Tenure Denial, Public Relations, and Asymmetric Voice

Jun 15, 2013

I’ll admit that this is a rather anodyne title, but the alternatives involved language not suited for above-the-fold content.

The tenure process involves power asymmetries that make life very unpleasant for assistant professors. They have to worry about alienating their colleagues and their administration. They interact daily with people — who are too often petty, fickle, or, at least, mysterious — who hold tremendous power over their careers. Then there’s the whole publish-or-perish thing. Now, many of these indignities don’t even rise to the level of first-world problems. Compared to the lot of the vast majority of the human race, untenured professors deserve a violin too small to be detected absent an electron microscope.

But there is one very minor compensation. If you are denied tenure, and unhappy about it, you can mount a campaign and say pretty much whatever you want. But because the contents of your file and the specifics of the deliberations are confidential, your tenured colleagues and your administration are hamstrung in their ability to respond.

Good higher-education reporters know this. They also know that failed tenure cases sometimes leave behind bitterness, frustration, and recriminations. So they adjust their coverage accordingly. Judged by this standard, Colleen Flaherty doesn’t pass muster. Her June 14th story on Samer Shehata’s ongoing war against Georgetown for denying him tenure is, to put it mildly, problematic.

Where to begin? Perhaps the right place is to ask “where not to begin?” The answer is obvious: as a voting member of the faculty of the School of Foreign Service I cannot, and will not, discuss our deliberations or the content of Shehata’s confidential file. But I will say a few words about Flaherty’s coverage and Georgetown University as an institution. This requires me to directly address some of the claims advanced in the article, and to do so without any reference to the actual substance of deliberations.

First, as a number of my non-academic friends have pointed out, one does not inspire confidence by starting a discussion of an academic tenure case with an account of the subject’s media profile. Of course, we can have a very interesting conversation about whether — and to what degree — appearances on, for example, the PBS News Hour should count toward tenure. But the reality of academia is that one usually must make an affirmative argument for why, and how much, media profile should influence the decision to grant lifetime employment.

Second, although the piece begins by noting that the relevant unit was the School of Foreign Service, Flaherty soon loses that important thread. She quotes Professor Emeritus Michael C. Hudson:

His political ethnographic approach I think offended doctrinaire political scientists in the Georgetown government department who are narrowly committed to quantitative and rational-choice approaches….

The School of Foreign Service is a multi-disciplinary unit independent of the Department of Government. It is composed of historians, anthropologists, economists, political scientists, and scholars from a variety of other disciplines. Many of us hold joint appointments in both programs, but I think it something of a stretch to characterize the faculty of the Department of Government — let alone the joint faculty — as “doctrinaire political scientists… narrowly committed to quantitative and rational-choice approaches.”  I should also note that SFS has tenured and promoted a number of scholars whose work can hardly be described as “quantitative and rational-choice” in orientation, including those who use ethnographic methodologies.

Third, I can’t imagine that anyone went into this process thinking that Shehata’s case would have an obvious outcome. I cannot discuss the deliberations themselves, but as a number of commentators at IHE have noted, Shehata’s collection of peer-reviewed publications was (and remains) thin (PDF). He has an edited volume. His dissertation was completed in 2000 but published as his (only) monograph in 2009. He lists six shorter peer-reviewed publications. Two are chapters in his (then forthcoming) edited volume with Routledge. One is a 2008 chapter in an edited volume with Lynn Reiner. Another is a chapter in a 2006 edited volume with M.E. Sharpe. Only two are journal articles: one from 2003 in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and one from 1992 in Folklore.

Now, I think that edited volumes are undervalued and under-read, but I also know (1) what peer review of edited volumes usually entails and (2) how much they count toward tenure. The answers? Outside of a few presses, very sympathetically; and not much at all. So if I were looking at this file for the first time, I’d see this as a book, two journal articles (one nearly twenty years old), material inclusive of the edited volume, and two miscellaneous chapters. Certainly not a record you would dismiss out of hand, but also not anything resembling a “slam dunk.” Especially for a scholar who looks to have accumulated some time on grant-supported research leave.

The same is true of the citation data. Including data that postdates Shehata’s tenure decision, his work has been cited 122 times. By rough count, less than 50% of those citations are attributable to the peer-reviewed section of his CV. Again, not nothing, but not something that should leave anyone “stunned” about the kind of mixed-but-positive vote reported — which I cannot confirm, deny, or even remember — in the IHE article:

School of Foreign Service faculty voted 25 to 13, with six abstentions, in favor of his tenure, according to information from Shehata’s lawyer (who said his colleagues from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies were not involved in the vote, due to a university regulation).

Fourth, maybe I’m foolish for expecting better of IHE, but it seems tabloid-esque to uncritically quote some pretty incendiary accusations, such as the claim that Georgetown faculty and officials were motivated by an anti-Palestinian ideological agenda. Even some of the more pedestrian claims get served up without adequate scrutiny. At one point, Flaherty writes:

Other elements of his publication and service records were downplayed, Shehata said, including King’s reference to a second publication of Shehata’s book in 2010 as a “revised edition,” when it also included a new chapter based on original research.

Uh, okay. The Miriam-Webster definition of a “revised edition”?

an edition (as of a book) incorporating major revisions by the author or an editor and often supplementary matter designed to bring it up to date — compare reissuereprint.

On his CV, Shehata describes it as a “Middle East Edition, with a new Afterward.” This objection just sounds weird.

Independent of Flaherty’s piece, all of this should make clear why, frankly, I’m just surprised by how shocked and surprised Shehata says that he is.

But perhaps no one was more stunned than Shehata himself. Each review leading up to his tenure denial had been “stellar,” according to a grievance he filed, and none of his senior colleagues advised him on ways to strengthen his application. “There was no previous indication that my record was deficient in any way, because it wasn’t,” Shehata said in an e-mail interview from the Middle East, where he is traveling.

I can’t speak to Shehata’s yearly reviews, but I would be extremely surprised (this word is coming up a lot, I realize) if no one raised the mater of his publication record. Why? Because my meetings involved recommendations that I publish more and in more prominent outlets. SFS faculty chairs always took these reviews very seriously.

So, yeah, anything’s possible. But, as I said, I’d be surprised.

The moral of this story, as it were, isn’t about Shehata, who has a lot to recommend him and has already landed a tenured position elsewhere. Rather, it is about the aftermath of a tenure denial: the people who know what happened are highly constrained in their ability to comment, but the scholar who feels wronged can throw around any accusation he or she wants to. That doesn’t mean that the denial was right, but it also doesn’t mean that it was wrong. It does mean, however, that those watching the case unfold — and reporting on it — need to be cautious in their assessment of the truth. Flaherty’s piece fails on that front.

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.