Tenure denial of interdisciplinary faculty sparks concern from liberal arts professors

Andrew Messamore

As the University ponders cost-saving measures in its non-academic services, a number of faculty are concerned the University’s priorities are omitting important areas of interdisciplinary studies and competitive salaries.

Thirty-two professors in the College of Liberal Arts expressed alarm regarding the large number of professors of color denied tenure across multiple departments this year. The group sent a letter to UT President William Powers Jr. and Steven Leslie, executive vice president and provost.

“We deeply regret that a large number of the cases that the College Tenure and Promotion Committee did not recommend for tenure involve scholars of color whose research is rooted and invested in interdisciplinary methodologies and areas of study,” the letter states. 

The letter urges Powers and Leslie to reverse a trend in the College Tenure and Promotion Committee that “undermines our multiple endeavors to build more diversity, innovation, and interdisciplinary inquiry at UT.”

The letter goes on to say the Promotion Committee, located in the provost’s office, did not allow the various academic units and research institutes across campus to contribute to the decision-making process of the committee.

In response, the College of Liberal Arts conducted a review of its tenure and promotion recommendations. The review did not find that liberal art’s tenure decisions dispraportionately harm professors of color, UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said. 

The tenure committee denied six of 14 assistant liberal arts professors who applied for tenure awards in 2012, said Gail A. Davis, the College of Liberal Arts’ director of human resources. Because of privacy concerns, the racial background of assistant professors who are denied tenure cannot be disclosed, Davis said. 

Assistant professors, the entry-level tenure-track position at the University, are given six years after they are hired to prepare for tenure review. After the six years, assistant professors are first evaluated by their respective departments and then colleges. The final decision is made by the Tenure and Promotions Committee, which is housed in the provost’s office. Assistant professors not granted tenure have their contracts ended.

The requirements for tenure are not elaborated in the faculty handbook and vary widely by department. Typically, assistant professors are evaluated based on requirements including peer evaluations, volume and quality of research and classroom performance.

Some teaching faculty, including lecturers and senior lecturers, are hired on yearly or bi-yearly contracts without the chance for obtaining tenure

Smita Ruzicka, assistant dean of students and staff co-chair of the Asian and Asian American Faculty and Staff Association, said faculty who shared the letter were concerned with the low number of tenure-track Asian professors represented at the University. Faculty members who signed the letter that were contacted did not wish to comment. 

“We are looking at issues of underrepresentation among Asian faculty at this institution as well as administration,” Ruzicka said.

In fall 2012, 17.7 percent of the undergraduate student body identified themselves as Asian, and 8.7 percent of 1,539 tenured faculty and 16.9 percent of 419 tenure-track faculty identified themselves as Asian.

Madeline Hsu, director of the Center for Asian American Studies, said the Diversity Committee of liberal arts is now in discussion with Dean Randy Diehl about altering promotions and tenure policy to include perspectives from academic centers and research institutes in the tenuring process.

In the Center for Asian American Studies, 23 of 36 teaching faculty are not tenure-track. The average faculty salary in the center is $53,250, roughly half the University average of $103,564. In the mathematics department, which has about the same proportion of non-tenure track faculty, the average faculty salary is $96,092. 

The center also absorbed a 25 percent cut in its budget in 2011 after cuts were mandated by the Texas Legislature that year, along with a number of other ethnic studies centers in the College of Liberal Arts.

Martha Hilley, a music professor who started at the University in 1982, said the requirements for gaining tenure at UT and other universities in the United States have become more stringent over time, but the changing standards have not harmed teaching or research. 

“Many, many years ago if you lived long enough and didn’t end up doing anything wrong, you would end up getting tenure, and that day is gone,” Hilley said. “I think if I had to go through the process again, I’d be very nervous, truth be told.”