Stanford News


CONTACT: Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (415) 725-1939;

Faculty Board grants tenure to anthropologist Gupta

On Aug. 8 Stanford's faculty Advisory Board recommended the promotion of anthropologist Akhil Gupta to associate professor with tenure. President Gerhard Casper has approved that decision.

Although Gupta's promotion and tenure had been recommended unanimously by the anthropology department, John Shoven, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, turned down the assistant professor last January, prompting student protests and an international letter-writing campaign by scholars and others who admired Gupta's work. Gupta appealed first to Shoven and then to Provost Condoleezza Rice. She concluded in June that, while the process had been fair and university guidelines followed, narrow procedural problems warranted forwarding the case to the Advisory Board.

The Advisory Board, seven senior faculty members elected by the faculty at large who review all faculty appointments and promotions, discussed the case at its meetings in July and August before the majority voted to grant Gupta tenure, said Advisory Board Chair Bradley Efron, professor of statistics and of health research and policy.

Gupta, who was informed of the decision as he was preparing to leave for a fellowship year at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said he was "delighted to receive tenure." He thanked colleagues on the faculty, students and staff who, he said, either aided his tenure case directly or "helped me through a very stressful period in my life."

Gupta said he believed his case illustrated some need for review of the tenure process. "The procedures that are employed need more scrutiny," he said. "There are not enough self-correcting mechanisms" before a tenure case reaches the provostial level.

And although he acknowledged that it was not an explicit issue in his tenure review, campus discussions prompted by his case make him think the university may need "a new commitment to include a broader range of faculty in key decisions on programs and personnel, especially women and minority faculty."

Efron said the Gupta review "was a difficult case for the Advisory Board, which does not usually function as a primary review panel." Some of the material, including letters that were in the original file, were off limits to the board, he said, for procedural reasons. With the help of the provost, the board collected further outside opinions of Gupta's work. "A majority of the board voted to recommend tenure," he said, but he added: "I don't want to leave the impression that the Advisory Board thought the dean's office behaved badly, because that was not the case. The procedural pitfalls weren't obvious. The situation was a difficult one and I feel that I myself would have fallen into some difficulties."

He also said the case left him thinking that the tenure procedures were designed for a less contentious time and may need some revision. He said the board is "talking to the provost and the deans about some changes, but life is basically more contentious than it used to be. The older rules presume a certain amount of acceptance on both sides and maybe that needs to be reevaluated.

"I still think Stanford's basic policy is an honest and fair one and has served the university well. . . . Carrying through on this policy ­ both being able to be promoted from within and having strict standards ­ is very important, and I honor the dean's office for trying to carry through on the latter."

In response to the board's decision, Shoven said that "this case was complex and involved matters of judgment. I respect the judgment of the Advisory Board and its decision."

Provost Rice concurred with the dean's assessment, adding that tenure cases often involve issues about which reasonable people can disagree.

"All who considered the case did so in good faith and according to established university guidelines," she said. "It is difficult to get tenure at Stanford, as well it should be. The process is intentionally stringent to ensure that only the most outstanding candidates earn a permanent place on our faculty."

A typical tenure consideration begins at the departmental level with a vote of the tenured faculty, said Kathryn Gillam, senior associate provost for faculty affairs. A positive vote recommends approval to the dean of the school, who also reviews the candidate's file. A positive decision by the dean moves the recommendation to the provost. Her endorsement sends the recommendation to the Advisory Board, and its endorsement sends it to the president for final approval.

A negative decision at any of these levels normally ends the consideration of the case. However, a candidate may ask for a review of the decision on procedural grounds or on issues of criteria. It was on the former of these that the provost ruled.

Gupta said previously that he believed his tenure case had been influenced by tensions within his department and between the department and the dean's office over the department's direction and the types of specialists to be appointed in the future. Five of his tenured colleagues who are also cultural anthropologists wrote an open letter in which they contended that the dean's negative decision on Gupta reflected "a lack of understanding of socio-cultural anthropology and an unwillingness to accept the expertise of the leading scholars in the discipline." Anthropologists at Stanford and other universities were quoted in several articles about the case saying that tensions over different methodologies have been evident nationally in their discipline for some time. A June 20 article in Science magazine, for example, quoted Stanford department chair William Durham, a biological anthropologist, as saying "the issues and the debate in this department are national issues and debates about the nature of anthropology."

In response to the Advisory Board's decision on Gupta's tenure case, Durham said Aug. 12 that "it was a complex and delicate matter, with issues on which reasonable people could disagree. But we are glad it's over, and my colleagues and I are very happy for Akhil. You will remember that our vote was unanimous for his tenure in the first place."


By Kathleen O'Toole