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Observations on DU’s Termination of Sharolyn Anderson

January 23, 2012
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By Dean Saitta, Colorado Conference Co-President

The Colorado Committee for the Protection of Faculty Rights (CCPFR) has released its second report detailing procedural unfairness in the termination of a Colorado faculty member. The first report dealt with Ward Churchill and Phil Mitchell, a tenured Full Professor and an untenured Instructor, respectively, at CU-Boulder. The second report deals with the case of Sharolyn Anderson, a tenure-line probationary faculty member in the Department of Geography at the University of Denver. I’d like to play off the CCPFR’s Anderson report by detailing three ways in which DU agents failed in their obligation to fairly evaluate Dr. Anderson’s case. These include failures to (1) respect the results of external peer review of scholarship, (2) observe best practices in the evaluation of teaching, and (3) adhere to the principle of shared governance. I’ll briefly detail each area below. I’m doing so because I think my account might serve as a useful cautionary tale for AAUP colleagues at other Colorado institutions.

I didn’t know Dr. Anderson when she contacted me in spring 2010 to discuss her impending tenure review. At the time Anderson was concerned about receiving fair treatment because of personal and professional hostility she had experienced from departmental colleagues in the years prior to her tenure review.  Gender discrimination was another concern.  DU’s geography department currently lacks a tenured female faculty member and has never had a tenured woman professor in my 24 years at DU (and perhaps never in its 60+ year history).  That fact notwithstanding, Anderson trusted that all parties would evaluate her case solely on the basis of performance rather than gender, personality or, as AAUP procedures explicitly prohibit, some highly subjective notion of “collegiality.”  As things developed it became clear to me that Dr. Anderson’s case was receiving disparate treatment compared to others who have undergone tenure review in her department. I thus strongly concur with the CCPFR’s conclusion that Anderson’s application for tenure was treated in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner.  This now makes three different faculty appeals committees—at the department, campus, and state levels—that have determined that Anderson did not receive adequate consideration in her tenure review.

For the record, I’m past president of DU’s Faculty Senate and current president of DU’s AAUP chapter.  I’ve long been involved—very constructively, I think—in campus governance as a member of many university-wide committees.  I’ve logged over 10 years as the Chair of DU’s anthropology department and about as many years as a member of the Division of Social Sciences Promotion and Tenure Committee.   By administrative invitation I was intimately involved in crafting DU’s Vision and Values statements committing the university to greatness in service to the “public good”, to “inclusiveness”, and to ethical behavior “in all that we do.” I take this commitment to ethical behavior to include speaking out when I believe a colleague’s rights to procedural and substantive fairness in performance review have been violated.  As everyone knows, any performance review puts at stake the lives and futures of not only individuals, but entire families.

I served on the Departmental Review Committee to whom Dr. Anderson appealed when she was not recommended for tenure by her departmental colleagues.  What follows derives from a detailed analysis—explicitly informed by AAUP principles—that I conducted of how Anderson’s performance was evaluated at the department level.  The following observations about particular procedural failures in the Anderson case are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of colleagues at DU, on the CCPFR, or in the leadership of AAUP-Colorado.

1. Failure to respect the results of external peer review of scholarship. The AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities stipulates that “scholars in a particular field or activity have the chief competence for judging the work of their colleagues.”  Dr. Anderson was hired to build a program in Geographic Information Science (GIS). GIS is a relatively new, highly technical, and rapidly evolving field. By universal agreement Anderson’s internal and external service work in support of program-building was exemplary.  Seven of eight external peer evaluators of Anderson’s scholarly record—all experts in the field of GIS—recommended tenure. The eighth external reviewer had reservations about Anderson’s contributions to co-authored work.   A subsequent—and, to my knowledge, unprecedented—department level inquiry into the co-authored work verified that Anderson’s contributions were original and substantive.  However, this information was never disclosed to Anderson nor to subsequent review committees.  Even without this supplementary information the strong consensus opinion of Anderson’s external scientific peers was that she had earned tenure and promotion. This consensus opinion was essentially dismissed by university decision-makers.  Instead, non-experts in GIS substituted their opinion of Anderson’s scholarly performance for those of her closest scientific peers.  I’d thus add the following question to those articulated by the CCPFR in “The Research Criteria” section of the Anderson report: What does “peer review” mean in today’s specialized, highly technical, and increasingly collaborative scientific world? To what group of “peers” should university review committees show particular deference? This is important if evaluations of a candidate’s scholarship are to be guided by the informed opinion of a scientific community rather than by those whose interests might be less than fully objective if not completely self-serving.

2. Failure to observe best practices regarding the evaluation of  teaching. The AAUP’s 1975 Statement on Teaching Evaluation and its 2005 Observations on the Association’s Statement on Teaching Evaluation stipulate that teaching evaluators should draw information from “various sources”, “fairly compare workloads and kinds of teaching”, and refrain from “relying solely on numerically-based student evaluations.” The 1975 statement articulates a comprehensive definition of teaching that includes “classroom performance, advising, and informal and formal contacts with students outside of class.” It also notes the institution’s obligation to provide  “conditions and support for excellent teaching.” Anderson’s teaching was evaluated almost exclusively on the basis of anonymous, end-of-term student numerical evaluations.  Her numerical evaluations are demonstrably lower than those of recently tenured male colleagues.  This can be explained, at least in part, by the very different kinds of courses Anderson teaches compared to her colleagues (i.e., ones that are highly technical and technology-intensive).  Moreover, Anderson routinely had higher teaching loads compared to her male colleagues and, unlike those colleagues, did not receive course releases for her directorship of a departmental program.  Most importantly, analysis of Anderson’s teaching numbers ignored the well-established “gender effect” that’s known to influence student evaluations of women professors in science.  When gender is considered Anderson’s classroom numbers are just as good or better than those of tenured women teaching in other areas of the natural sciences at DU, including some who have risen to administrative positions in our campus-wide teaching and learning enterprise. I personally believe that the failure of university agents to equitably allocate teaching loads and releases, and to consider how gender affects student evaluations of classroom teaching, amounts to implicit gender discrimination.

Since 1975 an enormous literature has accumulated demonstrating that anonymous, end-of-term student numerical evaluations of classroom teaching are influenced by a whole host of complicating factors. The AAUP’s 2005 statement notes that such data “are often ill-suited for the type of statistical analysis carried out, being neither continuous in nature nor useful for making the fine distinctions on which rewards are often based.”  Because of these complications and limitations educational experts now suggest that anonymous student reviews should count no more than 30% towards the evaluation of an individual’s teaching performance.  Multiple DU committees, task forces, and policy documents have taken this advice to heart.  They recommend a set of “best practices” for evaluating teaching that include other criteria such as peer analysis of course material (syllabi, reading lists, and class assignments) and the career performance of student advisees.  In Anderson’s case there was no peer analysis of classroom materials, nor was credit given for the prestigious grants and awards won by her students.  To their credit Anderson’s department colleagues did collect a representative sample of signed letters from students who were able to evaluate the broad spectrum of Anderson’s skills as a classroom teacher, advisor, mentor, research partner, and collaborator.  Fourteen of 15 systematically-sampled, non-anonymous student narrative evaluations of Anderson’s performance were thoughtful, nuanced, unambiguously positive, and supportive of the case for tenure. In the “Teaching Evaluation” section of its report the CCPFR articulates several important questions regarding the use of anonymous end-of-term student evaluations in performance review.  We might also ask whether systematically-sampled, non-anonymous student evaluations should always trump anonymous evaluations for which there is no author accountability.

3. Failure to adhere to  the principle of shared governance. The principle of shared governance that informs the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities insists that a clear distinction be maintained between the roles of administrators and the roles of faculty.  One of the bigger procedural defects in the Anderson case—not considered by the CCPFR but certainly one that I’d count among the several that have compromised fairness in this case—was the membership of a full-time Associate Dean on both the original and reconstituted departmental tenure committees. This administrator did not have special expertise to evaluate Anderson’s scholarly work.  While they were not in the direct line of decision-making about tenure and promotion within Anderson’s academic division, their full-time position as an Associate Dean meant  that they had supervisory authority over all other faculty who might be called upon to review the case, or consider appeals at the department and divisional levels. Certainly, such an administrator is positioned to disproportionately influence or prejudice decision-making at multiple levels of review, create a “snowball effect”, and predetermine an outcome. Thus, higher level administrative involvement in the tenure process at the department level was objectionable in principle and unconscionable in practice. Dr. Anderson requested that the administrator be removed from the department committee that was reconstituted to review her case after the first findings of inadequate consideration, but that request was denied.  The inappropriate participation of a full-time administrator in a tenure case deliberation at the department level raises the question of administrative misconduct in its handling.

Given the failures detailed above it’s hard to imagine a more procedurally-flawed case of tenure review.  The CCPFR has done yeoman work to identify the flaws given the materials with which it had to work. The case review is doubly problematic, however, when viewed in broader perspective. The DU Geography Department is the only PhD-granting geography department in the country that lacks a tenured woman or domestic minority, and with Anderson’s termination that unfortunate situation remains unchanged. There are thus multiple dots to connect with respect to the question of whether Anderson received a fair and unbiased tenure review.  Readers can make up their own minds about what the connections imply about DU’s commitment to equal opportunity, “inclusive excellence”, and the protection of faculty rights.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Charlotte permalink
    March 1, 2012 3:43 pm

    I would be extremely reluctant to have my daughter or son attend a university where there were still departments in which the only tenured professors were men. In my opinion, it is the wrong message to send to girls — and boys — about what is possible, and what is actually happening in the rest of the world!

  2. Carla Santoro permalink
    February 12, 2012 3:46 am

    This is very disheartening and discouraging for women in the year 2012. Being in the education field myself, I know the importance of administrating not just one form of assessment and objective vs. subjective measures. It seems very clear that Sharolyn’s case was that of the latter. I hope that she can receive justice not only for herself but for other female scientists in the field as well.

  3. February 10, 2012 7:20 am

    If Dr. Anderson is gifted and knowledgeable in her field she deserves to be evaluated and appreciated for that. It would be a great advantage for the university to have women on their faculty in the sciences department.
    It is so important that both young men and young women have the right role models. If Dr. Anderson can inspire the youth of today, it will be a great advantage for all of us.

  4. Burton Weisman permalink
    February 6, 2012 8:44 am

    I am a former faculty member at Florida State University in the Department of Communications. I’ve known Sharolyn Anderson for about 20-years. She has always impressed me as a knowledgeable, highly-capable educator.

    On reflection of the events connected with her pursuit of tenure, and knowing Sharolyn a bit, I sense that her being denied tenure may have more to do with the “collegiality” requirement fo tenure approval.

    What does “collegiality” mean? Is it being humble? Being liked? What?

    Well, Sharolyn is humble; but it’s not so much an ordinary reflex for her as for some. In her pursuit of truth, Sharolyn is challenging, direct and principled, but also wise, pragmatic and understanding. For Sharolyn, “truth” is more important than “comfort at any cost.” What’s wrong with that?

    In addition to her many contributions and publications she is persistently engaged in the advancement of her discipline on every front. In this pursuit she is restless, tough-minded and, at times, impatient. She consistently offers a solid combination of solid pedagogy, battle-tested principles and empathetic deep wisdom.

    Sharolyn Anderson challenges the conventional mindset. Her style is provocative in the most effective manner. Isn’t that what leadership is about?

    I believe that’s all there is to this discussion and her tenure should be granted. Albeit it would be productive-even nice-if Sharolyn could trust her talented colleagues to work with her to build a better roadmap overall for the future of her chosen discipline.

    Burton W.
    Greeley, CO

  5. Tilottama Ghosh permalink
    January 31, 2012 4:33 am

    I am shocked to know about the discriminatory treatment Dr. Anderson received at DU. All her good assessments were overlooked and greater attention was drawn to the one or two bad assessments. Giving direction to any new field of science which is introduced in a department is challenging, and Dr. Anderson was giving her best. This fact that ‘The DU Geography Department is the only PhD-granting geography department in the country that lacks a tenured woman or domestic minority, and with Anderson’s termination that unfortunate situation remains unchanged,’ is disgraceful. I hope her case is re-considered and she gets fair treatment.

  6. Karin Frost permalink
    January 30, 2012 12:29 pm

    Beyond issues of discrimination, one can’t help from wondering if the subspeciality of GIS, which is Ms. Anderson’s area of epertise and interest within the department of geography at the University of Denver, played any role in the decision not to grant tenure. Is this subspecialty an area of research the department is prepared to go into and be known for, both in terms of future grants as well as PhD candidates? Perhaps the future relevancy for the direction of the department is at question as well as failing to meet the needs of current students or the interest of any subsequent students. Does Ms. Anderson’s area of research and expertise pose a threat to this department because their particular areas of research are not as relevant to the future directions of geography or geographers? Just wondering.

  7. Dr. Gregory A. Buntain permalink
    January 29, 2012 9:04 pm

    I will state up front I don’t know Sharolyn Anderson personally, but her case was brought to my attention by a friend and I began reading up on it. First the letter by Dean Saitta, then the actual CCPFR report. This looks extremely “fishy.” It’s hard to imagine that there can justifiably be no tenured female professors within this department. I am skeptical of any department in the 21st century that is staffed entirely by men (other than perhaps the “football department”). Perhaps this department still adheres to the dated opinion that only men can read maps??? Anyway, to the outside observer looking in, it appears there was more involved in the determination of Dr. Anderson’s tenure than her competency.

  8. samantha basra permalink
    January 29, 2012 2:15 am

    I find it disgraceful that such an exemplary woman in her field is overlooked for outdated and outmoded reasons, can you not see what a valuable asset this person is?

  9. January 29, 2012 12:33 am

    The results of this article are astounding – Is it really possible in 2011/2012 that there are institutions in the United States that allow discrimination? Dr. Andersons’ case should be re-examined and get national attention.

  10. January 27, 2012 11:59 pm

    How can “The University of Denver be a private institution not subject to the statutes regulating state institutions of higher education or the federal constitution?” How can this be allowed in employment practices? The larger question is why would young women come to study at the University of Denver if such discrimination is allowed? If such a male dominated environment exists for a female faculty member it also must exist for female students. If the University of Denver receives federal grant money for research in this Department but does not follow fair employment practices why could the university not be banned from receiving any grants? Finally, where are the women in science who are fellow colleagues through out the country not protesting this? It is hard enough to get women in to the sciences let alone to teach at the university level. This is very sad ending to professor’s journey.

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