Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance Violations at NEIU

By Jordan E. Kurland

An AAUP investigating committee’s report published in December deals with a case of tenure denial at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. The candidate, an assistant professor of linguistics, had been recommended for tenure successively during the 2011–12 academic year by his tenured linguistics colleagues, his department chair, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and, unanimously, the faculty’s elected University Personnel Committee. The NEIU president, however, declined to support his candidacy in forwarding it to the board of trustees. Of the sixteen candidacies for tenure to reach her desk that year, his was the only one she rejected.

The president cited only two reasons for denying tenure: the candidate’s failure to meet a deadline for filing a plan regarding student advising and the inadequacy of his “cooperation with colleagues and students.” The AAUP’s investigative report found that his missing the deadline was inadvertent and harmless and that the evidence showed him to have been fully cooperative. The president initially wrote that the administration possessed “significant information” that the candidate’s supporters did not have. She did not respond to the national AAUP staff’s request for the information. When the investigating committee met with her and asked what the information was, she first replied that there was no unrevealed additional information; later in the meeting she suggested that there was information but that she was not inclined to provide it; and finally she stated that she was comfortable with her decision and did not intend to discuss it further.

With the president’s having declined to come forth with a credible reason for rejecting the faculty member’s tenure candidacy, the investigating committee focused on an opinion broadly held by NEIU faculty members about what had motivated her. Upon first joining the faculty, the candidate found himself involved in an ongoing dispute between tenured colleagues in linguistics and others in the department with credentials more appropriate to teaching English as a second language (TESL) instruction. The linguistics professors became increasingly hostile toward the president and the provost, whom they accused of favoring TESL faculty in curricular decisions at their expense. In fall 2009, with a linguistics professor’s having become chair of the faculty senate for a two-year term, the senate commenced a study of academic governance at NEIU that culminated in 2010–11 in faculty votes of no confidence in the president and her provost. Four linguistics professors were widely seen as leaders in this anti-administration movement: three with tenure and the fourth the candidate for tenure. NEIU faculty members interviewed by the investigating committee believed that the only nontenured member of the quartet had served as a convenient target for retaliation by the president for their active opposition to her administration.

The investigating committee, having found that the activity of the four professors was protected conduct under principles of academic freedom and that the administration had allegedly allowed retaliation for this activity to stand unrebutted, concluded that in denying tenure to the candidate the NEIU administration violated principles of academic freedom as enunciated in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and derivative AAUP documents. Additionally, the committee concluded that the administration, in not providing a credible explanation for its action, placed itself fundamentally at odds with the requirement in the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, to which the administration claimed total adherence, that the reasons for rejecting an affirmative faculty recommendation be “compelling” and “stated in detail.”

The NEIU administration provided lengthy objections to a draft text of the investigative report sent to the principal concerned parties prior to publication, emphasizing its commitment to major AAUP policy recommendations and its resentment about being faulted for having declined to provide “confidential personnel information” to an external professional organization. In response, the chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure wrote that the basic problem “is not NEIU’s refusal to provide the information to AAUP. The AAUP’s concern is instead that [the candidate] was not afforded credible reasons, stated in detail, for the decision to deny him tenure and, as called for in the AAUP’s procedural standards, opportunity for him and his supporters to contest what they alleged to be an unstated reason that violated principles of academic freedom.” Moreover, the Committee A chair wrote, “the administration’s not having stated credible reasons for acting against [the] stream of favorable recommendations was ‘in blatant disregard’ of the requirement in the Statement on Government . . . to which the administration’s response claimed full NEIU compliance.” The report is on the AAUP’s website at http://www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-tenure-NEIU.

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