Why Lorgia García Peña Was Denied Tenure at Harvard
July 28, 2021 12:11 PM   Subscribe

As someone who has followed this case for over a year, there is a lot in this article that had not been previously reported. Mainly the depth of racist vitriol García Peña faced in the years leading up to her tenure denial.
posted by coffeecat (34 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's a fuck load of questions I have about this but how do you have a situation where to apply for tenure you either get a permanent job or you're fired? That's just absolutely fucking insane.
posted by edd at 12:40 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Because tenure in higher academia is fundamentally broken. On one hand, it serves to block off excellent scholars who wind up on the wrong side of petty institutional politics, while on the other it routinely protects abusers in academia who have it, and thus are incredibly difficult to discipline. The idea is that it is supposed to protect academics who are following divisive paths of inquiry, but with so few scholars having it, that ideal is laughable.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:47 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


Sorry Galileo, its not that your work is bad and heretical it just isn't scholarship. Its activism.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:49 PM on July 28 [7 favorites]


Denied tenure in a phone call!

The idea is that it is supposed to protect academics who are following divisive paths of inquiry, but with so few scholars having it, that ideal is laughable.

Speaking as a permanently untenured academic, I worry that engaging in controversial research, operating in the public sphere, or even making idiosyncratic choices about what and how to teach could cost me my job. I self-censor. That's bad, if free and open inquiry is good. Tenure needs to be broadened and reformed, not eliminated.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:19 PM on July 28 [21 favorites]


This poor woman. Garcia clearly invested everything she had in the position, it sounded as though it became her, in such a lovely way.

She sounds as though she occupies the difficult space between alienated/adored for her forwardness. That's.. not a simple role.

"Many Harvard faculty consider themselves to be good liberals, in favor of social justice, in opposition to racism and inequality,” Weld pointed out. “Lorgia is not part of that baseline liberal consensus.” Her politics, Weld said, are more radical, and, when her students said, “This is not working for us,” she stood by them. “And, just by virtue of her existence and who she is, she was always violating this sort of unspoken norm on the campus. ‘You are not supposed to be political before you have tenure.’ ‘You are not supposed to speak out against the university unless you are already under its protection.’ And she didn’t care about those norms because she correctly diagnosed a set of inconsistencies between the institution’s stated principles and the actual lived experience for people.” slightly beautiful.

After she hung up with Siskind on the night before Thanksgiving, Garcia Peña felt numb. When the news sank in, days later, she was devastated. “I am a strong person. I am not normally affected by setbacks. But I felt a great sense of loss,” she told me. “I had been convinced that when I reached tenure a new space for change would open for Latinx studies and Dominican studies. Any sacrifice was worth it if change could be real. In the end, I felt that all the effort had been for nothing.”

She's obviously somewhat inemitable. I hope this changes for her/the community.

Waves in 'elite' schooling, right now.
posted by firstdaffodils at 1:37 PM on July 28


how do you have a situation where to apply for tenure you either get a permanent job or you're fired?

That "up or out" approach has existed for years (at Harvard, since the 1930s), the idea being that if you're not good enough to stay forever, you're not good enough to stay.

What's notable is that, as mentioned in the article, until recently Harvard didn't follow the traditional approach of hiring profs on the tenure track, where they generally have 7 years before a tenure decision is made. Rather, Harvard being Haaa-vaad, tenure hires were made primarily from outside scholars, I guess the idea being that you want to base selection on demonstrated success, not the potential shown early in a career.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:42 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


"They named Hochschild, “who had exhibited public hostility towards the candidate’s scholarship on multiple occasions,” and argued that committee members should have been vetted for bias against the candidate, just as they were vetted for bias in her favor." Not functional, to say the least.

"On May 25th, a spokesperson for F.A.S. confirmed that García Peña’s last day at Harvard would be June 30th. By then, she had entered her claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and had accepted a tenured position in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts University, where she will start teaching in the fall.

But the disappointment over her denial remained. In the spring of 2020, a survey conducted by the Crimson found that a majority of F.A.S. faculty respondents favored the review of García Peña’s tenure process, and more than a hundred F.A.S. professors signed a letter demanding a “comprehensive review” of the “entrenched and secretive” tenure system that tends to “favor established disciplinary boundaries over the emerging, interdisciplinary fields best situated to help us understand our contemporary world.” In response to this letter, Claudine Gay, the dean, launched a review of the tenure process, but soon she clarified that the role of the ad-hoc committee would not be considered.
"

It really sounds as though people loved her. What a ridiculous outcome.
posted by firstdaffodils at 1:45 PM on July 28


Strong, suggestive ending from the NYorker: "..As part of the protests against García Peña’s tenure denial, an undergraduate student who had been invited, as a member of a committee, to attend a regular faculty meeting stood in the center of the room holding a poster that called on the university to reverse its decision. When Bacow asked the student to either put down the poster or move to a side of the room so as not to obstruct the view, the student ignored him. Bacow asked the faculty for a vote in support of his request, but many professors voted against him..

..The president appealed then to the docket committee, the small group of professors tasked, among other things, with determining the order of business during faculty meetings. Kirsten Weld, the professor of Latin American history and a member of the committee, proposed that the faculty discuss the substance of the student’s demand instead. Bacow said no. The ninety-nine-minute meeting went on as if the student, who remained standing, were not there.
"
posted by firstdaffodils at 1:51 PM on July 28 [11 favorites]


until recently Harvard didn't follow the traditional approach of hiring profs on the tenure track, where they generally have 7 years before a tenure decision is made. Rather, Harvard being Haaa-vaad, tenure hires were made primarily from outside scholars

Not just Harvard, the Ivies generally. It was rough.
posted by praemunire at 2:03 PM on July 28


Denied tenure in a phone call!

I was with a friend when they got that call. It was horrible, I can't imagine how it would feel to be the person actually hearing the news.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:32 PM on July 28


Tenure - the idea that only a sanctified, elite few are entitled to reasonable employment protection - needs to be eliminated. Some of the particulars of this specific university, especially the secret panels, need to be eliminated.

We'll also be better once we remove this university from the tall pedestal on which so many people, almost all of whom have no substantive knowledge of or experience with the institution, place it.
posted by ElKevbo at 3:20 PM on July 28 [11 favorites]


I feel like it would be pretty hard to remove Tenure in practice at most colleges, because the people who could possibly vote to remove tenure... already have it so don't want to lose their relative privilege. It would probably have to spread from newer/less traditional colleges where it's not such a big deal, and then eventually the elite schools might have to change.

Honestly, she's probably better off not getting tenure at Harvard because they clearly didn't want her and she only sort of fit in. The article discusses in detail how she wasn't a great fit for the existing department structure, which can be a problem at any university as the department splits all seem pretty arbitrary. Because she was a great teacher with lots of good ideas, she's already accepted a tenured position at Tufts where she can probably do a lot of good work. In the end, this decision mostly hurts Harvard, as well as the students there. Hopefully this will pressure Harvard to change things

A very similar thing just happened at UNC where Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure for similar activism-related reasons. They eventually reversed the decision (because literally everyone except a few racists wanted to hire her), but by then it had been such a mess that it would be hard to accept the position. Instead she's going to a high-powered position at Howard (along with Ta-Nehisi Coates) where she can do much more good overall. Hopefully both of these professors can move past the disgraceful reaction and continue to do important work
posted by JZig at 3:35 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


"Because she was a great teacher with lots of good ideas, she's already accepted a tenured position at Tufts where she can probably do a lot of good work. In the end, this decision mostly hurts Harvard, as well as the students there. Hopefully this will pressure Harvard to change things."

I hope she switches venues and absolutely owns it.

"Instead she's going to a high-powered position at Howard (along with Ta-Nehisi Coates) where she can do much more good overall. Hopefully both of these professors can move past the disgraceful reaction and continue to do important work." In terms of NH Jones.. lol'd. This just looks like a messy mistake at this point. "Oops, guess I'll just go to a place where my already strong work is 10x stronger for those paying attention/not blinded."
posted by firstdaffodils at 3:42 PM on July 28


I was with a friend when they got that call.

Even if denial of tenure was somehow justified, what disgraceful cowardice for a committee not to deliver this news face-to-face.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:47 PM on July 28


It's fucking horrible. That phone call is always somehow on the recipient's personal time, at dinner, on the weekend, when you're home with a sick kid, and it's always horrible.

The thing with private universities is that their tenure rejection decisions can almost always be framed as plausibly reasonable. Private schools get to move the goalposts wherever they want, and since it's always possible to be better that you are, it's always possible for them to find a dimension on which you failed to be better than you are. What's extra astonishing about this case is that there's so little plausibility for the outcome, even internally with her chair.

With that said, Harvard's response to a multitude of "surely this" moments has been to shrug and move on with little consequence. Perhaps the lawsuit?
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 3:55 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


My daughter’s phone call was when she was driving on her way to our two week Christmas vacation in Florida. It was entirely political and undeserved. I really hate the medieval nature of academia.
posted by MtDewd at 4:05 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]




Tenure - the idea that only a sanctified, elite few are entitled to reasonable employment protection - needs to be eliminated.

I don't see how nobody having any employment protection is preferable to only some people having employment protection.

I mean, I know that's not what you intend, but I assure you anything remotely like abolishing tenure at an American university is going to mean everyone has the job security of an adjuncy, not everyone having job security unless fired for cause.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:31 PM on July 28 [20 favorites]


(I'm so sorry your daughter had to go through that, MtDewd.)
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 5:52 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I don't see how nobody having any employment protection is preferable to only some people having employment protection.

Because tenure as it stands enables abusers and bigots. It's worth remembering that while this caring, compassionate instructor wasn't "good enough", you have one tenured Harvard Law professor argue that the Korean women the Imperial Japanese Army forced into prostitution were actually willing, while another openly defends genocide in the pages of a national newspaper. But because they are tenured, they are protected from accountability.
posted by NoxAeternum at 5:53 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


I don't see how nobody having any employment protection is preferable to only some people having employment protection.

I have a friend who's a tenured English professor. One of her tenured colleagues was banging grad students in his office loudly enough to disrupt classes down the hall. After an organized complaint, he was asked to keep it down if he could because there was nothing else they could do.

There's a difficult needle to thread where an academic can enjoy enough protection in their job to engage in controversial research and publication, without also shielding the horrific or predatory habits for which tenured professors are known. Tenure, as it stands now, doesn't even acknowledge the need for one to be protected and not the other.
posted by fatbird at 10:08 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Because tenure as it stands enables abusers and bigots.

Abusers and bigots exist in all systems (if you think there are more at Harvard than there are at Google, you're nuts), and lack of employment protection leaves many more people exposed to said abusers and bigots.

There's a difficult needle to thread where an academic can enjoy enough protection in their job to engage in controversial research and publication, without also shielding the horrific or predatory habits for which tenured professors are known. Tenure, as it stands now, doesn't even acknowledge the need for one to be protected and not the other.

Huh? It does. You can be fired for personal misconduct if not for deeply offensive opinions.
Whether this works in practice is another kettle of fish, of course, but the tenure system absolutely acknowledges the distinction in theory.

Turning a discussion of the quite arguably unjustified denial of this professor's tenure into a call to rid everyone of employment protections...If you don't learn to recognize when you're surrounded by bad-faith allies, you'll be played for a sucker a million times over.
posted by praemunire at 10:36 PM on July 28 [13 favorites]


Huh? It does. You can be fired for personal misconduct if not for deeply offensive opinions.
Whether this works in practice is another kettle of fish, of course, but the tenure system absolutely acknowledges the distinction in theory.


As the saying goes - "in theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they aren't." The reality is that trying to remove a tenured professor for misconduct is an upward push, fought fiercely against by the academic community. That the tenure system "absolutely acknowledges the distinction in theory" is meaningless when the practical result is that tenure makes it near impossible to remove a professor.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:46 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


I'd like to gently note that "tenure: good or bad?" is an interesting question, but by moving the conversation to a broad theoretical level it distracts from discussion of the actual FPP and the issues described there (such as the specific barriers a woman of color will face in the tenure process in general, or any of the particulars of García Peña's situation. Even if you think tenure is terrible, she was trying to attain it despite the barriers.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:16 AM on July 29 [20 favorites]


It's quite clear that there is no non-farcical basis for whatever made-up tenure procedure Harvard runs. The tenured faculty is littered with cranks and shitbags, who of course ensure that only their own like get to stay on. It's no wonder that, in my professional life, I have been consistently unimpressed with the Harvard alums I encounter.
posted by sinfony at 8:14 AM on July 29


The tenured faculty is littered with cranks and shitbags

That seems like a rather crass generalization about the approximately 2,000 faculty, including the faculty, many tenured, who in this specific case actually hired and then recommended García Peña for tenure, before that recommendation was rejected by the president and provost.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:56 AM on July 29 [5 favorites]


The hell does that have to do with García Peña, though? This wasn't a problem with the faculty at Harvard, this was a problem with management and donors at Harvard.

Like, I get that you have many axes to grind. But it's not necessary to do it in every thread tangentially linked to the topic.
posted by sagc at 11:21 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]


The hell does that have to do with García Peña, though? This wasn't a problem with the faculty at Harvard, this was a problem with management and donors at Harvard.

Why do you think that the people who I mentioned got tenure, and García Peña didn't? It's all about privilege, power, and protecting the two - García Peña built her academic career around combating those, and as such she was a threat. Meanwhile, professors who are just as much involved in advocacy if not more - but that their advocacy is in service to power and white supremacy are protected by academia.

I'm tired of the pearl clutching whenever someone suggests that the academy is rotten. The fact that there are good people working within it to do good doesn't change the fact the academy has structural, systemic issues with bigotry and white supremacy (and García Peña's denial is part of that), and they need to be dealt with.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:34 AM on July 29


Is anyone else only seeing the first two paragraphs of the article?
posted by lunasol at 11:42 AM on July 29


That seems like a rather crass generalization about the approximately 2,000 faculty, including the faculty, many tenured, who in this specific case actually hired and then recommended García Peña for tenure, before that recommendation was rejected by the president and provost.

As a person who is himself on the (non-tenure-track) faculty of a university, I'll thank you not to #notallprofessors this situation. We don't need it.
posted by sinfony at 11:56 AM on July 29 [5 favorites]


It's quite clear that there is no non-farcical basis for whatever made-up tenure procedure Harvard runs.

It's astonishingly terrible. If someone says you can't take notes during a process, you really ought to be wondering whether you're in a criminal fucking conspiracy.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:19 PM on July 29 [9 favorites]


2,000 faculty, including the faculty, many tenured, who in this specific case actually hired and then recommended García Peña for tenure, before that recommendation was rejected by the president and provost.

So, if tenure is important, then the professors who have benefitted from this system need to actually do something.

I went to a university where the professors would strike* when contract negotiations stalled. They were not afraid to not go to class. Did they strike when a colleague was denied tenure arbitrarily at the provost's recommendation (left over drama from the provost's days as chair)? No, they did not. They made polite noises and she was SoL.

Basically, if you stand aside and let management pull their shit on the most vulnerable amongst you, then why even pretend you care. Management doesn't pull that shit on certain people. We all can see that. But other groups get the short end of the stick. And if you won't stand up for the vulnerable, and don't in turn make management hold the in-group to task, then you may as well just keep quiet don't feed into the lie that you have a functioning meritocracy.

*I'm related to a professor who was morally opposed to striking (not teaching classes) for contract negotiations. He felt that you could refuse to do other things without hurting students. I don't necessarily agree, but respect the position. But even he thought the union should do more than wag their figure at the denial and that they should at least call for some kind of slow down.
posted by ghost phoneme at 6:32 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Are Harvard faculty unionized? The lack of accountability in the tenure process and the apparent lack of grievance procedures would maybe indicate not.
posted by eviemath at 8:09 PM on July 29


Was finally able to read it, and it made my blood boil, even as exactly none of it was surprising. My undergrad advisor was put into a very similar position though she did eventually prevail and get tenure. It was a small liberal arts college, so fortunately the devotion of her students made a much bigger difference, even as some of the older white men on campus hated her for it. But seeing what she went through as a Black feminist scholar with an interdisciplinary approach (she wound up founding the school's American studies department) pretty much turned me off academia as a career.

Later I got a masters degree at Harvard and I keenly remember a professor telling me two things: 1. Almost none of the professors in my school had tenure and 2. Harvard is not the place to do innovative scholarship. My program was a professional one, not an academic one, so it seemed most of the professors were fine with this (they made good money, they could always work in industry, and they weren't there to shake up the academic world) but still, it seems like Harvard really expects a lot of its faculty to give up a lot for the "privilege" of being at Harvard.

This is a problem of the academia as a whole, but it's also specifically a problem of Harvard and its academic/professional culture, and of elite institutions that want to seem/feel/look like they are becoming more diverse but don't want to or know how to change the white supremacy engrained in their culture and systems.
posted by lunasol at 10:22 AM on July 30 [4 favorites]


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