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Hit the Road, Scholar 

Did NU president Henry Bienen push a promising professor out the door?

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By Ben Joravsky

For Cecelia Lynch it should have been an evening of congratulations, a celebration of her new book, the first she'd written.

Instead there was an edge of sadness in the air when some 40 well-wishers gathered at Evanston's Great Expectations bookstore. They were also saying farewell to a bright young assistant professor of political science who's being shoved out of town.

Northwestern University denied Lynch tenure and it's not clear why. She contends that president Henry Bienen engineered her dismissal because, among other things, he disagreed with her approach to the study of foreign policy. "He violated tenure procedure that was created by Northwestern to safeguard against gender discrimination and protect academic freedom," says Lynch. "He treated my case very differently from those of men in my department."

In 1991 Lynch was placed on the tenure track. She had six years to prove her worth as a scholar and teacher and earn the ultimate prize in her profession: lifelong job protection for free expression and independent thought.

Universities take the matter of tenure very seriously, subjecting candidates to a rigorous examination. At Northwestern a yearlong endurance test begins with a review by the candidate's department and continues with a second review in which an ad hoc committee of professors outside the department solicits confidential written assessments (phoned-in responses aren't allowed under rules Bienen established) from 12 or so experts in the field at other universities.

But even after that committee makes its recommendation, the process is far from over. Then the matter goes to the tenure committee of the candidate's college, another group of professors. Then to the dean of the college. Then the provost, Northwestern's chief educational officer. Then the president. And finally the board of trustees. "Because it guarantees lifetime security, the process is unbelievably time- and energy-consuming," says Barbara Newman, an English professor who's president of Northwestern's chapter of the American Association of University Professors. "I calculated 666 hours spent on one case alone. That's my time, secretarial time--everyone's time."

Lynch's tenure review began in the fall of 1997. "Tenure's based on research, teaching, and university service, and I had a productive record," she says. In her six years on the track, Lynch won two teaching awards and two prestigious fellowships; she wrote seven articles (four peer reviewed), delivered 12 invited lectures, and appeared on some 15 academic panels; and she wrote one book, coedited another, was in the process of cowriting a third, and had received a fellowship to write a fourth. She was seen as an emerging star. "There was interest in me from other institutions," says Lynch. "People who interviewed me told me my work was not the same old same old--that it was interesting and innovative. So yes, I was hopeful."

Still, she had uncertainties, particularly regarding Bienen. University presidents rarely get deeply involved in tenure cases, but after Bienen came to Northwestern in 1995 he vowed to use tenure as a whip to keep professors on their toes. His critics said he intended to impose a sterner style of management in which young scholars worked cheap with no hope for tenure.

"President Bienen made some statements about tenure as soon as he got here," says Newman. "He began talking about how too many people were getting tenure. Then he denied that standards had changed or procedures had changed. But, in fact, in the year after he arrived there was an unusually low success rate and many candidates were denied."

Lynch also had more specific concerns. Like Lynch, Bienen's a political scientist (before coming to Northwestern he was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public International Affairs). Unlike Lynch, he's a traditionalist who believes that the area critical to scholarship is the conduct of governments (or states) and their chief strategists and policy makers (the Henry Kissingers and Madeleine Albrights of the world). Bienen considers himself a strategist; in a recent article he called himself a "regionalist, although I believe that America has goals beyond regions."

By contrast, Lynch is a "constructivist." She belongs to a new wave of political scientists who study what she's called "independent, non-governmental social organizations, such as peace movements." Among the questions that "drive my research and publications," she recently wrote, "is the role and influence of social movements, as opposed to the usual focus on states and elites, in world politics." Her book Beyond Appeasement takes a swipe or two at the old guard, calling into doubt "conventional interpretations" of peace movements. "I represent a theoretical development that may be challenging to someone like Bienen with a more traditional point of view," she says.

The tenure process started smoothly for her. She was approved by her department and by the ad hoc committee, which received 13 enthusiastic reviews from scholars around the world and none that was negative. "She is publishing important work at an accelerating rate," the committee wrote to Eric Sundquist, dean of Northwestern's College of Arts and Sciences. "She is a very good departmental and university citizen and an inspiring teacher. There is every reason to predict that she will contribute to Northwestern's national and international visibility as a first-rank scholar in international relations."

By April 1998 the university's tenure committee and Sundquist had also recommended tenure. Lynch remained anxious. "Time was of the essence--I needed confirmation," she says. "I had interviewed and received offers from other schools and I needed to make some decisions in case I didn't get tenure. I was concerned about Bienen. Some people in the field told me, 'Watch out.' Others said, 'Don't worry, you're in.' It was one of those things where I was looking for clues before I got the final word."

On May 1 of last year she and her husband were invited to Bienen's mansion in Evanston for a reception honoring senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. "I thought maybe this is a sign Bienen wants to get to know me a little," says Lynch. "I didn't attempt to initiate a discussion about international relations. We certainly didn't talk about my candidacy. He showed me his collection of Chinese and Japanese art. We talked about art."

On June 5 she got a call from an associate dean. "I remember she paused, took a few deep breaths, and said, 'I'm sorry to tell you the provost has turned back the dean's recommendation for tenure,'" says Lynch. "I was stunned. It's hard to explain how I felt. To say the least, it was a difficult time. I tried to keep my feelings from my children. My daughter had a ballet recital that Sunday. I didn't want to ruin that for her. It's such a devastating personal injustice. I immediately suspected something wasn't right. I knew my record was strong. My feeling was, 'What gives them the right to do this to me?' I still wonder about that."

She arranged separate meetings with Sundquist and provost Lawrence Dumas. They attempted to divert attention from Bienen. The decision, Dumas told her, was his. He acknowledged no specific role played by the president. But Lynch had doubts. "Sundquist told me that the provost had requested him to obtain additional reviews," says Lynch. "That surprised me. It's extraordinary for the provost to do that. I wondered what was behind the request for new reviews. I knew then and there it must have come from Bienen. It made no sense to come from Dumas. Others who knew Dumas better than I said it didn't make sense for him to act alone."

As word spread, other professors at and beyond Northwestern offered sympathy and support. Not since 1986 had a provost overturned a favorable tenure recommendation by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Letters were written, calls made; her department and the tenure committee appealed to Dumas. But he refused to change his mind.

On November 4 Lynch requested an official review. This rigmarole is almost as cumbersome as the tenure process itself. Appeals are overseen by something called the University Faculty Reappointment, Promotion, Tenure, and Dismissal Appeals Panel (UFRPTDAP, for short), a collection of professors that has almost no authority. All it can do is ask the president to reconsider a tenure denial. Some professors told her an appeal would be a waste of time. But Lynch persisted. "The rules in the faculty handbook entitle me to an appeal in which I am permitted to review all the relevant documents," she says. "I wanted to piece it all together."

Her appeal request charged that she "was not treated on a par with other candidates for tenure," that her "case was not treated on its merits" and instead was "manipulated" by Bienen and Dumas "to solicit negative views." Lynch claimed that her academic freedom was violated and that she was a victim of gender discrimination, as "male colleagues with comparable records were awarded tenure and treated in a more favorable manner."

Dumas responded with a six-page memo dismissing her charges. Her review, he wrote, was "treated in a manner entirely consistent with University procedures." If anything was unusual about the case it was that Northwestern "had particular difficulty in securing external letters from leading scholars." Of the "29 people approached" by the ad hoc committee, "only 11 were willing and/or able to write."

Then came the bombshell. Yes, said Dumas, Bienen had got involved--he had "offered to assist not only in identifying persons whose judgments would be especially valued but also in contacting those persons and urging them to write." But Bienen had no choice, "given the difficulty the College had encountered in eliciting letters from leading scholars." And there was nothing sinister about his role. "Our goal was to obtain additional assessments from leading scholars--not to seek out negative judgments, as Professor Lynch states."

Dumas' response raised as many questions to Lynch as it answered. If Bienen's role was so benign, why didn't the university acknowledge it from the start? Was Northwestern trying to hide something now? How many solicitations had Bienen made? Were they by phone? If so, how did he phrase his requests? And how accurate could the additional reviews have been when requested on such short notice? "The provost's response represents creative counting," says Lynch. "Why were additional reviews even needed? The ad hoc committee said it based its assessment on 13 responses, not 11. That's as much or more than others in my department got in their tenure review. Moreover, I was on the job market. And several senior scholars told me that they declined to write because it would have been a conflict of interest since they were trying to recruit me to their institutions."

Lynch demanded that the university turn over copies of all relevant letters, memos, and E-mail. On April 9, almost a full year after she was rejected, she received a packet of documents, many of the names on them blacked out to protect confidentiality. It was then that she discovered the full extent of Bienen's involvement in her case.

"I have now spent four hours with the Lynch case, more than any other case aside from [name blacked out]," Bienen wrote in an undated memo to Dumas. "Simply put, her reputation is in the future....This puts a heavy burden on her present book [Beyond Appeasement]....She just has not been a productive scholar."

Bienen questioned the value of the recommendations received by the ad hoc committee. Most came from professors "somewhat outside the mainstream of IR [international relations]," he wrote. "The letters the department received are serious ones from serious people and they cannot be discounted although I would liked to have seen a different mix of people." The judges do not include "major historians such as [blacked out], or [blacked out], or [blacked out]. They tried for [blacked out] who would have been good. I don't know [blacked out], but he impeaches himself by calling Lynch a productive scholar!...

"Who could help?" Bienen continued. "[Blacked out] would be an excellent reader and I could try and prevail on him. He is a friend. [Blacked out] likes her, as he said, but he would give an honest reading of her book."

In the early days of May, Bienen exchanged several rounds of E-mail with Sundquist and Dumas, updating them on his progress. "[Blacked out] is curious about the case and really thinks the production record is a problem," Bienen wrote Sundquist. In other E-mail, Bienen assured Sundquist that he'd contacted a scholar who was willing to "spend an afternoon" reviewing Lynch's work.

The correspondences reveal Bienen's biases, says Lynch. "When he writes 'outside the mainstream,' whose mainstream is that? He writes that a professor 'impeaches' himself because he calls me a productive scholar. What's that about? He had clearly made up his mind about me already."

Then there's so-and-so who Bienen said liked her but would give an honest reading. "Is an honest reading only a critical one for him regarding my case?"

Lynch says it strains credibility to think that Bienen didn't discuss the specifics of her case during the phone calls. "It's one thing to take an interest in the field. It's another to engage in this degree of personal involvement, overturning all normal procedural recommendations. These documents suggest a spin. He apparently minimized the amount of work the referees would have to read. A number of people have made the argument to me that it's extraordinary for a university president to get involved to this degree and solicit reviews on such short notice from his friends. Someone in the discipline should be extra careful not to impose any personal judgment or bias."

In short, she thinks Bienen was sneaky, manufacturing a case against her and searching for allies to substantiate it even as he invited her to dine at his mansion. Instead of an independent analysis by nonbiased judges, the tenure process had become a trial in which Lynch was the defendant, Bienen the prosecutor, and his friends the jury. "I felt set up," says Lynch.

All his calls netted Bienen four reviews--two critical, two favorable. Last May Bienen gave Sundquist one last chance to make a case for Lynch. "I spoke with Henry about this yesterday, explaining how you and I had agreed that the jurisdiction is with you at this time," Dumas E-mailed Sundquist. "The ball is in your court."

On May 30, 1998, Sundquist responded by E-mail with a long letter that addressed the doubts traditionalists have about constructivism. "Lynch is among those doing for IR what new social historians did for the field of history, or deconstructionists for literary criticism, a generation ago," he wrote. "Over time, one would guess, the mainstream of IR scholarship will integrate some of the insights of this new approach and versions of realism will be modified accordingly." Sundquist recommended tenure.

But one week later Lynch got her rejection call. "They said it was the dean's decision, but apparently they didn't like the one he made," she says.

For what it's worth, UFRPTDAP declined Lynch's appeal request. Now she's filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Bienen's only public comments on the case came in the student newspaper. "Her allegations are absurd," he told the Daily Northwestern. "I don't make decisions with respect to tenure on the basis of my personal views. These decisions are not a matter of taste--they're a matter of quality....I have a very deep interest in political science. But don't confuse my personal interest with the interest of the university."

Neither Bienen, Sundquist, nor Dumas would comment on the matter for this story; questions were directed to Al Cubbage, a press spokesman. "The university doesn't discuss individual personnel decisions," said Cubbage. "Northwestern has established procedure by which tenure decisions are made. These procedures were followed. She did appeal and her appeal was not taken up."

In general, Bienen's tenure policies have benefited Northwestern, said Cubbage: "The president and the provost both have made it clear to deans and faculty that we are tenuring the best people possible. They have made it clear that tenure is important. You want to make sure you have the best person available. It's good management philosophy."

Many professors disagree. "What happened with Professor Lynch is highly unusual. It's certainly not standard procedure," says Newman. "The ad hoc committee had already received 13 reviews--that's about average. It's not unusual for outside professors to decline to submit reviews. Sometimes they're out of the country, sometimes they're too busy. This is not taken as prejudicial to the candidate. I cannot think of any other case where names of referees were provided by any source higher than the ad hoc committee. If the president in fact phoned those people, this is not only an exception but a violation of his own policy. When Bienen came here he ordered no more use of phone calls. I can understand why. It's hard to document them. You can so easily twist the words of the person on the other end.

"I cannot read people's minds. I know that they have denied Professor Lynch's allegations. But nevertheless, it looks to a reasonably well-informed outsider as if the president's disagreement with Professor Lynch's political ideology in their field of international relations could be a factor."

The matter has forced many professors to reconsider how tenure's handled at Northwestern. "I believe tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom, but I think the process has become excessive," says Newman. "The standards keep changing to the point where the process can ironically stifle the very academic freedom tenure's intended to preserve. People are so frightened of saying or writing the 'wrong' things. More and more the tenure review is a taming process. It takes so much time and energy and cripples university life. In light of the Lynch case it deserves debate."

The debate will happen without Lynch. In the next few weeks she and her family will move to southern California, and she will become an assistant professor at the University of California at Irvine. That means a new tenure track (the clock starts ticking when the school year starts in September), though presumably one with a happier ending. "I couldn't be more delighted for her to come here or more shocked at [Bienen's] evaluation," Mark Petracca, chairman of Irvine's political science department, told the Daily Northwestern. "I'm very thankful Northwestern helped us recruit her. It's good for our students and it's bad for yours--my condolences."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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