Department questions hiring policies

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August 31, 2007

1:12 PM

__Philosophy faculty unhappy that untenured professors help hire__

There is an ongoing feud between the philosophy department and the administration that resulted in the removal of the department chair and the placement of the department under receivership, in which a non-philosophy professor handles the administrative duties of the department chair.

p. The controversy began when philosophy professors Paul Davies and George Harris co-authored an editorial in the Daily Press in which they expressed their displeasure with College President Gene Nichol over his handling of last year’s Wren cross controversy. They also outlined their disagreement with the current department hiring system in which non-tenured, or junior, professors and tenured, or senior, faculty can vote on new hires. It was the second point that attracted the interest of an outside review board in their report on the alleged poor treatment of junior faculty. The report was released by Carl Strickwerda, the dean of arts and sciences, without first notifying the department and allowing them to respond. This angered the professors.

p. What is considered the norm in academia and is the current system in use at the College is that all professors in a department are allowed to vote on hiring decisions and only senior faculty vote on tenure decisions. Davies and Harris disagreed with this policy, arguing that changing the voting system would protect the junior faculty and lead to higher academic standards. The hiring policy is determined not by individual departments but by College-wide rules — meaning the department could not have changed its policy even if it wanted to.

p. “If you have junior people voting, they have tenure in the back of their minds, and that would be a motivation to hire someone less impressive than yourself,” Davies said to Inside Higher Ed, adding that it would also protect them from trying to please senior faculty who may later vote on their tenure.

p. “There has to be a check on conflicts of interest between those doing the hiring and the future of the institution in terms of maintaining or even raising standards when standards are at stake,” Harris said. “Here there is no oversight, nor is there in many other places.”

p. The external review also spoke with former faculty who claimed that women were mistreated.

p. What upset many professors, however, was not the content of the report but that it was released without first giving faculty a chance to respond.

p. “This was grossly unfair and calls into question the impartiality of the outside review process upon which the dean relies,” Noah Lemos, the former philosophy department chair, said.

p. Lemos never agreed with the position put forth by Davies and Harris, but as a result of the conflict, he was replaced as head of the department by English professor Terry Meyers. Lemos, responding to the Inside Higher Ed article online, denied that any mistreatment of junior faculty has taken place and argued that it is improper to make sweeping and anonymous allegations of wrongdoing.

p. “How were they mistreated and by whom? What is the evidence of such mistreatment? We are not told. It is impossible to respond to anonymous and unknown charges,” he said. “The College has grievance procedures designed to protect the rights of the accuser and the accused. If there were substantive cases of mistreatment, this procedure should have been followed.” No grievances have been filed against any philosophy faculty members.

p. One woman, however, alleged mistreatment by the department to Inside Higher Ed. Brie Gertler was a professor at the College until 2001, when she left after witnessing how a colleague ahead of her on the tenure track was treated. She claimed that the colleague — despite endorsements from top contemporary philosophers — was voted down, and that she feared she would not receive fair consideration.

p. “By enabling the department to attract and retain promising junior faculty [by placing the department under receivership], this decision will allow the department to achieve its potential,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “There are talented philosophers there, some wonderful people who are first-rate scholars and dedicated teachers. I am glad to know that those faculty are getting the administrative support they need to achieve their goals.”

p. She said that the move to place the department in receivership was “courageous” and that it demonstrated “excellent judgment.”
Lemos denies that the professor was mistreated.

p. “The decision to deny [Gertler’s colleague] tenure was supported by all the appropriate committees of the College, as well as the dean and the provost of the College [at the time],” Lemos said. “From what I know about the case, he was treated fairly by the department and the College. I think Professor Gertler’s calling the dean’s decision to put the philosophy department in receivership ‘courageous’ was grossly mistaken.”

p. Gertler, who is now a tenured member of the University of Virginia’s philosophy department, declined further comment.
Lemos said that since 2000, the department has faced five tenure decisions, four of which were approved. Additionally, since 2000, five junior faculty members have left for other positions, and in one instance the professor turned down tenure in favor of another position.

p. Harris said in response to the charges that the department has assisted junior faculty.

p. “We once raised teaching loads for senior faculty to meet an administration request but exempted junior faculty so that they could concentrate on their teaching and research,” he said. “We instituted a junior leave policy for them. We have given them smaller classes. We have reduced their teaching loads. We have made exceptions for them in terms of finishing their degrees despite the fact that it was a condition of their hire that they be finished before taking up their jobs here.”

p. What Harris and Davies want is a new external review, done properly.

p. “We want the external review done over again and monitored for objectivity by a source independent of the administration,” Harris said. “We will cooperate with any reforms in the department or the College administration that are the result of such objective inquiry and impartial attempt to balance the pursuit of academic excellence with a collegial environment.”

p. Gertler and others, though, are quick to point out that Harris and Davies have declined to meet with the external investigators.

p. “Given its serious consequences, receivership is unjustified, especially when less drastic alternatives were available,” Lemos said. “The decision to put the department in receivership will have very bad consequences. It will damage our ability to recruit and retain outstanding people. It will hurt morale in the department. The consequences for the department will be severe and long lasting.”

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