(Alicia Goluszka | The DePaulia)

Alicia Goluszka | The DePaulia

DePaul professor claims broken rules, discrimination led to denial of tenure

June 8, 2020

Dr. Lisa Calvente repeatedly told her students one thing while teaching at DePaul: You have agency, and your voice is powerful. On May 29, Calvente used her own voice to send a message. In a mass email to current and former students, Calvente wrote that she’d be leaving DePaul — but not by choice. 

Calvente, a communication professor at DePaul, wrote in the email that since 2015, senior colleagues and upper administrators have admonished her for challenging students in her classroom, calling her teaching styles “ineffective” and “intimidating,” particularly in regards to her teachings on race. When she applied for tenure, she said those same accusations kept her from achieving it — and ultimately, cost her job. 

All the while, Calvente said that she experienced multiple discriminatory aggressions from her senior colleagues in the College of Communication — and actively pushed back at her colleagues’ assertions that DePaul students are not capable of processing information at the same level as students at elite colleges, like Northwestern.

The email sparked a wave of student responses, leading to a petition seeking justice for Calvente. Amongst the students, fellow academics have reached out in support on what they believe to be an unfair denial of tenure.

Near ‘willful distortion’ of facts leads to tenure denial

Calvente applied for tenure in 2018. 

The College of Communication’s Personnel Committee found her record to be “very good” in the areas of teaching, research and service — but to become a tenured professor, an applicant must receive a rating of “excellent” in at least two of those categories, according to a document obtained by The DePaulia, originally sent by Alexandra Murphy, interim dean of the College of Communication, to Calvente in January 2019.

The same committee recommended her tenure be denied in November 2018. Just two of the 21 tenured faculty on the committee voted to promote her.

The University Board of Promotion and Tenure (UBPT) voted differently. Four of the seven members on the board voted in favor of Calvente’s promotion, while three voted in opposition. 

Murphy overturned the UBPT’s decision, and Interim Provost Salma Ghanem backed her up in that choice, denying Calvente’s tenure in June 2019.

Then, Calvente appealed the tenure denial.

The Faculty Appeals Board found that Calvente was unfairly evaluated at “multiple points” during her probationary period and that procedure was broken to reach the final decision to deny her tenure. 

One of those points was her 2015 formal review. The college’s Personnel Committee recommended that the university not renew Calvente’s contract, citing her teaching methods as un-Vincentian.

Calvente wrote in the email to her students that since the 2015 review, her colleagues have attempted to negatively portray her teaching style for five years, eventually leading to the termination of her employment.

“My senior colleagues — and your professors — have resorted to grossly misrepresenting your evaluations of my classes and twisting your words so that they could make the case that my teaching, specifically on racism and marginalization, was ‘ineffective,’ ‘intimidating,’ and my classroom was ‘hostile,’” she wrote in the email. 

She expanded on her disappointment in her senior colleagues in a response to the committee’s report.

“I am both saddened and frustrated by this depiction that resembles more a monstrous caricature than it does a junior colleague — the female monstrosity, Medusa, comes to mind, with her own infamous ‘death’ glare,’” Calvente wrote.

The Appeals Board compared the college’s formal review of Calvente to her student’s comments. 

Gina Ricards

“The Board was disturbed to discover that the 2015 formal review provided a highly selective, negative presentation of patterns in student comments, the review downplayed (almost to the point of willful distortion) positive aspects of the candidate’s teaching, and several statements in the review did not provide a fully accurate representation of actual proportions and patterns in the evidence,” the Board wrote in its appeal report, which was obtained by The DePaulia. 

The Appeals Board soon came to the conclusion that Calvente’s evaluation was the result of discriminatory practices and that the evaluation deviated from procedures outlined in the Faculty Handbook. 

The appeal report was sent directly to President A. Gabriel Esteban.

Despite the Appeal Board’s distress over Calvente’s review, Esteban told Calvente that he was “not persuaded” by the Appeals Board’s findings and would not be accepting the Board’s recommendation for appeal to be granted, according to an email obtained by The DePaulia sent on Jan. 30 of this year.

Gina Ricards

It is not clear why Esteban was looped into the process, as the Faculty Handbook indicates all matters of tenure approval and denial are the Provost’s responsibility. 

Because she did not receive tenure, Calvente’s position at DePaul has been terminated. She will not return to teach for the 2020-21 academic year. A source close to the matter told The DePaulia that Calvente intends to sue the university for wrongful termination and retaliation.

Outside academics come to Calvante’s defense

As Calvente’s troubles with DePaul persisted, academics at other universities took notice and began to advocate on her behalf.

Dr. Guadalupe García, an associate professor of history at Tulane University, is a friend and collaborator of Calvente’s. Disturbed by Calvente’s repeated tenure denials, she took matters into her own hands.

“What I was hearing from Professor Calvente — it just sounded egregious,” she said. “And so the more I spoke to her about it and the more I spoke to other colleagues about their own experience with review and tenure, I just came to the conclusion that, Dr. Calvente’s own research and teaching and service aside, that there were just so many procedural violations here that something had to be done.”

García began a letter-writing campaign on Calvente’s behalf in 2019, writing to both Esteban the Appeals Board. According to García, all of the participants reviewed Calvente’s CV and agreed that she was being treated unfairly.

“The more I spoke to friends and colleagues in the academy at different universities, universities everywhere from Tulane to Northwestern to UNC-Chapel Hill to the University of Pennsylvania — everybody had the same response,” García said. “…And we had dozens of people write in… these were all senior colleagues who vetted Dr. Calvente again and who wrote in about the egregious procedural violations that were happening in her case.”

 

García said that situations like Calvente’s are common in higher education for faculty of color, who are often negatively characterized if they are outspoken.

“I think the extent to which Dr. Calvente was pursued is the thing that makes this a standout case,” she said. 

García, a tenured professor familiar with both the application and review process, felt that the College of Communication repeatedly failed to take the necessary steps to ensure a fair review process for Calvente. 

“The College of Communication will tell you that obviously they have a very rigorous review process — every university does,” García said. “Every university also has safeguards to ensure fair review processes. And I just didn’t think that those were being followed.”

Murphy said that the College of Communication follows a “thorough and robust tenure and promotion review process as dictated by college guidelines and the University Faculty Handbook.”

“It is consistently applied across all probationary faculty,” she said.

García is not the only academic troubled by Calvente’s situation.

Dr. D. Soyini Madison, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University, was Calvente’s dissertation advisor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Outraged by her tenure denial, Madison sent a letter to Calvente’s lawyer in May 2020.

“I served on the Tenure and Promotions Committee for the School of Communication at Northwestern University for over six years and reviewed countless of tenure and promotions files,” Madison wrote in the letter obtained by The DePaulia. “…I state without equivocation the case against Dr. Lisa Calvente is by far one of the most egregious violations of judgement, objectivity and fair representation including the breach of university rules and ethics.”

Madison told The DePaulia that she has never seen a file “so unfairly evaluated.”

“This is the first time I have ever had to speak up about such an injustice, around any student that I have known, around their promotion and tenure,” Madison said. 

Calvente taught classes that pushed students on topics like race and marginalization. According to Madison, Calvente was told her classes were too hard and she wasn’t making everybody feel comfortable. 

“The courses that she teaches are risky,” she said. “They’re complex. They’re intellectually challenging and they’re culturally demanding.”

Madison argued that, when teaching topics relating to racism and other forms of injustice, discomfort among students is a typical — and necessary — part of the learning experience.

“If you’re teaching classes on race, political economy, feminism and justice, every student you have is not going to feel comfortable,” she said. “I would argue that none of your students should necessarily feel comfortable — that might be the problem.”

Discriminatory culture blights College of Communication 

The email Calvente sent to her students addressed more than denied tenure. She also made several allegations of racist and sexist encounters with her senior colleagues in the College of Communication.

Calvante alleges that a senior colleague used the n-word as a punchline for a joke at a College of Communication gathering. Another senior colleague — at a different college gathering — allegedly put pornography on a karaoke screen, “jeering” in Calvante’s and other female faculty’s presence. 

In a response to the college’s reports, Calvante said experiences like these were all too familiar. 

“The pervasiveness of [the college’s] long-entrenched climate of discrimination and culture of fear, particularly against junior colleagues of color, is evident and well-known,” she wrote. “ …A Full Professor outside of the College warned me that my College has a long-standing ‘reputation of chewing their faculty of color up and spitting them out.’”

She added the College of Communication has not yet tenured any African American or Latina faculty, and while the university attempted to “rectify this climate” by hiring Ghanem, one person’s hiring could not change the school’s decade-old culture. 

Calvante said in her email to students that since 2011, she has had to fight her senior colleagues to teach classes in an “open, honest and dignified manner.” 

She further accuses her senior colleagues in the college of saying that DePaul students are not capable of learning at the same level of students at other institutions, like Northwestern and UNC-Chapel Hill. 

“My colleagues in the College of Communication have indicated that the students at DePaul — you — are not capable of processing information with the same agility and, of the DePaul student body, state that my ‘approach might be appropriate for students with higher levels of understanding and articulating complexity, but less so for those who need support to grow intellectually,’” Calvente wrote in the email. 

Gina Ricards

Both Ghanem and Murphy declined to comment on these allegations. 

University officials cite comprehensive process, decline to comment further 

The university declined to comment on the specifics of Calvente’s case, noting that the promotion and tenure process contains “confidential and sensitive personnel information.” Declining to comment on personnel issues is a longstanding university policy. 

University spokesperson Carol Hughes instead pointed to the university’s Faculty Handbook, which details Promotion and Tenure standards and procedures.

Ghanem declined to comment on allegations that the College of Communication violated established procedures but said that there are variations between the colleges’ tenure processes that are the result of the particular field and the faculty within the department. 

Gina Ricards

“You might have a field like music, that will have emphasis on creative works, while you might have a field like philosophy that might focus research articles,” Ghanem said. 

She also said that her decision to personally overturn a favorable decision by the UBPT would consist of multiple components, including looking at the candidates’ provided documents and outcomes of the various levels of review. 

“It’s a very comprehensive process,” Ghanem said. “I sit on all those deliberations, but do not participate in the questions, or in the discussion.”

Ghanem declined to comment further on personnel issues.

Murphy declined to comment on specific allegations as well.

“Unfortunately, you will only be able to hear one side as I cannot comment on any specific personnel case,” she said via email. “I am bound by rules of confidentiality, both legally and professionally. The Faculty Handbook reinforces this policy as well.”

Email sparks outrage among students, petition surfaces 

It came as a shock to Calvente’s current and former students that she was denied tenure and would not be continuing at DePaul. Students spread the news on Twitter and started a petition for Calvente, praising her teaching style and ability. 

“It was by far one of the most influential classes I have had because she really made you think in a different way,” said Adriana Talavera, a junior at DePaul who took Intercultural Communication with Calvente. “I feel like a lot of classes you learn, but you enter the class and you end the class being the same person. And I think Dr. Calvente’s class really makes you think a little bit more and you definitely leave the class with a different way of thinking.”

Yesica Tellez, a DePaul alumna, took Intercultural Communication, Politics of Hip-Hop and Women’s Reproductive Rights with Calvente. She said she’s getting her master’s degree because of Calvente and considers her a mentor. 

“We’re reading Marxist theorists and we’re reading socialist theory, and all these different theories that can be super heavy, super difficult sometimes,” Tellez said. “She would take the time to sit and explain things to us, and if we were lost, like she would slow down. She would tailor our education experience to make sure that we actually knew what was happening.”

Katie Adams, a DePaul alumna, took Intro To Mass Communication with Calvente. After taking what she referred to as “insultingly easy” classes, she said Calvente pushed her to learn and develop important life skills. 

“…The main theme of this is that they denied tenure to a very brave professor who was one of the few examples of professors who really teach students how to think critically and independently in a way that is compassionate, in a way that — you know, as cheesy as it sounds — could change the world for the better,” Adams said.

Both the Appeals Board and Madison said they believed senior faculty seemingly “willfully distorted” Calvente’s student evaluations, disregarding the majority of favorable comments and focusing on the unfavorable ones.

Calvente’s 2018 student evaluation form had five questions, each ranked 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Calvente scored above a 4.5 on all five questions. 

Gina Ricards

In her response to the college’s report on her tenure status, Calvente said she was saddened by the ways in which her students’ evaluations were “taken out of context and manipulated to create and uphold the College’s racist and sexist image of me.”

“They continue to cherry-pick a few qualitative student evaluations in which a large contingent of students who, even after noting discomfort at being pushed to grapple with the sensitive and timely topic of race, reported high learning outcomes,” Calvente wrote in her response. 

DePaul senior Kiah Wilson was one of several students who received Calvente’s email announcing her departure from the university. In seeking justice for Calvente, Wilson started a petition on her behalf. The petition currently has over 2,100 signatures.

Calvente did not ask Wilson to advocate for her, but Wilson hoped the petition would get the university’s attention.

“We as a student body, especially people of color and black students — we need answers as to why their so-called ‘diverse hirees’ are getting fired or getting let go or just hadn’t had good experiences,” Wilson said. “And they claim to be a diverse school. So we need those answers because we don’t feel like our voices are being heard.”

To Tellez, the willingness of Calvente’s students to rally behind her comes directly from Calvente’s ability to cultivate a class to work together and learn from each other. 

“She told us the most important thing you have is your voice; that is your power,” Tellez said.

 

Reporting by Cailey Gleeson, Brita Hunegs, Ella Lee, Emma Oxnevad, and Keira Wingate

8 Comments

8 Responses to “DePaul professor claims broken rules, discrimination led to denial of tenure”

  1. Jenna on June 9th, 2020 2:39 pm

    This is a CLASSIC and ATROCIOUS case of systemic racism and discrimination within academia and a disturbing reminder that the voices who virtue signal progressiveness at the top of the ivory tower are often the ones who perpetrate the most insidious acts to maintain the status quo. It was absolutely clear that Dr. Calvente was NOT given a fair investigation into the suspicions of discrimination and retaliation from the university tenure board and fellow faculty. The DePaul University College of Communication MUST do better and has a RESPONSIBILITY to staff professors who challenge students to do critical self-reflexive work in terms of their race and social identity within our contemporary society. Which is exactly what I found to be missing the most during my time at DePaul, except in my time spent listening to Dr. Calvente.

  2. Gabriel Charles Tyler on June 9th, 2020 3:46 pm

    My mentor and friend, Lisa B.Y. Calvente, PhD, is the sole reason why my undergraduate experience was worthwhile. She always saw me and helped me see myself. Her support helped me through some very hard years and traumatic experiences due to racism at DePaul University.

    For years, I have seen how the DePaul University College of Communication and Dr. Calvente’s colleagues have done all that they can to stifle her career. They’ve even gone as far as putting the educational growth and future success of students at risk to stroke their egos. Ultimately, DePaul and its administration have unapologetically reinforced racism and racial violence against Black and Brown Americans. I’m disgusted. This goes far beyond Dr. Calvente, DePaul, and this situation. This is about eradicating all forms of racism, combating anti-Blackness head on, and not backing down to institutional injustice.

    I stand with Dr. Calvente—and all of you who are fighting to make this blatantly racist nation live up to the ideals it’s long claimed to be its most sacred truths: that all people are created equal and possess certain rights that can never be stripped from them, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  3. Dina M. Lutz on June 9th, 2020 4:36 pm

    What a superb piece of journalism. A job very well done.

    After knowing about the JLP controversy and now this episode, Esteban may be resigning next.

  4. Lauren Gonzales on June 9th, 2020 6:02 pm

    This is a completely classic case and highlights again how women and people of color are expected to stomach sexism and racism with a smile lest they be viewed as problematic. DePaul has done this over and over again to professors of color (Terry Smith, Namita Goswami, Quinetta Shelby, Amanda MacGregor, and Sumi Cho, to name a few) and has proven themselves to be part of the problem when it comes to racial and gender discrimination in Chicago and society as a whole.

    During yesterday’s “listening session” with College of Communication staff, Sidney Dillard (an associate professor) told me promoted faculty of color are those “less likely to speak up” and Maria DeMoya (an associate Professor and graduate program academic director) said it was a matter of “impression management,” which is indicative of a toxic work culture at DePaul that directly and negatively impacts students.

  5. Steve Skinner on June 10th, 2020 9:23 am

    DePaul and its administration have unapologetically reinforced racism and racial violence against Black and Brown Americans. I’m disgusted. This goes far beyond Dr. Calvente, DePaul, and this situation. This is about eradicating all forms of racism, combating anti-Blackness head on, and not backing down to institutional injustice.

    Gabriel, care to offer any examples of how, precisely, DePaul “unapolegetically reinforced racism and racial violence against Black and Brown Americans”? I really want to know. Perhaps you should thank your lucky stars that DePaul chose to admit you, maybe even in place of a privileged “white” or “yellow” student whose seat you took. Probability theory being what it is, one surmises that there are probably as many students who believe Doctor Calvente was/is as mediocre as you deem her “exemplary” but the difference seems to be that the former refrain, or so it seems, from making what appear to be baseless and sensational assertions that cause any reader with an occipital lobe to laugh effusively. Please define for me, a white person of privilege who believes that police departments nationwide should NEVER be defunded and those asserting otherwise are moronic, even one instance of any administrator, professor, employee, etc. of DePaul “reinforcing racial violence against Black and Brown Americans”. Realizing that “when one is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, please provide even one example of the injustice(s) you purportedly know so much about .

  6. Lauren Gonzales on June 10th, 2020 2:05 pm

    Hi Steve, it’s no one job to educate ignorant and privileged white people like you who are the result of DePaul’s brand of teaching. I suggest you Google DePaul racial discrimination civil rights lawsuits or some variation of those words if you want to touch the tip of the iceberg about what makes DePaul complicit in institutional racism, which is obviously creates an atmosphere that appeals to you. No physical data exists proving that DePaul has any commitment to diversity and inclusiveness(you can look that up yourself, too). DePaul administration stifles voices that threaten the white supremacy you’ve come to know and love so much by using their power to mischaracterize them as unqualified or unfit. That shit isn’t unique to people and we’re saying something about it so either you get it or you need to get over it, because we’re going to say something about it.

    Also know that not all violence is bloody. Have a nice life.

  7. Lauren Gonzales on June 10th, 2020 2:07 pm

    *unique to DePaul! And please imagine the ‘is’ between ‘which’ and ‘obviously’ is not there.

  8. Avery on June 10th, 2020 5:21 pm

    DePaul is like a racist and sexist establishment in the 1960’s. Back then, the establishment used vicious dogs to terrify people into submission. Today, Dr. Esteban and DePaul’s attorney Mr. Padill use vicious lawyers to terrify people into submission.
    Two courageous DePaul women are standing up to Dr. Esteban and Mr. Padill. Their names are Dr. Jenny Conviser and Dr. Lisa Calvente. They have both filed lawsuits.
    Dr. Jenny Conviser had a four year contract to counsel DePaul students. She reported that an athletic coach was calling young female athletes “whores.” The female students are human beings and should not be sexualized by an adult that they trust. She also encouraged a student to report that they had witnessed the coach punching a female employee in the face.
    Instead of thanking Dr. Conviser, DePaul terminated Dr. Conviser’s four year contract three years early. It retaliated against her for enforcing Title IX to protect students.
    Assistant directors in the athletic department hid what was happening according to Dr. Conviser. Rather than beginning an investigation, they publicly criticized Dr. Conviser and accused her of things she did not do (this is called gaslighting). DePaul promoted those who helped terminate her. One of these individuals was promoted to the director of gender equity position that oversees Title IX. This is heart breaking.

    Another example of this disturbing behavior is what happened to Dr. Lisa Calvente, who also filed a lawsuit. Dr. Calvente called upon her students to consider race issues in our country. Especially considering recent events, such conversations are necessary for students to have. Rather than appreciating the behavior, DePaul manipulated data to make her look bad (gaslighting). According to Dr. Calvente, the school told her that their students are not as smart as Northwestern students and could not comprehend these issues. This is not true. DePaul made sure Dr. Calvente would not obtain tenure. They got rid of her too.

    Dr. Esteban and Mr. Padill have and will viciously attack both women by unleashing their attorneys on the women who have attempted to reform the system and create justice. After both women were
    “handled,” Dr. Esteban and Mr. Padill probably went to fancy DePaul parties and confidently gossiped about their accomplishments to crush the women.
    Dr. Esteban and Mr. Padill have lost their way. This may be because they have been in power too long. They have grown cold and complacent. They have not progressed with society. Whatever the reasoning, this behavior is disturbing and they must be held accountable for their corrupt actions.
    Nothing much has changed since the 1960’s at DePaul. Instead of vicious dogs, DePaul uses vicious lawyers to crush anyone who calls for human rights.
    This is a call to donors, politicians, alumni, faculty, staff, the DePaulia, and most of all students. It is time to support Dr. Conviser and Dr. Calvente in any way you can. Protest. Use your voice. Use your power. Use your funds. Speak out. Change. Think through these issues and see the other side. Otherwise, you are perpetrators too. Silence is condonement.

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