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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
@DePaulU Your Black and Poc students need an answer as to why Professor Calvente was terminated? Seeing that she was one of the few professors who provided the diversity you all pride yourselves in?
— Annie Malone (@KiahStylez) May 30, 2020
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.
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