Climbing the tenure track: Controversial faculty process impacts students as well as staff

The word “tenure” has become a hot-button topic at DePaul in the past 6 or 7 years – particularly for those faculty members who felt aggrieved the system was broken and professors deserving of tenure were wrongfully denied.

In the past 23 years, DePaul has actually had a high success rate with 88.8 percent of applicants being granted tenure, according to numbers provided by the office of Academic Affairs. Yet, it was the 11.2 percent who were denied tenure that sparked the greatest amount of controversy and discussion – and one big reason why the Faculty Handbook is currently being rewritten.

The Controversy Over Tenure 

DePaul has never been without its share of controversy when it comes to tenure, particularly in the past decade when there were a number of high profile denials with the cases of Norman Finkelstein, Melissa Bradshaw, Namita Goswami and Quinetta Shelby.  In each of those cases, supporters accused the University of discrimination on the basis of gender, political views and race.

However, Barbara Speicher, who chairs Faculty Council’s Committee on Committees, warns the controversy can’t necessarily be summed up as such.

“I don’t know that you can make a sweeping generalization about that,” she said. “Some believe that ethnicity or gender or political views had a lot to do with it, and some people think that the process worked and there wasn’t any problem with those decisions. And others would say the process didn’t work because of a lack of clarity, hence why we’re trying to resolve that.”

The highest tenure denial rate in recent history was the 2006-2007 school year. According to the office of Academic Affairs, nine out of 42 applicants were denied tenure – a notable drop from the previous year, in which all 45 applicants were granted the honor. The following year, in 2007-2008, 44 of 51 were granted tenure. In the past two academic years, tenure was granted to 94.6 percent (35 of 37) of applicants in the 2010-2011 academic year, while 90 percent (36 of 40) were in 2011-2012.

According to a DePaul Institutional Research and Market Analytics report compiled in September 2012, there are 979 full-time professors at DePaul – broken down by full (219 total), associate (385) and assistant professor (275), and non-tenure track instructors (100).  Of the 879 tenured and tenure-track faculty, 561 are listed as white by the report – a 64 percent ratio of tenured and tenure-track faculty. Meanwhile, the report listed 57 tenured and tenure-track African-Americans, 48 Asian, 58 Hispanic, 7 multiracial, and 2 Native American/Alaska Native. Collectively, they amount to 172 total non-white tenured and tenure-track faculty – a ratio of 19.5 percent. There were 84 tenured and tenure-track faculty listed as “unknown,” and 62 “nonresident alien” listed in the report.

All the numbers – from demographic breakdown to type of full-time faculty – might not be perfect. According to Speicher, “no one” knows the “magic number,” while Thomas Donley, who co-chairs the Faculty Handbook Revision Task Force (FHRTF) said the breakdown of faculty type can vary.

“It depends on how you calculate them,” he said. “You can talk about the percentage of total credit hours taught by full-time faculty, you can talk about the percent of total credit hours taught by tenured faculty, you can talk about the percent of total credit hours taught by non-tenured faculty, or by part-time faculty. And then you can talk about the percent of faculty that are tenured, that are not tenured. So, it really depends on which question you’re asking. Moreover, it’s very college-specific.”  

Regardless of the numbers, both Donley and Speicher said tenure is important to DePaul as a university and to students.

“The tenured faculty are expected to conduct research. Research plays many parts, but the thriving idea at DePaul is scholar-teachers,” Donley said. “Our research impacts our teaching, keeps our classes up-to-date, and keeps us cutting edge. You get real experts in there because they’re doing research.”

Donley added that tenure is job security that’s attractive to a higher quality professor, as well as being crucial to academic freedom – which enables a professor to speak on an unpopular or controversial topic so long as it’s consistent with the subject matter being taught.

“If I’m teaching a basic economics class, that doesn’t give me a right to talk about abortion. I’m sorry, that has nothing to do with my course,” he said of academic freedom. “That’s not what academic freedom is about. But, if I’m teaching an e-con class and I’m talking about the economic policy of the Republican Party versus the economic policy of the Democratic Party, and I argue back-and-forth and some student doesn’t like it or some administrator doesn’t like or my immediate boss doesn’t like it, tough. Academic freedom. I am talking about my subject matter, so it protects free debate, and that’s critically important.” 

On the other side of the classroom, Speicher said tenure policies affect students, not just faculty members.

“Students should care because once a person is tenured, they will be teaching at the university for as long as they choose to,” she said. “Students should care very very much about tenure. And if they feel someone is a fabulous teacher they should make their voice heard. And if they feel someone is a very problematic teacher, they should make their voice heard. Because once someone’s tenured, it’s very hard for them to leave. And in terms of the adjunct and year-to-year folks, the student response will determine whether they’re invited back to teach. Student input at that point is absolutely crucial.”

Rewriting the Handbook: Tenure Process

Such importance is a large part of the reason why the FHRTF has been working on revising the Faculty Handbook for over one-and-a-half years. The Task Force has been working on revising three separate chapters that deal with promotion and tenure policy, types of faculty positions, and grievance procedures.

Last month, the FHRTF’s revision of Chapter 3 – the draft of which can be found online – was approved by Faculty Council by a vote of 25-to-1.

“Our proposal as it currently stands, approved by Faculty Council but not formally approved by the administration, the changes are dramatic,” Donley said. “The full faculty vote is not binding. The larger vote is more of a referendum to see if there are broader issues out there amongst the faculty. And if it goes negative, we’ve got issues. So it’s really, how do people feel about this in the broader community.”

One of the biggest changes to the chapter is who makes the final determination to grant tenure. Under the current handbook, that distinction lies with Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., the president of the university. However, if the changes are approved, final tenure decisions will be made by the provost, with the president overseeing appeals.

Fr. Holtschneider said in an email to The DePaulia the proposed change was made at his request for two reasons.

“First, I do not think it is best practice for a president to decide a tenure case and then also serve as the person who will decide the appeal,” he said. “I believe these two processes deserve a bit more separation.”

Fr. Holtschneider said the second reason had to do with the size of DePaul in relation to other institutions. 

“Secondly, presidents generally decide tenure and promotion cases only at smaller institutions,” he said. “Institutions of DePaul’s academic stature and size tend to ask the chief academic officer (at DePaul, the provost) to make these decisions. Appeals are then decided by the president or a small committee of trustees. The handbook revisions task force has proposed that the president continue to hear appeals at DePaul, and I am willing to do so.”   

Another change in the process is the ability for candidates to respond to the seven-member University Board on Promotion and Tenure (UBPT), according to Thomas Miller, one of the members on the Task Force.

“Part of what we’ve tried to do with this handbook rewrite is to make the process more transparent,” Miller said. “Historically, when the UBPT vote recommended or not for tenure, that report was given directly to the president and the candidate never saw that. Under this new handbook, that report would be given to the candidate, and the candidate will be given the chance to respond to that and say, ‘No I don’t believe I was characterized fairly.’ He can have the chance to put his opinion before it goes to the provost, which I think is a very significant thing when you look at it.”

The revision of Chapter 3 would change the appeal process as well. According to the draft, candidates denied tenure can appeal if they feel there was a violation of academic freedom, if the application deviated from procedures in the Faculty Handbook, or if the decision was influenced by discriminatory practices. The proposal calls for a standing committee of seven tenured faculty members that will do a review of an appeal before giving a recommendation to the president.

Such a policy would change the current process, which has Fr. Holtschneider decide on both tenure and appeals.

“If you think about it, conceptually, that doesn’t seem to work where somebody makes a decision and then you turn around and appeal to him again,” said Miller, who added the draft makes it a “cleaner process.” 

Faculty Vote Status

According to Donley, the FHRTF hope to have the new chapters take effect starting in the 2013-2014 academic year. But before any of the chapters can become active, however, Faculty Council must first approve them before moving on to a vote of the full-time faculty. Once passed that stage, the revised chapters move on for final approval from Fr. Holtschneider, who said he’s been kept “well informed.”

When the full faculty vote occurs is still being determined, largely because of technical issues, according to Miller.

“We have to figure out a way where people can log in, vote and still remain anonymous, and yet only be able to vote one time,” he said. “As soon as we can get the logistics worked out, we’re anxious to get the faculty to weigh in on this chapter. We’re not going to wait until the whole rewrite is done. We’d like them to be involved and vote on each step. This was the potentially most problematic chapter and the one that spawned the most lawsuits and the one that really had the most problems.”

Miller said gauging the faculty mood on the FHRTF rewrite of Chapter 3 is difficult, but he’s expecting it to pass the vote.

“It’s hard to say, but the chapter we came forward with is so faculty-friendly that it gives the faculty additional rights and additional opportunities to defend themselves and make this whole process more transparent,” he said. “I believe that if someone sat down and read the chapter, it would be very difficult to vote against it.”

Still, the mood amongst the faculty can likely be divided into two parts: Those who are happy with the rewrite and those who think it’s still not enough, Speicher said.

“It’s been a very long-time coming,” Speicher said of the proposed revision. “I think on the one hand, there’s relief that we’re making progress because we haven’t felt like that for a while. On the other hand, for some people, some of the changes aren’t going as far as they would like them to go.”

Defining Faculty           

Chapter 2 of the faculty handbook re-write relates to faculty, and what Donley calls the “definition of ‘faculty.'” Currently, DePaul’s full-time faculty positions have a variety of names depending on college, which can cause confusion, he said.

“One of the reasons why we’re rewriting the chapter on the definition of faculty is because there are so many titles and they’re so college-specific,” Donley said. “It’s not the title that should trip you up, but it always does. We don’t care what they’re called, but they’ve got to fall into certain categories.”

Donley said he couldn’t go into specific details because the chapter is still being drafted.

“Basically, what we’re going to say is: This is a list of all the full-time positions available at the university, and you must fall into one of them,” he said. “We don’t get to make them up anymore. If you’re faculty and you’re full time, you’re one of these things, which one?”            

As it currently stands, DePaul’s faculty positions can be broken up into broad categories of permanent positions and temporary positions. Adjuncts, for example, are considered temporary as they’re hired per class. However, according to Speicher, a professor can be hired for a full year teaching a full course load – typically nine classes an academic year – but can be considered temporary if given a one-year contract.           

On the permanent side, there is tenure-track and non-tenure-track. Under tenure-track, professors are hired as “assistant professors” under the assumption they will apply for tenure in their sixth year of teaching at DePaul. If granted tenure, they’re typically promoted to the rank of “associate professor.” One step beyond associate professor is “full professor” – the highest rank a faculty member can achieve.           

For non-tenure-track professors, they’re called “long-term teaching professionals” or “long-term contracts,” sometimes dubbed “long-term contract teaching professional.” These faculty members have a probationary period of up to five years before being hired on longer contracts.           

The multitude of names is part of the problem, Speicher said, as is the job status of full-time professors hired on one-year contracts. What many colleges do is get around American Association of University Professors guidelines by temporarily not renewing contracts.

“You kind of build it in that if you like the person and you want to keep them, you don’t hire them for like a quarter,” Speicher said. “There are ways to get around it and it’s a little silly. But, the bad thing is that these folks don’t know from year-to-year whether they’ll be employed next year, or whether they should be seeking other employment. It’s unnerving and a lot of unknown there.”



How to find Faculty Council documents

Did you know you have access to Faculty Council documents, including the draft of Chapter 3, vote totals, and meeting minutes? All you need is your Campus Connect login and password. Go and log in.

Alternatively, you can find the link by going to DePaul’s homepage, clicking on “DePaul Shortcuts” and clicking on “Faculty & Staff.” From there, go to the “Faculty Resources” tab and find “Faculty Council.”


Who is on the University Board on Promotion and Tenure?

By rules outlined in the Faculty Handbook, the UBPT board consists of seven full-time tenured faculty members who represent each of the academic disciplines. Members of the UBPT must be approved by Faculty Council and serve a three-year term.

The current members are:

Bibiana Suarez (LA&SS)Joan Lakebrink (Education)Bruce Ottley (Law)Wendy Wolbach (Science & Health)William (Bill) Sampson (LA&SS)James Murphy (LA&SS)Werner DeBondt (Business)Thomas DonleyGregory Mark (Dean, Law)*Mary Jeanne LarrabeeChristina Rivers**Thomas MillerBamshad MobasherDavid Miller (Dean, CDM)

*Replaced out-going CMN Dean Jacqueline Taylor

**Replaced Anna Law


Current Tenure Process

Being granted tenure at DePaul is a four step process that ends with a final verdict from Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., DePaul’s president. Typically, applicants will apply in their sixth year of teaching at DePaul, or sooner if applicable experience is carried over from another institution.

According to the current Faculty Handbook, faculty members on tenure-track appointments are hired as “assistant professors,” which requires a doctorate or terminal degree. In order to be granted tenure and promoted to the rank of “associate professor,” candidates must “demonstrate a potential for becoming a good to excellent teacher,” have written articles published and disseminated outside of the university, and conduct meaningful research and/or creative activities. Finally, candidates are required to provide service to the university, such as serving on committees or Faculty Council.

The first stage in the tenure process is at the departmental level, or a similar initial review body. The candidate puts together an application for tenure, which is reviewed by the department, who also solicit outside reports from “experts in the field,” according to Thomas Donley, co-chair of the Faculty Handbook Revision Task Force. The department makes a recommendation, which is accompanied by a letter written by the chairman of the department.

Next, the application goes to the college, which includes a similar process, but includes the college dean’s letter of recommendation.

Third, the University Board on Tenure and Promotion reviews the file and conducts interviews with the candidate, department reps and the dean of the applicant’s college, Donley said. The seven-member board takes a vote of recommendation and forwards it to the president.

Fr. Holtschneider has final say on tenure. By rule, the president is not obligated to accept the recommendations of the Board. Should the Task Force’s rewrite be voted through, the final decision will rest with the provost – currently occupied on an interim basis by Patricia O’Donoghue.

In the event of being denied tenure, faculty members have one year remaining on their contracts before they have to move on to another job. Faculty members denied tenure have a “limited right to appeal,”  according to Donley, on the grounds of an academic freedom violation or discrimination in the process.

The controversial nature of tenure denial exists at every step of the process and appeal, Donley said.

“There’s been controversy at the department level, at the college level, at the university level, with faculty committee decisions, with chair, dean, presidential decisions. It’s at every level,” he said. “The president of the university is not obliged to accept the University Board’s recommendation or the appeals board recommendation. The final decision rests with the President of the University. And when people are turned down, you lose your job. People are unhappy. It’s naturally very tense and litigious situation.”