Getting tenure is really, really cool: You don’t have to worry about money or being fired for the rest of your life. For academics, it’s the ideal job, though only a select few can attain it. That’s why Universities painstakingly vet potential candidates.
That’s what Provost Robert Groves made clear in a blog post earlier today discussing the the imprecise mechanics of granting tenure. While he makes no specific reference to the it, his arguments amount to a University defense of the decision to deny tenure to the well-respected Arab Studies professor Samer Shehata, who recently publicly alleged that his case was subject to procedural irregularities and violation of academic freedom.
Groves notes that academic fields are growing increasingly competitive as more PhDs compete for fewer job openings. As a result, he stresses that decisions to grant or deny tenure are “taken seriously,” saying that “thousands of person-hours” are spent evaluating each case. Each person is judged on three criteria: “scholarly product, teaching quality, and service to the profession and the university,” which, he says, can only be measured qualitatively and subjectively.
Specifically, he writes that teaching quality is hard to judge, saying that large classes yield lower evaluation scores than small, discussion classes. Shehata reportedly excelled at teaching and received glowing reports. Groves writes: “But the lasting impacts of teaching on students are not commonly measured; we need to get better at this.”
Going on, Groves explains that because assessments by department faculty are often biased, which is why the opinion of outside reviewers is so crucial. “To temper this, multiple reviewers outside of Georgetown are also asked to read the work of the candidate,” he writes. “Ideally, these are not friends, collaborators, former students, or mentors of the candidate.”
Shehata alleges that three conservative scholars Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, and Charles Lipson may have been “improperly connected to his tenure process.” In the past, all have made negative reference to Shehata or the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, in which Shehata was heavily invested. Kramer went so far to call the Center “effectively a lobby for for Arab causes in general and the Palestinian cause in particular.” All deny knowing anything about the tenure process or being involved in it, though the identities of the external reviewers is kept secret.
In any case, Groves defended the process, saying “Superficial letters, whether negative or positive, tend to be downweighted.” Groves goes on to address one of Shehata’s central accusations: that he was never informed that he was deficient in any way in the process leading up to applying for tenure. “Within the constraints of confidentiality of reviewers, the candidates deserve some identification of strengths and weaknesses identified in the review process,” Groves writes, though he goes on to caution that the “process doesn’t yield itself to checklists that, once completed, assure success.”
Though Shehata has hired a lawyer and his complaint is still active, it seems unlikely that it will yield anything, especially since Shehata has already accepted a tenure-tack position at the University of Oklahoma. In any case, reputations aside, the study of the Arabic world will go on wherever Shehata ends up and whoever Georgetown hires, which is ultimately the goal of a University. (Right?) And, you know, to teach people things.