Observations on DU’s Termination of Sharolyn Anderson
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.