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Academic Freedom and Tenure: Northeastern Illinois University

An AAUP investigating committee’s report, published in December 2013 with Committee A’s approval, 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 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 her 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. As to the president’s unstated reasons, she initially wrote that there was “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 might be, she initially replied that there was no unrevealed additional information, later in the meaning she suggested that there was information but 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 having declined to come forth with a credible reason, the investigating committee focused on a broadly held opinion by NEIU faculty members about what had motivated her. The candidate upon first joining the faculty 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 to the president and the provost, whom they accused of favoring TESL people in curricular decisions at their expense. In fall 2009, with a linguistic professor 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 saw the only nontenured member of the quartet 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 alleged retaliation for this activity had been allowed by the administration to stand unrebutted, concluded that the NEIU administration in denying tenure to the candidate 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- adopted 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 that was sent to the principal concerned parties prior to publication, emphasizing its commitment to major AAUP-supported policy documents and its resentment about being faulted for declining to provide “confidential personnel information” to an external professional organization standing outside the NEIU governance system. “The basic problem for Committee A,” its chair stated in reply, “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 supports 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.”