Tenure denial at Guilford College elicits protest

by Amy Kingsley

Lisa McLeod and Eleanor Branch arrived at Guilford College at the same time. The two junior faculty members, McLeod teaches philosophy and Branch is in the English department, spent five years traveling, teaching workshops and planning classes together.

Their plans came to an abrupt halt last spring, when a tenure review committee denied Branch’s application for tenure and approved McLeod’s. McLeod, who is white, suspected something pernicious in Branch’s tenure denial and penned a letter in support of her African-American colleague. In the letter, which was published in early December in the Guilfordian, the student newspaper of Guilford College, McLeod called for an evaluation of tenure review procedures and advocated a moratorium on the termination of female faculty of color.

She reiterated her call at a faculty meeting on Dec. 6, where she was joined by about 50 students silently holding signs in protest of institutional racism at Guilford College.

“This is about institutional practices,” McLeod said. “It’s not like there are individuals who are out to get women of color.”

Guilford College has long been a bastion of progressivism, and the faculty handbook lays out a laundry list of procedures for recruiting faculty from ethnic minority groups. McLeod contends that once minority faculty members come to Guilford, the school does not do enough to level the playing field between them and their white colleagues.

“A wealth of data shows that untenured faculty of color work harder than their white counterparts for less reward,” McLeod wrote.

Backing up her claim were statistics from the year’s tenure review committee that revealed that only 50 percent of minority females earned tenure compared to 100 percent of white men. Because personnel matters are confidential, Guilford College officials could not provide more specific data about how many minority females applied for tenure and why they were denied. The tenure review process at Guilford College relies on evaluations from students and faculty and is conducted by a panel of peers.

“Teaching evaluations tend to reflect some student bias,” McLeod said.

According to the handbook, the tenure committee solicits 25 random student evaluations alongside three the candidate has chosen.

McLeod wrote in her letter that minority women risk being labeled “bitchy” if they are too hard on students and might have their competence questioned if they are too easy. White men, on the other hand, face no such tightrope.

That paradox is all too familiar to Adrienne Israel, the academic dean who supervises tenure decisions. Israel was the first black woman hired for a tenure-track faculty position at Guilford College 25 years ago. Tenure decisions reached by the faculty affairs committee go to Israel before the Guilford College president and the Board of Trustees consider them.

“I was completely blindsided by this,” Israel said.

McLeod wrote her letter and proposed suspending the tenure review system without consulting Israel, she said.

“That faculty meeting was the first time a formal proposal has come before me,” Israel said.

Israel also said the institution has made great strides in recruiting minority faculty since she was hired.

“We have a higher number of minority faculty than most institutions,” Israel said. “About 10 percent of our faculty are African Americans.”

Israel said the female minority faculty members who will be coming up for review did not support the suspension of tenure review.

“It’s counter to [American University Professors] guidelines for us to stop the tenure clock,” Israel said. “It could be abused and used as a way to avoid tenure. I have no evidence whether they asked any women of color about this proposal.”

McLeod acknowledged that Guilford administrators display greater awareness than most of their counterparts to racial disparity issues. But she said the school still has a ways to go in nurturing the minority faculty members who are recruited. She said she would like the school to suspend the tenure review process, hire institutional racism consultants and change the environment into one that is more nurturing to minority faculty members.

“I’m not demanding that we necessarily do that,” McLeod said. “But I am encouraging that we do something.”

Israel said the proposal presented at the faculty meeting was actually divisive. White men nearing the deadline for tenure application did not know whether the moratorium applied to them or only their minority colleagues, she said.

“We’ve done the best we could to make sure the process is fair,” Israel said. “This is a thorough review and we try to make sure all factors are considered.”

McLeod proposed the moratorium as a safeguard to protect minority faculty members from a system that might be inadvertently biased against them.

“Something’s gone wrong in the institution,” McLeod said. “And I don’t want some sort of review of the process in January to reveal problems that might cost Eleanor Branch her job. It just seems like we’re going to be regretful if we do this and it turns out there is a problem.”

Israel said the process was fair and designed to provide the best faculty for Guilford College students.

“I’m well aware of the significance of race,” she said. “The notion that I wouldn’t be sensitive to this issue is ridiculous.”

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