda Committee, said Bluestone was the most outspoken critic of the recent tenure denials. But he said that members of all three professors’ departments had expressed some concern about the outcome of their bids. He said the Faculty Senate would consider any request to investigate the alleged tightening of tenure standards, but that no formal request has been made so far.

Daynard said he works closely with Director and doubted whether tenure standards had changed to require publication in top journals without the faculty’s knowledge or approval.

“My guess would be it’s more complicated than that, and less clear-cut,” Daynard said. “Is it tougher than it would have been to get tenure today than it would have been 10 years ago or 20 years ago? I think the answer is ‘yes.’ And my guess is that most people at the university, if you ask them, would say this is a good thing.”

He added: “We’re a better university now, with a stronger faculty and amazingly good student body and we’re proud of that.”

Director, who did not respond to an individual request for comment, has announced his retirement. A university spokeswoman declined to provide the university’s tenure approval rate for last year.

 

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