Stanford News

5/6/97

CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (415) 723-2558


Tenure decision on anthropologist to be reconsidered

A Stanford tenure case that has drawn the interest of anthropologists and other scholars around the country will be reconsidered by the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Akhil Gupta, an assistant professor of anthropology whose tenure bid was rejected by Dean John Shoven in January, received notice from the dean May 1 that he would reconsider the decision. Judith Cain, an assistant dean of the school, said that following standard procedures for handling a grievance, Shoven appointed a grievance officer who reviewed the process and reported to him last week. Shoven will speak to Gupta on May 8 regarding how to proceed, she said.

Faculty from around the country have been writing letters on Gupta's behalf, and articles about his tenure situation have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Stanford Daily. The case has been publicized by Stanford students who set up a web page to advise people on Gupta's credentials and what they could do to assist his appeal. Students and faculty at other universities have been involved in raising money for a legal defense fund that is chaired by a University of California-Irvine anthropology professor as well as in writing letters to Stanford academic administrators on Gupta's behalf.

Gupta was recommended for tenure by a unanimous vote of tenured members of his department in November, members of the department faculty said.

After tenure was denied in January, some anthropology faculty members sent a letter to the dean asking for a reconsideration. (Faculty members say they do not know how many signed it because individual decisions to sign were confidential.) The letter said the signers believed Gupta had been "judged by inappropriate standards" and that the negative decision may have reflected a "breakdown in communication" between the department and the dean's office during a "crisis in governance."

The department was without a chair after Professor Renato Rosaldo suffered a stroke last fall. Law Professor Robert Weisberg was appointed acting chair and recently anthropology Professor William Durham was named to the post.

Miriam Ticktin, an anthropology graduate student who is a spokesperson for the ad hoc student-faculty group that has tried to get the case reconsidered, said students met with the dean, provost and president and said that they felt that tensions surrounding departmental governance unfairly influenced the outcome of Gupta's tenure review at the school level.

Michael Watts, a geographer who directs the Institute of International Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, said, "Some of the leading international figures in anthropology, geography, sociology and history have publicly declared that they find the denial of tenure unacceptable. . . . They've commented publicly or written letters to your provost."

Michael Herzfeld, professor of anthropology at Harvard and editor of the American Ethnologist, is one of those who wrote. In an interview, he said that Gupta is "an internationally recognized leader in his field and I found it both surprising and shocking that Stanford did not tenure him. . . . Certainly he is comparable to the other distinguished members of his department for the number of years he has been a member of the faculty. It would be a serious loss for the university."

Herzfeld said he appointed Gupta to the editorial board of the journal, even though he was a junior person in the field, "in recognition of his brilliance. While [Gupta's] views may not meet with everyone's approval, they are substantive, grounded and the outcome of a great deal of research."

Gupta's work in cultural anthropology involves applying theory to South Asian development problems, particularly in India, where he was born. Students say he is one of the few Stanford faculty members with expertise on South Asia and that he could play a key role in the university's new program on Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. He has taught courses in Modern Thought and Literature and Science, Technology and Society as well as in anthropology and holds a doctorate in engineering-economic systems from Stanford.

Watts and Herzfeld said there is an ongoing debate in universities between "positivists" and "post-modernists" regarding scholarly methods used in anthropology and other fields, and that may unduly influence some tenure decisions. Watts said that he believed there was more potential for arbitrary decisions based on those disagreements at private universities than at public ones.

"There isn't transparently clear accountability [at many private institutions], so decisions can get made that 'this isn't good science, good history, good anthropology.' It happens also in public institutions, but we have access to a lot more things constitutionally."

Candidates for tenure at the University of California have access to their tenure promotion files. They can read and respond to letters from scholars evaluating their work. The University of California removes the signature and identifying titles of the evaluators, whereas Stanford prepares summaries of the letters for candidates who request it.

Herzfeld noted, however, that private universities often argue that "the extraordinary transparency at public universities, particularly in California, has meant that people are increasingly unwilling to express their real opinion about candidates because laws require the [opinions] be revealed to the candidate. It's a very delicate balance."

Gupta declined to comment other than to say he also felt the promotion process should be more open. ''At least in my case, greater transparency would have helped. Everyone would have had greater confidence [in the process] so there wouldn't be this whole round of suspicion."

Candidates for promotions to tenure in the School of Humanities and Sciences first must be recommended by their department, which assembles a file that includes outside evaluations. An advisory committee on appointments and promotions, composed of two senior faculty each from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, is appointed by the dean to consider the recommendation and make a separate recommendation to him. The dean and associate deans then discuss the case before the dean makes a recommendation to the provost. The provost then makes a recommendation to the Advisory Board of the Academic Council, which makes a recommendation to the president and board of trustees.

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By Kathleen O'Toole