SOC professor alleges she was unfairly denied tenure
Carolyn Brown says provost is punishing her for activism on race and gender issues
An assistant professor in the School of Communication is contesting her tenure denial on the grounds that the provost unfairly assessed her application and is punishing her for activism on race and gender issues.
The professor, Carolyn Brown, received notice on March 10 that she was denied tenure and promotion from Provost Scott Bass from her October submission, she said.
Brown submitted her appeal on June 5 to the Committee on Faculty Grievances, a faculty senate committee charged with investigating complaints filed by faculty members. If the committee elects to review her case, it will conduct an investigation and make a recommendation to President Sylvia Burwell, who makes the final ruling on whether to change Bass’s decision.
Brown, a journalism instructor, was hired as an assistant professor on a tenure track in the 2009-2010 academic year. Should she not be granted tenure with her appeal, she will be dismissed from the University following the 2017-2018 academic year.
“I feel like the University has used me when it needs a face of diversity, and then they throw me away when I went up for tenure,” Brown said.
Tenured professors must meet standards for teaching, scholarship and service
The tenure process is a six year process that begins with the hiring of an assistant professor on the tenure track. Tenure-line teaching faculty members like Brown “must meet the criteria for high quality teaching, scholarship and service,” according to the AU Faculty Manual.
Tenure-line professors complete an evaluation in their third year, called a pre-tenure review, which is an assessment of their teaching, scholarship and service. Brown’s third year review was completed in 2012 by SOC Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck. Brown continued teaching in the journalism department after the review, contributing to various committees and completing scholarship.
Prior to the final submission for tenure and promotion, Brown said an external review is completed by faculty at other universities. An internal review is completed by senior faculty at AU, in which they vote on whether or not to support the candidate for tenure and promotion.
Brown’s external reviewers submitted their support for her in September. She submitted her application for tenure and promotion in October. Brown’s internal AU faculty reviewers, associate professor Maggie Stogner, professor Charles Lewis and journalism division director John Watson, recommended her in November.
In their letter to Rutenbeck recommending Brown for tenure, Stogner, Lewis and Watson cited her scholarship in film, specifically documentaries about Latino populations and representation in the media.
“SOC Faculty applauded Carolyn’s high level of focused productivity over the past 5 years, particularly her impressive filmmaking accomplishments that have given voice to the Latino/a experience in the U.S. Her film work showcases Latino/a narratives that are frequently underrepresented and often skewed negatively,” Stogner, Lewis and Watson wrote.
Based off this recommendation and the rest of her file, Rutenbeck determined Brown was qualified to become tenured faculty and wrote her recommendation. Brown completed the process by submitting all of the material to the provost for him to determine her status as a professor.
That’s where Brown fell short. Bass denied Brown tenure because of poor student evaluations he said in his letter of denial. He cited Brown’s Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET) in his letter to Brown as the main purpose of his denial, stating that her performance as an instructor was inconsistent.
“If the consistency of quality instruction is unattainable and not demonstrated during the probationary period, what does it bode for the trajectory of teaching when the pressure of tenure review has been eliminated?” Bass wrote in that letter.
When an assistant professor at AU is granted tenure and promotion, they become an associate professor. A full-time position grants job security along with benefits, such as medical plans and college tuition for their children. There is also an increase in salary with the promotion.
Brown is now filing an appeal. A faculty member may file an appeal if they believe the decision was the result of discrimination, if the decision process did not follow the criteria written in the faculty manual or if evidence that existed before the provost or dean of academic affair’s decision was not “discovered through appropriate diligence… and is likely to change the outcome of the decision,” the faculty manual states.
Brown, Bass disagree on how to measure student evaluations
Brown failed to meet the standard for high quality teaching, according to Bass. Bass identified spring 2013, fall 2013 and spring 2015 as semester when Brown’s scores were below what he calls “SOC standards.”
However, when analyzing her scores, Bass chose to consider the standard deviation, or the variability, in her scores instead of the mean, or the average. Typically in statistics, the average is the measure that is used to compare results of a test as it eliminates room for error. The mean gives a better picture of the results than the dispersion across the distribution, Brown said.
“In my opinion, I think it’s a little unprecedented and I think that choosing to deny me tenure on the standard deviations of my numerical teaching evaluations is surprising, to say the least,” Brown said.
The provost’s office declined to comment on the specifics of Brown’s case when contacted by The Eagle.
“We are not able to comment on the specifics of this case, particularly because Professor Brown's grievance is pending,” the statement said. “We look forward to the matter proceeding through the University grievance process.”
Calculated using 30 of the 31 courses Brown taught over an eight year period, Brown earned an average score of 5.1 out of 7 for her overall performance and a 5.2 out of 7 for her course overall, as stated in Brown’s letter of intent to appeal to the provost. This was calculated using the average of her scores across a greater time period as opposed to the select semesters Bass analyzed.
Student evaluations will not produce significant results because her average class size of 12.72 students is too small, Brown said. Not only did she have small classes, but less students participated in the evaluations than enrolled in the class, Brown said in her letter of intent.
Brown also submitted literature to the provost that suggests female and minority professors score lower on student evaluations of teaching. Brown identifies as female and Latina.
“Provost Bass looked only to the numbers, and refused to engage in the literature I referenced demonstrating bias against minority professors and women,” Brown said in her letter of intent to appeal.
Watson, who recommended Brown, has worked closely with Brown throughout her time at AU. As the director of the journalism program, he serves as her boss as well as her mentor.
“In the history of the University since I've been here, and I have been here about 18 years, I have never seen anyone denied tenure on the basis of student evaluations,” Watson said.
AU’s faculty manual states “faculty members must demonstrate effective teaching/effectiveness in fulfilling primary responsibilities.” This is a general requirement for all faculty.
However, according to the faculty manual, the effectiveness of a teacher can be determined by course design, development of new curriculum and student engagement inside and outside of the classroom.
“In the explanation of the shortcomings in teaching, [Bass] focused on the student evaluations,” Watson said. “The guidelines say the professor has to be an effective teacher and those two are not the same.”
Bass was not the only individual to point out that there were issues with Brown’s teaching. Rutenbeck completed his mid-term evaluation during the middle of Brown’s tenure track, which was Brown’s third year review. In that review, Rutenbeck suggested Brown receive mentoring, which she subsequently did from Watson.
“In terms of teaching record, my mid-term evaluation noted my concerns with some of Professor Brown’s student evaluations of teaching (SETs),” Rutenbeck said in his letter endorsing Brown for tenure and promotion.
In the same letter, Rutenbeck also said, “I am fully confident that we can continue mentoring and supporting her as she strives to provide an outstanding learning experience for all of her students.”
Brown has high expectations, former students say
Since Brown was hired in 2009, she has taught an array of classes in the journalism department, including Advanced TV/Video Production and Backpack Video Journalism.
Sarah Parnass graduated from SOC in 2012 and took Broadcast Journalism II with Brown in fall of 2011. Parnass began her career in broadcast news, saying that Brown “really pushed us to do things that no other teacher asked of us in the past.” She is currently working in the video department at a media organization in D.C.
“I found Professor Brown to be tough. She demanded a lot and expected a lot,” Parnass said. “I do think that she prepared me to work in a tough environment with strict news standards and a very fast turn around.”
Maggie Miller, a 2017 graduate from the School of Communication, took Brown’s Advanced TV/Video Production class in the fall 2016 semester. Miller benefited from Brown’s expertise in the field of broadcasting, she said.
“I thought that she had had a lot of experience in the field of broadcasting and she really brought all of that to class and made sure that we were learning every aspect of it,” Miller said. “I really enjoyed her as a professor.”
Grace Ries took Brown’s Advanced TV/Video Production class as her capstone in fall 2016 before she graduated that semester. Ries ultimately pursued sales and not journalism upon graduation.
“The reason a lot of students may have rated her class poorly isn’t a lot to do with her teaching, but that the expectations of her class are extreme. That is a reflection of what the reality is when you go into the journalism industry,” Ries said.
Tenure denial was “retaliation” for her advocacy, Brown alleges
Aside from Bass’ justification for teaching, Brown believes Provost Bass denied her tenure because of her advocacy for race and gender issues on AU’s campus.
Brown encouraged her students to cover race and gender related issues that occurred on campus, such as the Anderson Hall incident in the fall 2016 semester. She said that Bass did not want these issues to be brought to light.
Brown is “a strong, articulate voice in our school and for the University as a whole in advocating for the recognition of cultural differences, acceptance and understanding,” Rutenbeck wrote in his letter recommending Brown for tenure.
In addition to her scholarship, faculty members said Brown's service to the University was notable. According to the letter from the Stogner, Lewis and Watson, she served on the SOC Diversity Committee along with several other committees and organizations for diversity specific issues. She also served on the SOC Journalism Curriculum Reform Acceleration Committee to improve the academic programs in the School of Communication.
Provost Bass acknowledged in his letter that her scholarship and service to the University was not in question. Rather, it was her effectiveness as a teacher that led to her denial.
"While your scholarship and service has met American University's standards for tenure, your teaching has not," Bass said in his denial.
Aside from the belief that her denial was retaliatory, Brown said the tenure and promotion process needs to be more transparent. In her letter of intent to appeal, she said there is an issue with transparency. Brown was not made aware she was being evaluated on the standard deviations of her scores, she said.
SOC Professor Maria Ivancin also alleged a lack of transparency in her tenure denial in 2013. Bass evaluated Ivancin’s case on a scholarly track instead of professional track. Each has different requirements.
Ivancin was not made aware that this was the case and submitted her work under the assumption she would be considered using the professional track. She later sued the university for denial on an unfair basis.
Editor’s note: John Watson serves as The Eagle’s faculty adviser.