As featured on the front page of the Feb. 12 issue of TSL, Assistant Professor of English Meg Worley was recently denied tenure by the Pomona College Board of Trustees. Professor Worley was a beloved teacher and mentor to more than a few past and current TSL employees and a plethora of Pomona’s other humanities students.
According to those involved in the process, including English Department Chair Kevin Dettmar, denying tenure to assistant professors is very rare. This is why Worley’s case is something of a shock to the students that know her.
All faculty and students interviewed for the article praised Worley’s teaching and service to the college. The student reviews of her courses on the ASPC web site are overwhelmingly positive. In short, Worley possesses a rare convergence of qualities that make a great professor: genuine respect for students, boundless energy, deep involvement in the life of the college, high expectations of students, and sheer intellectual might.
We will likely never know why such a teacher was effectively dismissed from the college. The details of the tenure process are kept confidential in order to distance students from what is acknowledged to be a highly political process. Student involvement is limited to course evaluations, as well as letters of recommendation that are solicited by the department when a candidate goes up for tenure.
Perhaps the most important thing revealed by the Worley case is students’ widespread ignorance of the tenure process. For this reason, we propose that an open forum be held for the explanation of the tenure process to Pomona students. The forum should cover the specific expectations that professors going up for tenure must fulfill, if and how students can be involved in the process, and how expectations vary by department.
Currently, candidates are evaluated on three criteria: teaching, service, and research. The latter is a particularly demanding requirement for relatively new professors who are adjusting to working at the college. For instance, in the English Department, it is expected that professors will have a completed book manuscript under review by a publisher by the time they go up for tenure. He noted that this is more lenient than at most large universities, which expect tenure candidates to have a book published.
The college boasts that its status as a liberal arts college distinguishes it as a teaching college, in contrast to large universities where professors are more focused on research and less focused on students. Do the expectations that tenure committees hold for faculty research accurately reflect the college’s insistence on the paramount status of teaching here? In other words, if a great professor is denied tenure because he or she has sacrificed finishing a book for the sake of mentoring students, is that consistent with the college’s mission?
Small classes, great professors, close contact with faculty—these are not just part of Pomona’s sales pitch to prospective students. They are points of pride for its entire community: faculty, staff, and students. Shouldn’t students, then, have a clear awareness of how the pedagogical atmosphere of the college is maintained and nurtured?
An open forum on the tenure process would address such concerns. Increased dialogue with the faculty that make tenure recommendations and an enhanced understanding of the tenure process among students will hopefully reinforce the college’s support for professors that are not just great intellectuals, but exceptional teachers first and foremost.