Inside Higher Ed: "Off Track"

March 23, 2012

by Kaustuv Basu

This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed

An assistant professor teaches more classes than many of her colleagues. She mentors many more students than other professors in the department. Her research suffers because of her non-research workload and she is ultimately denied tenure and leaves the university.

That scenario reflects the allegations by a former University of Louisville professor, but the contours of her case reflect the frustrations of many tenure-track professors.

Karen Britt, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Louisville, was making a name for herself as an expert on early Christian, Byzantine and medieval art, her colleagues said. Britt, who started at the university in 2003, had hoped to achieve tenure by 2009.

But at the end of that year, J. Blaine Hudson, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the university, recommended against that step. “Professor Britt clearly meets the criteria for tenure in service and teaching, but fails to meet this standard in research and creative activity,” he wrote in a letter to Shirley Willihnganz, the provost and executive vice president of the university.

Britt is no longer at Louisville, but earlier this year, she sued the university for the denial of tenure.

According to the suit, Britt taught five courses during some academic years instead of four, the norm for faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences. As a new faculty member, she felt she could not say no to the extra workload. She was also tasked with advising twice the number of art history undergraduates than her colleagues did, according to the court papers, while she was mentoring a number of graduate students. The court papers allege that she faced these added assignments because she is a woman.

"As junior faculty, you are very aware that your colleagues in the department will vote on tenure. The last thing anyone wants is to be seen as a malcontent or not a team player. However, after my first year, I did express my concerns to my chair. He repeatedly dismissed my concerns," said Britt, who is currently in Jordan, doing fieldwork on a research project funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In 2010, a University Faculty Grievance Committee backed Britt's complaints and recommended that she be given tenure but not be promoted to associate professor. The panel found that Britt's teaching load was "extraordinarily high" and that her research had been affected as a result. At the time of her tenure review, Britt had published two peer-reviewed articles.

When contacted, Mark Hebert, a university spokesman, declined to talk about allegations in the lawsuit, but said that certain processes are followed when faculty members are considered for tenure. “This process was followed in the case of Karen Britt just as it is followed for other tenure candidates,” Hebert said in an e-mail message.

Higher education career experts said Britt’s allegations mirror many of the frustrations that a faculty member might face on the road to tenure, though they did not have detailed knowledge about Britt’s case.

Kiernan Mathews, director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, said the more teaching that a faculty member does at a four-year college, the less likely that the person is to earn tenure. “It is also the case that women and faculty of color are more likely to be asked on serve on committees and do extra service work, because there are so few of them,” he said.

The difficult part, Mathews said, was knowing when to say no. “Some opportunities might look very attractive,” Mathews said. “But additional teaching loads are not valued as much as research is. ”Faculty members, when they have good chairs or advisers, are told to decline some of these opportunities, he said.

Women or faculty of color not only might be asked to take on extra teaching responsibilities, they are less likely to have mentors to help guide through the maze of requests that many new professors receive. In his experience, Mathews said, women are also less likely to make requests of their chair for special exemptions to teaching loads.

And by the time a case gets to the provost’s office, the damage might already be done. “There is no dashboard for a provost to see and be able to intervene,” Mathews said.

One solution might be to have a system where administrators are encouraged to look at how junior faculty are being treated at the departmental level, and proper diagnostics for gauging those efforts. “It is in everyone’s interest that a tenure track leads to a successful outcome,” Mathews said.

William Tierney, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of its Pullias Center for Higher Education, said that female and minority faculty members are asked to serve on numerous committees and their service obligations tend to be greater. "Colleges and universities, they want to have more diverse committees,” Tierney said. “The daily goal – classes to be taught and committee work – can be in conflict with tenure requirements. What we value for tenure can be different from what needs to be done on a daily and weekly basis,” he said.

Britt's allegations have a familiar ring, said Karen Kelsky, a former head of the department of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kelsky, who now works as an academic consultant and writes a blog called The Professor is In, said that "junior faculty need to save themselves from themselves."

"I have heard this story before. Their impulse is to go sacrifice themselves for the department, especially if they are women," she said. "But a good department will help them be selfish."