SPECIAL FEATURE: Prof loses tenure bid after appeal


On April 3, Assistant Professor of International Relations Mai’a Keapuolani Davis Cross, who had traveled cross-country from her tenure track position at Colgate University to join USC in 2008, was told she would not be granted tenure.

Her position at the university will be terminated following the current academic year.

Tenure, as it is described in the university’s faculty handbook, is indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and society. For faculty, attaining tenure provides not only freedom of teaching and research, but economic security.

The process begins with the preparation of a dossier presenting evidence of a candidate’s fitness for tenure. Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Beth Meyerowitz said candidates are put through an extensive and carefully vetted review process.

“It starts at the department level closest to the faculty member,” Meyerowitz told the Daily Trojan last October, when reporting for this story commenced. “Then it goes through the Dean’s office and then through the University Committee on Academic Promotions and Tenure  and then finally to the Provost and the President.”

The dossier includes letters from both internal and external peer review sources.

“We seek outside letters from experts around the country about the impact that their work has had in their field,” Meyerowitz said.

According to a letter dated April 9, 2012, from then-Dornsife Dean Howard Gillman, Cross’s denial of tenure was because of a lack of discipline-wide enthusiasm of her scholarly contributions.

Marvin E. Krakow, Cross’ attorney, who shared Gillman’s letter with the Daily Trojan, said the denial of her tenure came as a surprise.

“Professor Cross’ evaluations uniformly were outstanding or outstanding plus,” Krakow said in an interview. “She was recommended by the department for tenure. She was also recommended by the faculty.”

Laura Pulido, a tenured professor of American studies and ethnicity and founder of the Committee for Tenure Justice at USC, said she has serious concerns regarding the university’s tenure process.

“I’ve been here since 1993 and I’ve seen a lot of tenure cases come and go during that time,” Pulido told the Daily Trojan last November. “Over the last decade or so, it just seems to be a problem.”

In March 2011, Pulido presented her Tenure Bill of Rights to students and faculty in the hopes of convincing UCAPT to enact 13 points to make the tenure system more transparent.

One of the main issues addressed in the Tenure Bill of Rights is the lack of feedback regarding why an individual was denied tenure.

“You should be able to share that with a person since you’re determining their livelihood,” Pulido said. “It’s important to know how your peers view your work and where you can improve.”

In addition to Cross’ award-winning publications — including three books, four book chapters and eight journals — she received USC’s 2011 Steven B. Sample Teaching and Mentoring award, which is awarded to one junior faculty member annually.

Cross filed a protest of the tenure decision to UCAPT, requesting an informal resolution of her concerns. Cross’ grievance points out that her tenure application had the support of her department and faculty, but was denied after senior administration sought what she called unauthorized and improper input from scholars outside Cross’ discipline, a violation of USC’s normal procedures.

According to a hearing panel report addressed to USC President C. L. Max Nikias on December 12, 2012, Cross claimed that former Dean Gillman made improper contacts during the final stages of the tenure evaluation process, or “cold calls,” with improperly documented outside sources who lacked relevant knowledge of her work and area of concentration.

In addition to the procedural violation, Cross’ grievance included a lack of basis for a denial of tenure, failure to give serious consideration to the recommendations of the School of International Relations and the Faculty of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, breach of contract and improper and discriminatory conduct on the part of the university.

The faculty grievance panel found that “Dean Gillman’s phone calls to additional referees during the UCAPT review level lacked appropriate protocols resulting in a procedural defect that materially inhibited Professor Cross’ tenure review process.” The panel also recommended that Gillman’s “cold calls” documentation be removed from Cross’ dossier and that Cross’ application be re-evaluated. The panel found no other procedural defects.

In response to the alleged lack of basis for the denial of tenure, the university maintains that “Cross’ application for tenure and promotion process was conducted in a manner consistent with the UCAPT Manual and the Faculty Handbook.”

Cross, who is of Hawaiian and Asian descent, also protested the university’s alleged discriminatory employment practices by filing a federal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Jan. 2, 2012, on the basis of race, gender and national origin.

Cross also alleged that the university’s procedures demonstrate a pattern of ethnic and gender discrimination.

“I am pursuing USC’s internal grievance process to correct the unfair damage to my career, and to help assure that women and minority candidates will have the same chance to earn tenure as do their white, male colleagues,” Cross said in a press release dated August 2012.

A report conducted by Cross and her colleague Professor Jane Junn, an expert on public and polling methods, found that of 55 junior faculty in the social sciences and humanities departments between 1998 and 2012, 92 percent of white men considered for tenure received it. Comparatively, 55 percent of women and professors from minority groups who worked in the same departments were awarded tenure during the same period.

But Nikias found limitations in Junn’s analysis, according to a Jan. 23, 2013 letter given to the Daily Trojan by Krakow.

“[Junn’s] memo shows some subjective choices: counting cases without a decision as ‘not awarded tenure,’ including dual appointments with other USC schools but excluding social scientists and humanists based in those schools, omitting some humanities departments, and encompassing an arbitrary period of 14 years,” Nikias wrote to Cross.

According to the UCAPT manual from March 2013, 86 percent of tenure-track, university-wide faculty who completed the UCAPT process were granted tenure between 2006-07 and 2011-12. The report also found that, university wide, the proportion of women receiving tenure was 1.2 percent higher than the rate for men.

National statistics from the American Association of University Professors in fall 2012 show that 76.8 percent of the university’s tenured faculty is white, compared to the 74 percent national average.

Comparatively, USC’s percentage of Latino tenured faculty is slightly less than the national average, with 3.1 percent versus 4.1 percent nationally. Black tenured professors make up 2.3 percent of the university’s tenured faculty compared to the national average of 5.5 percent. The university boasts an above-average percentage of Asian tenured faculty of 14.5 percent compared to the 8.6 percent average.

In an email to the Daily Trojan, Vice Provost Martin Levine, the primary liaison to the Academic Senate, said past allegations of discrimination have been unfounded.

“Every few years, someone raises the question of possible discrimination in tenure statistics,” Levine said. “Each and every time, analysis of a multi-year period shows there are no statistically significant differences between the tenure success at USC of female and male faculty, or minority and non-minority faculty.”

Despite the allegations of tenure discriminations among minorities, Levine said that the university’s reputation speaks for itself.

“We are proud that government statistics show that USC is, and has been for years, tied for No. 1 as the most diverse faculty among the private research universities of the Association of American Universities,” Levine said.

Pulido, however, said there is limited data to support this.

“There have been times where people have asked for data on tenure by department, year, minority status and gender, and the university has refused to give us this data,” Pulido said. “What they say is that USC values its privacy. We have no way of checking their data or their methodology.”

Pulido said the statistics also cannot be taken seriously unless they are backed with hard data.

“If a faculty were to conduct a study without showing their data, it would be considered unscientific and would be rejected,” Pulido said.

Another tenure dispute was filed in 2010 by Jane Iwamura, an assistant professor of religion and American studies. A published author, Iwamura was also the recipient of the Albert S. Raubenheimer Award, USC College’s highest faculty honor. Iwamura said she received positive recommendations by both the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity as well as the Department of Religion.

After submitting her dossier in spring 2009, Iwamura said there was no way for her to know the progress of her case because of the lack of transparency in the evaluation process.

“There is more transparency in other schools where candidates can read the redacted letters,” Iwamura told the Daily Trojan last November. “USC’s system was much more of a black hole — you submit everything and that’s it.”

After the university informed her that she would not be considered for tenure, Iwamura decided to pursue the reconsideration process.

After reformatting her dossier to include her newly published book, Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture, securing a second book deal and submitting the necessary materials, Iwamura submitted her reconsideration case in spring 2010.

However, Iwamura learned later in the spring that her reconsideration was unsuccessful. Despite the disappointment, Iwamura was most frustrated with the lack of feedback and transparency throughout the process.

“It takes years and years to build your dossier and this is a decision that not only has to do with your continued employment but also plays into your confidence as a scholar,” Iwamura said. “Having no kind of objective recourse was almost equally as frustrating.”

Levine, however, said this concern is based on a misunderstanding of USC’s tenure process.

“The provost’s decision memo always states the reason for each denial,” Levine said. “If a candidate wishes more detail, a second memo from the dean to the candidate explains the reasons at length. This has been our rule for many years.”

According to the UCAPT manual, denied tenure candidates have the opportunity to request a letter from the dean explaining the decision. When Iwamura requested a letter following her tenure denial, she said the responses were vague.

Looking forward, Pulido said that the university should have a more thorough discussion about tenure.

“It’s time to get serious about opening up the tenure process so that it’s more transparent and so there’s a greater level of accountability,” Pulido said.

University officials said that the manual of the tenure committee has been published for a decade in order to de-mystify the tenure criteria and process.

“The university’s tenure committee is a rotating group of outstanding scholars, educators and creative artists,” Levine said. “And their goal is to make USC even better.”

The Faculty Academic Committee did not respond to requests for interviews.

On April 3, Cross received a letter from Dornsife Dean Steve A. Kay, saying that after reconsideration, Cross would not be awarded tenure.

“UCAPT carefully reviewed the evidence presented in support of promotion with tenure, including the new evidence presented in your reconsideration dossier,” Kay said in the letter. “The provost has concluded that the record does not support a promotion with tenure.”

Krakow said the university must still address the institutional problems regarding discrimination against women and minorities.

“The Office of Equity and Diversity still has the issue that was presented to it as a result of Professor Cross’ grievance,” Krakow said.

Cross’ complaint with the EEOC is pending.

  • Mark

    This is a terrible decision – three books! And she doesn’t get tenure? Are you kidding me.
    Anything that tries to defend this decision is just ‘spin’.

  • zman

    Jack.. there is NOTHING wrong with hiring senio faculty.. that’s good.. best way to erase your reputation with tenue is just hire senior professors like so many oher schools do.

  • Jack

    Mai’a Cross’s case is just one of the many dubious tenure denials in recent years at USC. Many faculty, most of the women, have been denied even when strongly supported by their colleagues. There will doubtless be more cases taken to the EEOC. USC is getting an increasingly bad reputation in many fields as a terrible place to be a junior faculty member. The university appears to be far more interesting in bolstering its reputation by buying senior faculty at the end of their careers.

    Why should the students care? Putting aside that fact that discrimination is wrong, the junior faculty tend to be the ones most invested in their students, they actually care about the students they mentor and are usually more interested in their teaching. Note that none of these traits are rewarded in the tenure process at USC.

  • Max

    Thank you for this very important piece of journalism. This issue affects faculty and students way more than is generally known

  • zman

    “once heard President Nikias remark that sometimes he forgets he is leading a school and not a business.”

    the golden age of schools and academic freedom were 50s and 60s.. since then universities have been pretty much run like corporations and USC is one of the most extreme exemples of that.. just look at who sits on the board of trustees and where the endowment money is being invested.

    now as far as this situation goes it’s hard to say whether she deserves tenure or not, but the USC tenures process is HORRIBLE. The president decides whether she gets tenure or not.. It’s even worse than that actually since at USC the president has no authority, he is a puppet of the Board of trustees.

  • 2011 Alumnus

    Rest of the DT, please take note. I’m so happy to read something that doesn’t sound like it came straight out of a USC press release. Congrats to Yasmeen for applying such curiosity and rigor to her work.

    So, if Prof. Cross is as qualified as she seems to be, and if she had the support of her colleagues in the SIR, then why was her tenure denied? That Prof. Cross was renowned at SC for her teaching makes it that much worse to lose her.

    I’m very disappointed with the way the Nikias administration has put institutional goals and its own public image before the well being of its own community. Its opaque treatment of processes like the tenure decision and the new campus security policies suggest is sneaky, and it reveals that they know their leadership is not fulfilling the interests of its students, faculty, and the community that surrounds USC.

    I once heard President Nikias remark that sometimes he forgets he is leading a school and not a business. Maybe it’s time for a reality check.

  • North University Park

    You need to look past all her claims and consider she just isn’t right for SC. She has troublemaker written all over her.

    • 2011 Alumnus

      How? Please elaborate!

  • Simon

    We love you, Mia’a

  • Jennifer

    I think it is incredible that this type of discrimination is occurring right here on campus and the University is making none of this public. Good article Yasmeen!

    • Benjamin Roberts

      Jennifer… No discrimination has been proven, and in fact, the data demonstrates otherwise. USC remains an incredibly diverse institution at all levels. It’s a shame that people so often resort to cries of “discrimination” when things don’t pan out the way they want. The EEOC is of course mandated to take all complaints seriously, but her complaint will almost certainly be dismissed after review. We’ve become an entitlement society, and apparently academia is not immune.

      • ‘SC Alum

        Benjamin, while I agree that discrimination has not been proven, I’m not sure “the data demonstrates otherwise.” Junn and Cross’ analysis found that 81% of white junior faculty members—including men and women—were awarded tenure from 1998 to 2012. In contrast, only 48% of assistant professors of color were promoted to the status of associate professor with tenure. This sytematic discrepancy does not prove discrimination, but it does provide a compelling argument for greater transparency in the tenure process. The Chronicle of Higher Ed wrote an article about this case and describes Junn and Cross’ methodology here: http://chronicle.com/article/Tenure-Decisions-at-Southern/135754/