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Tenure and Aimee Bahng

Aimee Bahng.jpgWhat does it take to get tenure at Dartmouth? The other day I used a term that we should hear more often to describe our special niche in higher education: research college. Members of the faculty need not only be excellent scholars, but unlike professors up for tenure at a research university, they must be fine teachers as well. How those two factors are weighed is open to debate, but there is no disputing that research always receives greater emphasis. That is as it should be, as I wrote in a piece in The D a little more than a decade ago:

If you give the subject a moment’s thought, you can’t have first-class teaching without research. Place yourself in the position of the College. When Dartmouth grants tenure to a faculty member, it faces several challenges in justifying a 30-plus-year commitment to its permanent employee.

How can the College ensure that the professor’s teaching remains vibrant for this extended period? How can Dartmouth guarantee that the professor imparts to students the notion that any intellectual field has an ever-evolving understanding of its subject?

Some of us, though only rarely at Dartmouth, have faced the bleak task of taking a course with a faculty member for whom the flame has gone out. With research in the distant past, teaching has become no more than the repetition of old lecture notes.

There seems a broad consensus that English Professor Aimee Bahng is a devoted teacher. The loyalty she has engendered has led several thousand people to sign a petition in support of her request for tenure. And the English department unanimously recommended that Bahng become an Associate Professor, with the virtual guarantee of lifetime employment. However the department’s recommendation was turned down at the level of the CAP, the College’s Committee Advisory to the President, though the petition says that the decision is being appealed.

By way of background, tenure is granted to a member of the faculty only after the successive approvals of the tenured members of a department or program, the CAP, the President, and the Board of Trustees — though in practice the latter two will not go against the wishes of the CAP. Everyone seems to agree that there should be oversight of an academic department’s determination; in a small school where professors in a department have been working and socializing together for six years before an assistant professor comes up for tenure, there will always be an emotional tug one way or another in a tenure determination. The CAP is there to offer dispassionate supervision of tenure decisions, especially ones relating to (un)popular professors. The committee safeguards the College’s interest in granting tenure only to the most qualified candidates.

So what happened to much loved Aimee? The Committee Advisory to the President seems a serious set of people: Dean of the Faculty and Government Professor Mike Mastanduno, Government Professor John Carey, Biology Professor Kathryn Cottingham, Professor of German Studies Gerd Gemünden, Professor of Film and Media Studies Amy Lawrence, Economics Professor Nina Pavcnik, and Professor of Environmental Studies Ross Virginia. For folks who believe that gender and race are destiny, that’s Dean Mastanduno and six members of the faculty: three men, three women — all white.

In addition, as is traditional at the College (though Jim Kim tried to shirk the responsibility), the President and the Provost sit in on tenure deliberations at the level of the Committee Advisory to the President. One is left to wonder about their role in the Aimee Bahng tenure decision. Many professors in Hanover believe that the two feel disdain for the College’s present faculty, leading them to want to raise the standards for granting tenure at Dartmouth to a higher level. At the same time, both Phil and Carolyn seem obsessed with diversity. Would they argue against an Asian professor?

In the end, Bahng’s tenure decision must, at least ostensibly, turn on the quality of her research. Her CV is quite lengthy, but with her first book still in the works, and only a limited number of articles appearing in lesser journals, on its face Bahng’s scholarly output appears limited. Curiously enough, in the current heated debate, I have heard from faculty who have classified Bahng’s research as being at the very top of her field, and others who see it as less than mediocre. I am in no position to judge.

Additionally, Bahng is a member of the Steering Committee of the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth, and in her capacity there she invited Jasbir Puar to the College — a Rutgers professor whose work and campus presentations have been repeated characterized as anti-Semitic. Though tenure is a system designed to protect the intellectual freedom of professors to be bold and controversial, in practice the granting of tenure can be used by an administration to weed out faculty that are deemed undesirable. Did Bahng’s judgment, or lack thereof, in inviting Puar to the College count against her?

Finally we should ask if the CAP made its decision in light of the steady decline in the number of English majors at the College and in the nation (Source: the McPeek Report on grade inflation) — a drop in Hanover of more than 50% over the last 25 years:

English Majors 1990-2015.jpg

Does the College want to make the decision to grant lifetime tenure to a faculty member in a field that is clearly on the wane, especially given that the quality of Bahng’s scholarship is open to debate.

Needless to say, Phil and Carolyn and the people on the CAP aren’t talking about what went into their decision, but the issue has landed the College in the press once again. Inside Higher Education and the Huffington Post both have run extensive stories on Professor Bahng’s tenure fight, as has the Valley News.

Addendum: Take a look at some of what Professor Bahng might grittily refer to as her scholarly production: Speculate This! and Specters of the Pacific: Salt Fish Drag and Atomic Hauntologies in the Era of Genetic Modification.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

I agree with your take on the tenure issue wholeheartedly. While I’m not in a position to opine on the quality of her CV either, my sense is that the CAP probably got it right and that her department is to blame for not setting high enough expectations and then mentoring her to meet them.

What is sad and makes me angry about this situation is that the people on the CAP are getting a lot of flak — essentially being called racists — and that committee includes a professor from one of my favorite classes as an undergrad and another that I know well personally and have an incredible amount of respect for (Amy Lawrence and Nina Pavcnik). Both are women and are shining examples of scholarship, class and successful female professors at the College. None of the people on the committee deserve the ugly rhetoric being tossed about so casually here.


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