President Alison Byerly sent the following message to the campus community on Sept. 5, 2016.
I know that all of you share my great relief that Professor Juan Rojo has announced the end of the hunger strike that he began last Tuesday. We have all been deeply concerned for his health, and I appreciate his decision to honor the advice of his colleagues and friends in this regard. As he notes in his message, this allows us as a community to focus our attention on our educational mission, and on discussion of the important issues that have been raised around the tenure and promotion process.
I recognize that this is a difficult time not only for Professor Rojo but for the faculty as a whole. The denial of tenure to a valued colleague is always a tear in the fabric of the community, and the rupture is much greater when that outcome is unexpected or attended by controversy. Many faculty members put enormous time, thought, and judgment into considering tenure cases and I understand that they may feel this effort has been disregarded when their recommendation is not supported. I also realize that many find this outcome particularly challenging at a time when we are embarking on significant initiatives to improve the diversity of the faculty, as discussed by Provost Rizvi and Dean of Faculty Rinehart at last week’s faculty meeting.
We will have the opportunity at Tuesday’s special faculty meeting to talk in more detail about the tenure process, and faculty concerns about the president’s role in it, as expressed both in the significant advice proposed by the Governance Committee, and in a letter that has been sent by a group of faculty to the Board. I’d like to offer a few thoughts in advance of Tuesday’s discussion, and for the benefit of students, staff, and others who will not be present at that meeting.
Tenure decisions are among the most consequential decisions we make as an academic community. They are critical milestones in the lives and careers of colleagues who stand for tenure, and they are significant commitments on the part of the institution that define the faculty and the academic program for decades to come. For that reason, our Faculty Handbook assigns some level of responsibility for this task to every layer of our shared governance system, with recommendations going from Department Review Committees, to the Promotion, Tenure, and Review Committee, to the President, and finally to the Board of Trustees, in whose hands the final decision rests.
As President of Lafayette College, I have deep respect for this governance structure and take my responsibility within it very seriously. Here as at most similar institutions, the faculty role in the tenure process is appropriately the primary one. Having observed for three years now the hard work of Lafayette’s PTR Committee, I have enormous respect for the difficult work that the committee performs and for the judgment that they exercise. It would always be my preference and hope to support their recommendations, as I have in the other fourteen tenure cases that have come to me.
However, the Faculty Handbook does assign me the responsibility of conveying, and defending, my own recommendation to the Board, and I am accountable to them for undertaking that responsibility in good faith. The Faculty Handbook provides in section 4.1.3 for the possibility that “in rare instances and for compelling reasons,” the president will not concur with the committee’s recommendation. I agree that such instances should be rare and compelling. In this instance, it was certainly not my desire or preference to create a situation I knew would be difficult for the colleague denied, deeply discomfiting to the faculty, and uncomfortable for me personally.
The term “compelling reasons” is a broad one, and there has been considerable faculty discussion of the current handbook language, which was adopted in 1981, and its relationship to a 1993 AAUP committee report that offers an interpretation of what might constitute “compelling reasons.” Those points may provide a valuable context for considering future clarification of the term. However, our Faculty Handbook as it stands does not offer any definition of “compelling reasons.”
Like the faculty, I as president have an obligation to uphold the standards outlined in the Faculty Handbook, particularly with regard to teaching. The Handbook states: “Teaching is the most important criterion for tenure and promotion. The College is seeking distinction in teaching, not simply competence.” (4.2.1) The quality of the faculty is at the core of what makes Lafayette what it is. As an undergraduate college where teaching is paramount, we hold ourselves to an appropriately high standard of distinction in teaching. We have a shared responsibility to ensure that students over the thirty to thirty-five year commitment that tenure represents are taught by faculty members who have met that standard.
In evaluating all cases, including this one, I rely most heavily on the evidence provided by faculty colleagues, through their own classroom observations and their informed analysis of candidates’ teaching evaluations. In reviewing the recommendation provided by the PTR committee in this case, I found myself largely in agreement with the PTR committee’s characterization of the candidate’s teaching. Where we differed is that I could not concur with their conclusion that the record described met the standard of distinction and the elements of quality teaching outlined in the Faculty Handbook (4.2.1). The surprising disjunction between the record described and the positive vote recorded was to me a compelling reason not to concur. I did not feel that I could in good faith present the case to the Board with my recommendation for tenure.
Because of the seriousness of this decision I deliberated on it for some time. I requested a meeting with the PTR committee to seek clarification of their views, a meeting which they declined due the fact that such a meeting is not explicitly indicated in the handbook. I very much regret that the process in this case was protracted, and made what is always a painful situation more difficult for the candidate. In my consideration, I made every effort to understand and come to terms with the PTR committee’s recommendation before regretfully concluding that I could not concur with it.
As I have said, there are aspects of the process outlined in 4.1.3 that I believe can be improved in the interests of expediency and increased clarity about the steps taken when the president does not concur with the PTR committee and the decision is referred to the Board. For this reason, I supported the August 17 letter to the Governance Committee, requesting that they consider possible revision of the language. I hope that Governance might consider including, as many tenure processes do, opportunities for dialogue between the president and PTR, which might reduce the likelihood of disagreement. Although we may agree that it is wise to consider how the process might be improved for future cases, the case under discussion unfolded in accordance with the process as written.
Thanks for your patience with this long memo. It is important to me that the faculty and larger community understand that my actions in this case were undertaken within the current framework for the process as outlined in the Faculty Handbook, and that I made every effort to act in good faith, with due deliberation, and in the best interests of the College. I look forward to talking further about these issues with many of you on Tuesday.