Dismissal of tenure-track faculty Hillary Jenks raises concerns of administrative retaliation

The June, 2013 dismissal of Hillary Jenks, a tenure-track faculty member who was making good progress to tenure, has raised concerns of administrative retaliation at Portland State. The Vanguard was given access to a body of correspondence surrounding Jenks’ tenure bid that details a tense working relationship. While the decision to terminate Jenks is said to stem from “budgetary and programmatic” concerns, Jenks and those in the full-time faculty union at PSU allege that she was fired in retaliation for her criticism of the changes to, and administration of, the honors program, which is under the direction of Ann Marie Fallon.

Jenks, a historian whose portion of the correspondence reveals a willingness to voice criticism, contends that she was terminated for precisely this reason.

“My personal opinion is that Ann Marie did not like me,” said Jenks, who was hired onto the tenure track in the honors program in 2008.

Those within the university, including Fallon, would not comment on the particulars of Jenks’ case.

“We do not discuss personnel issues,” for privacy reasons, said PSU’s Director of Communications Scott Gallagher, accompanying Fallon at an interview.

Jenks says her termination is based on personal antagonism rather than her performance record.

“I was on a great path to tenure, and they just decided they didn’t want to keep me around,” she said.

According to PSU’s promotion and tenure guidelines, “Tenure should be granted to faculty members whose scholarly accomplishments are of such quality and significance and demonstrate such potential for long-term performance that the University, so far as its fiscal and human resources permit, can justifiably undertake to employ them for the rest of their academic careers.”

Tenure-track appointments at PSU are maintained on a year-to-year basis. Generally a six-year effort, a faculty member’s bid for tenure is marked by a number of significant reviews.

The first of these occurs at the three year mark, and while many factors go into deciding whether or not a faculty member will go on to win tenure, a positive review here often bodes well for their attempt overall.

The review that determines the faculty member’s tenure bid takes place in his or her sixth year. If successful, it’s sent for a series of further reviews by the dean of the faculty member’s school, then on to the provost and the university president.

Though Jenks was terminated before her final review was to take place, her third and fifth-year reviews were positive, even “sterling,” according to a faculty member familiar with the situation who asked to remain anonymous.

Indeed, included among the correspondence provided to the Vanguard are letters detailing the positive nature of Jenks’ reviews.

Jenks’ third-year review came in the spring of 2011. Lawrence Wheeler was the director of the honors program at the time; today he is a professor of humanities and applied linguistics on the honors faculty.

Wheeler wrote in a March 2011 letter to Jenks that her submitted tenure portfolio “seems to me highly indicative of a faculty member working strongly and successfully towards eventual promotion and tenure, and I concur with the promotion and tenure committee’s unanimous endorsement of your work.”

Melody Rose, then vice provost for academic programs and instruction at PSU, wrote in her third-year review letter to Jenks dated April 2011: “I am pleased with the goals you have established for tenure…and should think achievement of them would make for a successful tenure package.”

Jenks’ fifth-year review portfolio was similarly received, though by this point, the tension surrounding her position was nearing its height.

Conditions for tenure

Jenks said that, operating on advice given to her, she paid extra attention to her publishing record, “because with a strong publishing record it would be hard to deny me tenure.”

At that, Jenks spent weekends traveling from Portland to Los Angeles to work in the archives for research that would go toward supporting her book.

In 2011, Jenks won a research fellowship from the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles that would take place the following year, from March through June of 2012. To see the fellowship through, Jenks took a leave of absence in the winter and spring quarters of 2012.

Concerned that her teaching responsibilities would suffer, Jenks said that she offered to act as resident faculty in the new honors housing in Epler Hall. She said that the agreed-upon plan would have her living in the residence hall during the week, with her research travel to Los Angeles taking place on the weekends.

The plan that was approved in May 2012 fell apart that September, Jenks said, when she was told that she would instead have to live in the residence hall full time.

“I was handed a contract that stated that I had to make student housing my primary residence,” she said, adding that she was essentially told, “You can sign this or you can look for another job.”

Jenks said that she signed the contract under duress and turned to the faculty union for support. After a meeting with union representatives and members of the administration, she was able to move out of the unit at the end of that term.

While Fallon and Gallagher would not comment on the particulars of this situation, Fallon did say that the Faculty in Residence program has been shelved for this year due to budgetary restrictions.

“It’s definitely not a component for tenure,” she added.

Fallon, in an April 2013 email to Jenks detailing her positive fifth-year review, noted the absence of Jenks’ residence experience in her own self-evaluation that was submitted as part of that year’s review process.

“This was indeed important work that made a big impact on our students and their sense of engagement to the program and the community,” Fallon wrote. “Your development of programming for students and your availability on the floor were instrumental in the success of the first year of our residence-life program.”

Jenks said in an interview that she did not want her experiences in the Faculty in Residence program to appear on the record as if they had gone without incident.

“I must express my surprise at this assessment,” she wrote in her April 24, 2013 response to Fallon. Citing the new contract she was forced to sign, Jenks wrote, “This attempt to unilaterally revise both what I had agreed to do as faculty-in-residence as well as the terms of my letter of offer…forced me to seek union representation for termination of my participation in the faculty-in-residence program and protection from any reprisals for so doing.”

In that same letter, Jenks also leveled criticism at the procedures for curricular design in the program, describing situations where faculty were required to teach outside their areas of expertise.

“I have found the pace and sheer amount of curricular change in honors, along with the hierarchical—rather than collaborative—nature of that change, to be counterproductive to pursuit of the active research and publication agenda required for publication at this university.”

“That’s all a faculty-led process,” Fallon said of the procedures for introducing new curricula in an interview, adding that curricular changes must be approved by the Curricular and Academic Requirements committees before being put into effect. “If faculty want to experiment with things, that’s part of their purview.”

“That doesn’t mean that we quit teaching introductory English composition,” Gallagher added. “Everyone has a desire to teach other things.”

Jenks and others have questioned the reality of tenure bids in the honors program.

When asked if the pursuit of tenure was any longer a realistic endeavor in the honors program, Fallon said, “I have tenure. And we have tenured faculty. Wheeler has tenure, Kathleen Merrow has tenure.”

Fallon later wrote in an email that she received her tenure in the honors program in 2010.

‘Without merit’

Jenks’ termination notice, dated June 12, 2013, reads: “The position of assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies, social sciences, will be eliminated.” The social sciences designation is not present in Jenks’ hiring materials.

“Informally, I sort of did get designated the social sciences person when we were making curriculum changes,” Jenks said.

“It was a completely informal designation.

“Adding it to the letter of termination was their way of retroactively formalizing it,” she said, adding that it was this designation that made her position easier to terminate for budgetary reasons.

Later that month, the faculty union brought a grievance to the administration on Jenks’ behalf, claiming that “the administration cannot eliminate a tenure-related position for reasons other than just cause, retrenchment due to financial exigency, or failure to meet the established criteria for tenure as set forth in the [promotion and tenure] guidelines.”

Carol Mack, vice provost for academic personnel and leadership development, who responded to Jenks’ grievance on PSU’s behalf, wrote that since the requirements for timely notice of 12 months were met, Jenks’ grievance was without merit.

With the appeal lost, Jenks tendered her immediate resignation.

Phil Lesch, executive director of the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the faculty representing Jenks’ case, argues that designation changes like this are illegitimate.

“From our perspective, appointment letters are a contract, and the contract is enforceable and they can’t be changed midstream,” he said in an interview. “The idea that a contract can be reissued after it’s been initiated is something that we would challenge, especially if the reissued contract is detrimental to the employee.”

Lesch believes that a successful appeal would have hinged on the conditions surrounding this new designation.

“If the Jenks termination went to arbitration, we believe that the arbitrator would have found the administration’s unilateral action to designate Jenks’ appointment to interdisciplinary studies, social sciences to have been inconsistent with her actual letter of appointment, and that the underlying basis for Jenks being targeted would have been rejected,” he said.

“Going to arbitration is very expensive, but this was a case we were committed to fighting,” he added.

In a statement provided to the Vanguard, Judy Patton, PSU-AAUP’s vice president for grievances and academic freedom, said that the union remains “concerned that this administrative stance on tenure-track positions will discourage other highly qualified candidates from applying to PSU given its lack of support and commitment to junior faculty.”

The faculty member who spoke to the Vanguard on the condition of anonymity said that “it was a direct attack on academic freedom and on tenure as well.”

Jenks has since moved on to a new position in Riverside, Calif., where she’s the director of the Center for Social Justice and Civil Liberties for the Riverside Community College District.

In a press release detailing Jenks’ appointment, RCCD Interim Chancellor Cynthia Azari said, “We are pleased to have attracted a director of Dr. Jenks’ stature…Her scholarship and publishing background is outstanding, and she brings particular experience in working across the public and private sectors.”

‘Champion Athletes’

David D. Perlmutter, professor and dean of the college of media and communication at Texas Tech University, has studied and written about tenure in the U.S. Perlmutter, who pens the “Career Confidential” tenure advice column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes in the Dec. 9 edition of the column that “it’s not uncommon for someone to be on the upper administration’s favorites (or enemies) list, and incur favor (or tenure denial) based on personal considerations. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.”

Perlmutter says that the landscape for tenure is changing, for a variety of reasons.

“At least at research universities, the standards of research productivity and grants procurement have gone up markedly,” in the last 10 years, he said in an interview.

Perlmutter added that while these changes don’t necessarily reflect a weakening of the tenure track in the U.S., they are symptomatic of a general weakening of public university funding.

“Public funding for higher education has gone down across the board,” he said, adding that as the prestige aspirations of universities continue to climb, faculty research has become one of the more readily quantifiable ways to measure a university’s success.

“We’re simply expecting the young faculty to publish a lot more and often to bring in money as well,” he said.

Perlmutter added that these faculty know what they’re in for, and in some cases they thrive under pressure.

“To some extent these are champion athletes who are going for their next big contest,” he said. “I think if you talk to a lot of them, they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”