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Especially for Graduate Students

From the issue dated February 1, 2002: Chronicle of Higher Education

Do You Have to Be a Nice Person to Win Tenure?

By PIPER FOGG

Marcella Ann McClure focused on setting up her laboratory, getting grants, and doing research when she began a tenure-track biology position at the University of Nevada at
Las Vegas in 1993.

But as she approached her tenure review, she found out that she wasn't paying enough attention to the invisible item on the tenure checklist -- collegiality. In addition to teaching, research, and service, she argues, she shouldn't have had to win a popularity contest.

Ms. McClure, who had raked in $1.4-million in grants for her research on viral evolution, was outraged when the university denied her tenure in 1997. She was also furious that she was never allowed to see five letters in her personnel file in which her colleagues outlined the ways she had failed to be sufficiently collegial. "I was tried and convicted without any evidence," says Ms. McClure. "Is this the U.S.?"

She filed suit in 1999, accusing UNLV of not following its own tenure guidelines and of using a new and unfair category against her. University officials decline to comment on her case but defend their tenure-review process. The suit was dismissed by a state court, but Ms. McClure has appealed, bringing her case before the Nevada Supreme Court in January.

While there is no official measure of the use of collegiality as a reason to deny tenure, it is clearly on the rise -- as are the lawsuits that follow. "There are more cases in which
collegiality is being used to deny tenure than there used to be," says Martin D. Snyder, of the American Association of University Professors, who crafted a 1999 statement for the
association opposing the use of collegiality as a fourth criterion in tenure.

At the University of Connecticut, administrators are deciding whether to fire a tenured professor of physics, Moshe Gai, after telling him that his conduct, including what was
described as insulting and threatening behavior toward colleagues, has undermined his ability to function in his department. Mr. Gai, who has been placed on paid leave and banned from speaking to faculty members and students in any official capacity, says Connecticut is retaliating against him for being a whistle-blower concerning grant violations. He has sued, claiming a violation of his First Amendment right to
free speech.

The State University of New York College at Geneseo chose not to renew a dance professor's contract, because she was pronounced uncollegial. She sued the university, her chairman, and the president at the time, Carol C. Harter -- who is now president of UNLV -- for sex discrimination. A judge ordered her to be reinstated.
Chilling Debate

Such cases raise fears among faculty groups that a failure to be collegial can be used as a pretext to fire people who otherwise have distinguished themselves in the traditional categories of teaching, research, and service. The AAUP says adding a distinct category for collegiality has the potential to chill debate and encourage conformity.

Mr. Snyder, director of planning and development at the AAUP, says it's too tempting to use collegiality to disguise other motives, like racial or gender discrimination. He says he
hears about female faculty members who are told that they are "not collegial" or just don't "fit in." The question, he argues, "is whether we are dealing with someone who is truly
disruptive, or are we dealing with someone who is outspoken? A genius may be hard to work with. Are you going to get rid of him?"

Others in academe, however, consider collegiality a legitimate factor in judging an academic applying for a lifetime appointment. They say it is perfectly reasonable for colleges to insist that professors be able to work cooperatively with their peers and with students.

"Colleges and universities have legitimate and long-recognized expectations that professors will cooperate with their colleagues in the best interest of the institution," two
university lawyers, Mary Ann Connell of the University of Mississippi and Frederick G. Savage of the Johns Hopkins University, wrote last year in Academe, a publication of the
AAUP. Supporters of a collegiality criterion make clear that it would not require faculty members to be likable or popular.

Dawn S. Neuman, chairwoman of the biology department at Las Vegas, says collegiality should not be confused with congeniality. "Congenial" means agreeable, sociable, or
companionable; "collegial" refers to productive relationships with colleagues, she says. To be collegial, one need not be congenial.

Striving for a Lab

In the years before she went to UNLV, Ms. McClure struggled to find a job where she could pursue her academic interests. As a graduate student in biology at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1980s, she became interested in the genetic sequencing of retroviruses, which include the human immunodeficiency virus, the Ebola virus, and the pathogen that causes measles. But no software existed for the research she wanted to do.

Undeterred, she developed her own complex computer analyses to crunch data on viral genetic evolution. When she started looking for a postdoctoral position, though, she found at first that no one would take her. "A biologist who spends all her time on the computer? People just thought I was crazy," she says. Supporting herself with grant money, she took a series of non-tenure-track positions on various campuses of the
University of California. Still, she yearned for her own lab, where she could pursue her research without having to worry about the grant money running out. When UNLV offered her a tenure-track job as an assistant professor in the biological-sciences department in 1993, she accepted.

Six months later, though, the university still hadn't finished setting up her research facilities. She didn't have adequate computing capacity or even enough electricity, Ms. McClure says. One day she confronted the workers in technical support who were doing the work and, she acknowledges, she lost her cool. "I was up against the wall, so I lost my temper," she admits. But she insists that her anger was the only appropriate response to workers she claims had decided to blackball her because she was uppity. "I had this man shake his fist at me and say, "Listen little girl, this isn't the big city. This is a small town and you're under our control.' That was the kind of thing I had to deal with," she says. Ms. McClure put the incident behind her once the lab was completed. But new conflicts arose in the spring of 1995, when Warren W. Burggren, the biology department's chairman, became interim dean of the College of Science at UNLV.

Increasing Tensions

Penny Amy, a professor of biology, became the acting chairwoman. Ms. McClure, who was the department's only virologist, says Ms. Amy just didn't like her. Ms. Amy did not
respond to requests for an interview.

Karen Hoff, a lecturer in the department at the time, had an office down the hall from Ms. McClure's. "Marcie is a very loud and boisterous person," she says. "It was very clear that she rubbed a lot of people the wrong way -- mostly because she was successful. Penny Amy really disliked Marcie, and I think that was jealousy." Several people in the department felt threatened by the prospect of spending money on the molecular side of biology as opposed to staying focused on ecology, adds Ms. Hoff, who is no longer at UNLV.

Tensions between Ms. McClure and the chairwoman steadily increased. One day in the fall of 1995, the professor heard incessant pounding in Ms. Amy's laboratory, directly above her own. When she discovered a student in the lab smashing rock samples, Ms. McClure told him to stop and asked everyone in the lab to make sure the racket didn't recur. She sent an e-mail message describing the exchange to Ms. Amy, suggesting
that "a more appropriate place needs to be found to conduct this work." Ms. Amy wrote back: "Is this your way of telling me how to do my research? I had not planned on having this discussion, but you are the one who brought it up."

Later, Ms. Amy warned Ms. McClure in a letter: "You and I have talked on two separate occasions about the need in the Department of Biological Sciences to have a friendly and supportive atmosphere in which to work." She called the professor's behavior "very disruptive to your staff and faculty colleagues, as well as several students." The note worried Ms. McClure. What concerned her even more was her mid-tenure review of 1995. The department's personnel committee praised Ms. McClure's development of a
virology-research program. She was also commended for winning an $800,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. But in a new "collegiality" category, which had never appeared in a tenure assessment in her department before, her reviewers
said her interactions with people at the university "have not been consistently positive." Ms. McClure was also told that her teaching was of high quality but insufficient quantity to evaluate her adequately for tenure.

She was surprised. The NIH grant, which the personnel committee had urged her to accept, had come with a reduced teaching requirement, to allow her more time for research. Was she now being penalized for that very reason?

When she came up for tenure, in 1997, she also learned that the personnel committee had taken the unprecedented step of asking faculty and staff members, including secretaries, to comment on her collegiality. The committee then placed the five resulting negative letters in her tenure file, and Ms. McClure was denied the opportunity to see them.

That infuriated Ms. McClure and several other department members. The local chapter of the AAUP rallied around her. Collegiality had never been used before in evaluating someone for tenure in the biology department. The word wasn't even in her contract. Ms. Hoff says people made up complaints about Ms. McClure: "It was outrageous. They went out to get her. There were people running around the department rubbing their hands in glee, poring through university codes, saying, "We've got her.'" One junior faculty member, who asked not to be identified, said Ms. McClure was socially inept. "She's not politically savvy in the slightest," said the academic, who has since left UNLV. "She's divisive. She's confrontational, ... and she likes to stir up trouble."

At the meeting in which the personnel committee presented Ms. McClure's tenure file to the rest of the biology-department faculty members for review, Ms. Hoff asked to see the letters that had been placed there. But a member of the personnel committee said no, because they were "sensitive." "The letters on which she was hung by the department were never shown to the rest of the faculty," says Ms. Hoff.

After her denial of tenure, in which collegiality was coupled with service, Ms. McClure appealed to a Faculty Senate committee, which voted 3-2 to support her tenure bid. It said
she had been denied due process, having not been allowed to see what she was accused of. The panel also said the composition of the seven-member personnel committee violated UNLV bylaws because it included two non-tenured professors.

Higher Expectations

But several people say Ms. McClure indeed received a fair shake. Ray Alden, now the university's provost, was dean of the College of Science at the time Ms. McClure was up for tenure. "Those letters were never considered in the process," he insists. "As soon as Marcie objected to them, they were taken out." He also says when Ms. McClure's tenure was considered, there was at least one UNLV handbook that stated the importance of collegiality. Mr. Burggren stands by his evaluations of the biologist. Collegiality was certainly an issue, he says, but so was her research. It wasn't up to par, he argues, because she wasn't the primary author of enough articles and hadn't published enough in peer-reviewed journals. Because the NIH grant freed her from most of her teaching obligations, he says, expectations for her research were higher.

Ms. McClure responds that because her field, bio-informatics, is still brand-new by academic standards, she published more than enough. "There are no reviews, there are no journals, there are no guideposts, there are no maps. So I got stuck having to write a lot of reviews and a lot of non-primary-source papers as a pioneer in the field. These people decided that they were not real publications. This was finding fault where there was none."

Some colleagues agree. "What I saw was someone who had a very good teaching record and an excellent publication record and a good service record," says Andrew P. Martin, a former assistant professor of biology at UNLV who is now at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But Ms. McClure was hard to work with, he acknowledges. "Let's just say she was volatile.... Some people found her impossible."

Mr. Burggren, now at the University of North Texas, maintains that no one was out to get Ms. McClure. "There were lots of checks and balances in place," he recalls, noting that reviews took place at the departmental, college, provost, and presidential levels. "While there were people in the department who did not like Marcie personally, at no time was
I aware, as interim dean, of any attempt to subvert the process to deny her tenure and promotion. I saw a personnel committee trying to document the undocumentable. Collegiality is like beauty -- you know it when you see it. You can't write
it down."

Lawyers for the University of Nevada system take the position that an assistant professor has no contractual right to tenure. A state court agreed. Without considering her tenure bid, the court dismissed all of Ms. McClure's claims in June 2000, ruling that tenure decisions are up to the university. But her lawyer, Bradley J. Richardson, argues that a faculty member still is entitled to some expectation that the university will follow its procedural rules regarding tenure review.

Boyd Earl, a professor of chemistry at UNLV, is a member and former president of the university's chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, an affiliate of the AAUP. The group is helping to finance Ms. McClure's appeal. It has also filed a supporting brief on her behalf. The outcome of her case, alliance officials believe, will be crucial to a faculty
member's right to sue over tenure in Nevada state court.

Ms. McClure is already working on winning tenure elsewhere. She's now an associate professor in microbiology at Montana State University at Bozeman. "The people here are wonderful," she says. "We don't have time for petty differences. People are allowed to yell and voice their opinion, and we can be in disagreement -- this is academia, after all."

 

 

Contact Rita Walker , Title IX Officer: 105 Kerr Hall . email: rew@ucsc.edu . phone 831.459.2462 * 831.459.4825