Namita Goswami
Namita Goswami

DePaul University is looking like a slow learner when it comes to no-win tenure tussles. With its infamous 2007 dumping of “Holocaust industry” critic Norman Finkelstein still hovering in memory and gender discrimination lawsuits under way on behalf of three professors dropped in 2009, the school’s now embroiled in a pair of tenure battles that are adding new charges of bias to the mix. In this round the administration—mostly in the person of president Dennis Holtschneider—is pitted against two women of color, assistant professor of philosophy Namita Goswami and assistant professor of chemistry Quinetta Shelby. On Tuesday Goswami filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her attorney says a federal lawsuit charging breach of contract, race and color discrimination, and retaliation is next.

Last year at DePaul every one of 22 white faculty members who applied for tenure got it; Goswami and Shelby were among half a dozen professors of color who were denied out of the dozen who applied (one was eventually reinstated). When they cried foul, claiming bias, procedural problems, and academic freedom violations, DePaul’s own tenure appeals panels looked at the evidence and concluded they were right. Over protests from students, other members of the faculty, and the American Association of University Professors, Holtschneider chose to ignore his own appeals board’s rulings and uphold the denials. As things stand, Goswami and Shelby will be out of work at the end of the academic year, June 30.

Like so much in academia, Goswami and Shelby’s story is wrapped in obfuscating layers of committee meetings and reports. But last summer Goswami reached out to the AAUP for help, and in September the AAUP’s Illinois Conference issued a cogent account of her case, which pretty much boils it down to this: Goswami, who has a PhD from Emory University, was hired by the DePaul philosophy department in 2003 to teach “critical race and feminist theory.” Between then and now she’s published numerous journal articles, written a book that’s under contract with SUNY Press, and won DePaul’s highest teaching honor, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award, along with two competitive research fellowships. In spite of all that, somewhere along the way, the philosophy department decided she wasn’t such a good fit.

Two years ago an ad hoc committee of the department made an attempt to get her terminated before her probationary appointment was even over. Among their complaints, according to the AAUP report: she didn’t attend enough department events during a one academic year, “has interests other than continental philosophy”—notably, women’s studies, which is integral to what she was hired to teach—and isn’t fluent in German, though she speaks five other languages.

According to the AAUP report, written by Saint Xavier University history professor Peter N. Kirstein, this ad hoc committee essentially sought to “cashier Dr. Goswami for engaging in research that a majority find objectionable: Mainly doing her job as a scholar in postcolonial theory, critical race and feminist theory, and linking them to the discipline of philosophy.” The AAUP concluded that Goswami was “excelling,” and that her academic freedom had been violated by her department, in which “there appears to be a club-like atmosphere and a narrow perception of the discipline.”

The AAUP report also noted hostility among others in the department toward Goswami, evidenced, for example, by opinions that her strongest published work was an essay “co-authored with her husband” and that she suffers, not from a “writing problem,” but from “a thinking problem.”

Kirstein says that, in accordance with DePaul’s faculty handbook, when the appeals board ruled in Goswami’s favor, she should have either been granted a new contract or a hearing. (This is a point of contention: DePaul spokesman John Holden maintains that “the appeals panels are advisory, not binding” on the president.) “I don’t know what the current deliberations are, but in my opinion,” Kirstein says, “President Holtschneider was under a moral obligation to allow a hearing” in which the university would have had to show cause. “She was the first professor in the history of DePaul that won her academic freedom appeal. This was an extraordinary situation, and the administration just essentially ripped it up.”

As for DePaul’s procedures, Kirstein says the most egregious is the use of confidential reports issued by the University Board on Promotion and Tenure and submitted directly to the president, who relies on them in making tenure decisions. “It is unprofessional and, in my opinion, a violation of AAUP guidelines that the UBPT does not share their report with the [tenure] candidate,” Kirstein says. “This is perhaps the most important assessment of a candidate’s career, and [he or she] doesn’t see it. I think it is clearly in violation of best practices. It hinders one’s ability to appeal; it is simply horrendous.”

Holtschneider’s stand spurred the formation of a protest group, Faculty for Tenure Justice, letters of complaint from students, and formal objections from the usually conservative faculty council, the official voice of DePaul’s professors. Under this combined pressure, in February Holtschneider offered to reexamine both cases through a pair of “narrowly tailored” advisory hearings.

Unfortunately, says Faculty for Tenure Justice member and DePaul law professor Terry Smith, what the president proposed would be “equivalent to a kangaroo court,” with the “outcome preordained.” Smith says the president’s plan would have “stacked” the hearing panel in favor of the administration and “put the burden of proof” on Goswami and Shelby, when they’ve already proved their cases at the appeals board level. What this hearing should be dealing with, Smith says, is whatever proof the administration can present that something went wrong in the appeals process.

Smith, law professor Sumi Cho, and political science professor Valerie Johnson put together a 17-page counterproposal, and for the last month or so yet another committee has been trying to hammer out an agreement on who should be on the hearing panel, how it should proceed, what it will consider, and whether it will be more than advisory. That group is expected to come up with a solution shortly—perhaps as soon as this week. But even if they do, Smith says, it may not have much impact, since the longer everything drags out “the more latitude the administration will have.” Hearings will have to be scheduled, reports written and reviewed, and by then, he opines, “We’ll be into June. Nobody will be around to scrutinize their decision.”

Goswami’s attorney, Lynne Bernabei, says from very early on there’s been a pattern of discrimination. “Even though Dr. Goswami was hired to do critical race, postcolonial, and feminist work—all by nature challenging to more traditional approaches—they held it against her when she did. They hired her and then wouldn’t let her do her work. They made statements about her scholarship and teaching which, after it was pointed out that they were false, were repeated in the tenure review. DePaul has basically abdicated its tenure process.”

Bernabei’s firm is also litigating the cases of professors Melissa Bradshaw, Penny Silvers, and Jennifer Holtz, who claim they were denied tenure in 2008-2009 on the basis of gender. She says DePaul’s record is “shameful”: “Over a 20 year period prior to 2009-2010, minority applicants for tenure at DePaul were twice as likely as white applicants to be denied.” As for that “thinking” problem, Bernabei says, all that means is “they didn’t like the substance of what she was writing. That’s an academic freedom problem. Why did this hidebound department hire somebody whose job was to challenge the tradition?”