Stanford News

5/6/97

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History faculty question a denial of tenure

A decision by the deans of the School of Humanities and Sciences to deny tenure to an assistant professor of history has drawn unusually outspoken criticism from faculty and students in the department.

The decision also has prompted some faculty members to question whether the criteria for tenure have changed, and to raise again the issue of the low number of tenured women faculty members.

Karen Sawislak, a specialist in American labor history, was unanimously approved for tenure by her department, with one abstaining vote, earlier this academic year. On April 10, she was advised by department chairman Norman Naimark that her appointment had been turned down at the deans' level, a decision confirmed in a letter Sawislak received April 30 from John Shoven, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

After learning of the decision, many senior faculty members in the history department sought a meeting with Shoven to discuss the case, and students launched a support campaign that includes letter writing, petitions and collecting information about the tenure process.

(A similar support campaign has been organized for Akhil Gupta, assistant professor of anthropology, who also was denied tenure this year. Shoven has agreed to reconsider the decision. See accompanying story,)

In Sawislak's case, senior faculty met April 23 with Shoven and John Etchemendy, associate dean of humanities and sciences. They raised questions about the Sawislak case in particular and the university's commitment to hiring and promoting women faculty, according to several faculty members who attended. A number of questions reportedly focused on whether the university is changing the way criteria for tenure are applied.

"The official rules may not have changed, but enforcement of the rules has changed and the deans have become less likely to defer to the judgment of departments as to whether the criteria for tenure have been met," said George Fredrickson, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History, in an interview after the meeting.

Fredrickson said that when he came to Stanford in 1984, there was "a good deal" of departmental autonomy.

Paul Seaver, veteran professor of history, said in an interview that in the past the department usually could anticipate what action the deans and their Advisory Committee on Appointments and Promotions would take. When the department was divided on a vote, for example, faculty assumed that the deans "would intervene on the side of caution."

"While we might be disappointed in particular cases, it was hard to fault the general policy," Seaver said. "But that kind of predictability, based on a rational assessment of the strength of a case, is now lacking."

Shoven said in an interview that he could not comment specifically on Sawislak's case because the tenure process is confidential, but he strongly endorsed the school's appointment and promotion procedure, saying, "It's one of the things we do very well."

Candidates for promotion to tenure must be recommended by their department, which assembles a file that includes outside evaluations. The 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 each year to review the recommendations and make their own recommendation to him. Shoven and the associate deans discuss the case and then make a recommendation to the provost, who forwards her decision to the Advisory Board of the Academic Council, which then makes a recommendation to the president and the Board of Trustees.

Shoven said that a statement crafted by former dean of humanities and sciences Norman Wessells in April 1985 continues to be the standard for decanal decision making on tenure recommendations. He said that the statement is available to every department chair and should be shared with junior faculty regularly.

"It's an excellent document regarding the criteria for tenure, and I would say it hasn't changed a bit," Shoven said.

Kathryn Gillam, senior associate provost for faculty affairs, said that when the Wessells document was produced, it was distributed to every faculty member in the school. She said she does not know the degree to which it is promulgated now, "but it is the law of the land for H&S."

The Wessells document lists two criteria for tenure. The first is "that the individual has achieved, or gives every promise of achieving, true distinction in scholarship." Published material, the memo says, "must clearly reveal that the person being proposed for tenure is among the very best in the field today. Thus, it is not sufficient merely to be the best of a particular experience-cohort in a discipline." An "appropriate question," the documents says, is "How does the candidate compare with the field's intellectual leaders today and at comparable stages of those persons' careers?"

The second criterion listed in the memo is "a demonstrated commitment to excellence in teaching and evidence that the candidate is, or gives every promise of being, an outstanding teacher."

Al Camarillo, professor of history, said that history faculty members felt that Sawislak had met the expectations and criteria for tenure in the department.

"That's what's generating this response, rather than just circling around a colleague," Camarillo said. "All along the process, from her initial appointment to preparing for the tenure review, in my estimation Karen met every expectation for a successful tenure review. And that's why I'm so taken aback by the deans' decision."

He added that the distress of many faculty members reflects a growing frustration with what they see as changes in the hiring and tenure process at the deans' level.

Last year, he said, the department conducted a search for a scholar of modern China and recommended that Gail Hershatter, a historian at the University of California-Santa Cruz, be hired. That unanimous recommendation was turned down by the dean's office, Camarillo said.

"There clearly is an issue of some discordance between the expectations and criteria of our department and the dean's office," said Camarillo, who served as an associate dean from 1992 to 1994.

Philippe Buc, an assistant professor of history who arrived the same year as Sawislak and recently was promoted to associate professor, said that "we came in thinking there were clear rules of the game, and I share the impression that things have changed."

Shoven says that Stanford is simply looking for "true distinction in scholarship," as stipulated in the school's policy statement.

"It's probably fair to say that scholarly distinction is the number one determinant," he said. "There is not a hard and fast rule about where you should rank, but clearly we want somebody who ranks in the top group ­ the top two or three would not be crazy."

Shoven said that, in accordance with the Wessells memo, his office asks 12 outside letter writers to compare each candidate with a list of people in the same field.

"Instead of looking at American history in the 1920s, you might look at modern American history or 20th-century history," he said, describing the range of scholarship that would be used as a ranking comparison for someone with Sawislak's training.

Fredrickson, who currently serves as chair for the Organization of American Historians, says that kind of comparison can become problematic. The organization has 12,000 members, he noted. "You simply can't expect somebody to be at the top of that body at an early stage in her career."

Labor historian

After earning her doctorate at Yale University, Sawislak came to Stanford as an assistant professor in 1990. She spent the 1993-1994 academic year as the Violet Andrews Whittier Fellow at the Humanities Center, finishing her first book, Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874, which was published in December 1995. Reviews in scholarly journals have just begun to appear, as is standard. The Journal of American History said the study "is among the strongest of a new generation of urban history monographs that examines intricate social relationships and structures."

After receiving a Lloyd Lewis-National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in American History to study at Chicago's Newberry Library last year, Sawislak had continued to work on her second book, The "Labor Problem" in America: 1880-1905.

"She has produced four chapters of a book that will change the whole field of American social history, and of labor history specifically," Fredrickson said.

In the recent past, history faculty members say, the department's criteria for earning tenure have included publication of one book with good reviews, and a second manuscript in the works. As a result, senior faculty had advised Sawislak to concentrate on a project that would take longer but make a stronger contribution to the discipline, instead of trying to publish more, shorter scholarly articles.

"The best thing for a historian to do, in terms of making a contribution the discipline, is to start work on a second major book that will be more ambitious," Fredrickson said. "However, the danger is that the book may not be completed in the remaining three years. The deans gave [Sawislak's new manuscript] very little weight because it had not been published."

In a section on unpublished materials, the Wessells memo indicates that "the department has no obligations to send out an incomplete manuscript for review, and, in fact, that practice is discouraged."

Cecilia Ridgeway, former chair of the sociology department, served for three years on an Appointments and Promotions committee. She said that in her experience, "unpublished material tends to not get a lot of weight, unless the department has done something extraordinary to get a review of it."

Faculty support

Several faculty members have publicly expressed disappointment at the deans' decision on Sawislak.

History chairman Naimark said that "we believe that she is an outstanding scholar-teacher and think she would continue to make important contributions to our programs and to U.S. labor and social history in the years to come."

David Montgomery, the Farnam Professor of History at Yale who is widely considered the dean of American labor history, said in an e-mail interview that he had written a letter to the Stanford history department "strongly supporting [Sawislak's] promotion and tenure," adding that he considers her "most likely to be the outstanding scholar of tomorrow."

Historian Estelle Freedman, chair of the Program in Feminist Studies, said that she and many other faculty members have spoken with the deans "to try to understand the disparity between our enthusiastic support of this case and their rejection."

Gillam, of the provost's office, said it is not unusual for faculty amember5s who have supported a candidate to be upset. She said that senior faculty members devote an enormous amount of time to tenure cases and "it is always a difficult situation when a department's judgment about a case is different from the dean's office judgment of a case.

"The reality is that these junior people have been appointed by the department, they've worked hard in the department, taught, done their scholarship, been part of the community of the department, and everyone wants them to succeed. It's very difficult."

Few women faculty

Some faculty members who attended the meeting with Shoven and Etchemendy said that questions also were raised about the university's commitment to hiring and promoting women.

Of the current 39 tenured history faculty members, four are women. Joel Beinin, professor of history and chair of the department's affirmative action committee, said in an interview that during the past 15 years there have been 17 cases of hiring and promotion in which the deans approved the department's recommendation. Four of those hired were women. In the same period, there were seven cases in which the deans had intervened either to change the hiring rank or to reverse a recommendation to hire or promote an individual to tenure. Of those seven, six were women and the seventh was a minority, he said.

"It is worth noting," Seaver said, "that women seem to be the target of the new purportedly tough-minded stance, at the same time that the provost admits that our ability to attract first-rate women to our faculty has faltered."

Option to appeal

Sawislak, who has a right to appeal the decision, said she is gathering information about her options, but otherwise declined to comment.

Shoven said a reconsideration of her case would be implemented only "if new evidence is brought to bear."

He said an individual candidate for tenure could request a "redacted" version of his or her file ­ a summary "prepared very carefully to protect the confidentiality of people that have written." A candidate also could ask for a decision to be reviewed if he or she thought there was something procedurally wrong with the decision or if the decision itself was thought to be "unreasonable." The dean then would appoint an investigator/grievance officer and ask that individual to look at the procedures that had been followed, to determine if they were unusual or had affected the outcome.

"I'm not asking [the officer], 'Do you agree with the decision?'" Shoven added. "But, 'Does it appear that the process was fair? Does it appear that this was a decision which a reasonable person could reach?' "

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By Diane Manuel