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The Carletonian

Process to hire profs remains opaque

<me tenure-track professors whose contracts were not renewed and visiting professors finishing their appointments remain unclear on the college’s institutional priorities and hiring practices. This year especially, many professors have come up against institutional ambiguities that have left their job prospects uncertain.

Different kinds of professors

According to Beverly Nagel, dean of the college, Carleton’s faculty positions are divided into two main categories: visiting faculty appointments, which are short-term positions that are ineligible for tenure, and tenure-track appointments, which can potentially lead to tenure, or, according to Nagel, “job security until you retire.” While positions in these categories are differentiated by the “visiting” prefix, some faculty think there is no difference in teaching quality between the two titles.

According to Janell Rothenberg, visiting assistant professor of anthropology, there are important differences, however, between faculty with different titles. “There is a difference in terms of where they are in their career, what their lives are like, what their everyday work is like and the degree of permanence they feel at the institution,” said Rothenberg.

Visiting professors, regardless of their success at the college, cannot be promoted to a tenure-track appointment. Instead, visiting professors have to apply to tenure-track appointments, and are evaluated alongside, at times, hundreds of other applicants.

For the 2017-18 academic year, the college filled nine tenure-track positions from a pool of 1,022 applicants.

The challenge with the tenure-track, however, is its arduous review process, which lasts six or seven years for appointments at Carleton and does not always guarantee tenure. If tenure is not ultimately granted at the end of the review process, the candidate must leave the college.

This was the case for Assistant Professor of Classics Kathryn Steed.

Institutional priorities and hiring practices

As an assistant professor, Steed was on the tenure-track, or so she thought. “What’s disappointing for me is that I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing at a place like Carleton, and that turned out not to be the case,” she said.

Steed believes that it is “fairly common knowledge at this point” that the college’s decision not to renew her contract “was based just on scholarly productivity,” that she had not published enough research. She added that the college says that “they’ll look at published work, conference presentations, creative work, other contributions to the intellectual life of the college. And Carleton isn’t a place that spells out what that means.”

According to the Faculty Handbook, the college looks for the interplay of three virtues in its candidates for tenure: “demonstrated excellence in teaching,” “a commitment to and a capacity for scholarship and continuing intellectual growth,” and “the faculty member’s contributions to his or her department, to the College outside the classroom, and to the academic community at large.”

Steed, however, does not think that the Faculty Handbook clearly explains the relationship between these virtues. “We’re sort of told … there has to be something in each of those categories. But my understanding, having gone through the process, is that they’re not of equal importance… There seems to be sort of like a minimum line where they either decide it’s tenurable or not tenurable in each of those categories.”

Steed said that, contrary to her belief, excellence in one area does not in fact compensate to a shortage in another, and that this discrepancy created friction with the college.

“It doesn’t seem to be the case that in one area––if you’re not up to that line in that area––that overflow from other areas can really do anything about that,” Steed said. “There seems to be isolated areas and they want to make sure that people are fulfilling their expectations in all of those areas. And so, you know, I think the college is pretty clear teaching is the most important one, but excellence in teaching can’t make up for a slow start to research or a small quantity of research. The issue that I ran into is that it’s not clear what that quantity is, where the line is.”
Steed is not the only departing professor to share concerns about ambiguity in the tenure-track process.

Ambiguity in ad hoc hiring

Visiting Assistant Professor of African/African American Studies and Religion Kevin Wolfe expressed concern about ambiguity in his unsuccessful application for a tenure-track position.

“In my case, a job came up for a tenure-track position … to which I applied and went through the process, but they offered someone else the job,” said Wolfe.

Although Wolfe faced the same steep odds that the other 1,000 tenure-track applicants faced, it is important to note that his application process was unusual in its ad hoc structure. Because he applied for a position in Africana Studies, an interdisciplinary program, Wolfe was not evaluated by the standards of a single department.

“Presumably all of the people who were voting are people who kind of would contribute or see themselves as part of the Africana Studies program, whose research or trajectory would be part of that program,” said Wolfe. “So in that sense it’s people who would kind of pitch into the program that get to vote, whereas if it’s in a department, it would be a department and it wouldn’t be ad hoc, so there would be a history, there would be a trajectory, there would be a heritage, on which they draw in terms of, they have an idea of what the department has been, is, and what they want it to be, whereas with the program there’s less consistency just by the nature of it being more of an ad hoc sort of thing.”

A relatively inconsistent hiring procedure is not unique to Wolfe’s experience.

Benedict Distinguished Visitor in English and American Studies Kao Kalia Yang was offered to stay at the college next year, but found the offer “unsustainable.” Yang added, “I have three kids … $28,000, no benefits. That’s worse than poverty.” Further, the offer lacked a title.

Dean Nagel declined to elaborate on what the college offered Yang.

“I think an important part of this issue is representation,” Yang said.

“If you’re looking for people who are going to be, in so many ways, more representative of your student body across the board, then you’re going to have to be more creative in your approach. Because it always comes down to ‘this is the protocol,’ and protocols are in place for a reason. But they uphold what is there. So you’re going to have to collapse some of those protocols,” Yang said. “If you really want to attract certain faculty, then you have to be so much more individual and so much more creative in your approach.” 

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