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Medgar Evers College Provost’s Texas Tenure Controversy

In December, an open meeting of Medgar Evers College faculty overwhelmingly approved a resolution of no-confidence in Provost Howard Johnson, as well as in college President William Pollard (see Clarion, January 2010). But it was not the first time that Johnson had sparked a faculty revolt, and it was not his first no-confidence resolution.

Faculty members at the University of North Texas (UNT) say that Johnson’s arbitrary actions as their provost from 2003 to 2007 damaged their university, and prompted its Faculty Senate to approve a resolution of no-confidence in Johnson by a vote of 72%.

“He was a complete disaster,” says Don Smith, president of the UNT chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). “He has no regard for the rules. He makes up his own and he’s vindictive as all get-out.”

Friction with faculty was evident starting in Johnson’s first semester, according to Smith – but it was Johnson’s decision in the spring of 2004 to deny tenure to 12 out of 32 junior faculty that sent shock waves through the campus.

BLINDSIDED

Junior faculty at UNT are evaluated within their departments on a yearly basis. At the end of their sixth year, they go up for tenure.

The 12 candidates shot down by Johnson were each endorsed by their deans. “None of the 12 rejected candidates ever received a written explanation from the provost as to why he rejected them for tenure,” a faculty committee reported in 2008.

“None of them had any hint until the ruling came down,” Smith recalled. “How can anyone adhere to a standard they don’t know about?”

“It was like I got hit over the head with a 2 x 4,” said Dan Peak, then an assistant professor of information technology who had been unanimously recommended for tenure by his department. “I was stunned.”

Many filed appeals with UNT’s Tenure Committee – and when the appeal hearings began, the varying reasons Johnson gave for his negative decisions both baffled and infuriated UNT faculty.

Johnson cited candidates’ failure to write extensive personal statements with their tenure applications – even though such statements were not required at UNT, and Johnson did not ask for them in advance of his rulings, said G.L. Seligmann, who chaired the University Tenure Committee at the time.

Similarly, UNT requires that publications of tenure candidates be evaluated by their peers at three other universities. Seligmann said Johnson objected to external letters of review written by associate professors, even though there was no requirement that external letters must come from full professors.

“You don’t fire someone because you don’t like the rules,” Seligmann said.

The tenure committee heard their cases over a period of several months, meeting each Friday for an average of 11 hours. Johnson, whose PhD is in mathematics education, asserted his expertise in fields ranging from journalism to computer science to economics.

Smith said that in Peak’s case, Johnson admitted denying tenure based on an assessment of titles of published articles, without reading any of the articles themselves. At one point Johnson claimed he couldn’t find two of Peak’s published papers. “But it took me less than 30 seconds to find them on Google,” Smith said.

“There was no evidence he did his homework,” Peak added. “He said he did, but never could prove it.”

AFTER THE FACT

Some of the departments whose tenure candidates had been rejected by Johnson used databases to rate the caliber of journals in which their faculty members had been published. Johnson would dismiss their scores, arguing that he was using better databases. However, he would not reveal where these alternative rankings came from.

“It was shooting craps with invisible databases, and it always justified him not giving tenure,” Seligmann told Clarion.

Seligmann’s 11-member Tenure Committee heard appeals in six of the cases, and the process continued to a decision in four. In all four cases, the committee upheld the appeal by a large majority.

“When the University Tenure Committee hearings took place, it became evident that some of the analysis engaged in by the Provost’s Office to justify tenure-rejection decisions took place after the Provost issued his tenure rejection decisions in the spring of 2004,” said the 2008 faculty report.

“We had very serious differences over the nature of tenure,” concluded Seligmann, who has taught history at UNT since 1967. “I can’t imagine making a judgment on someone’s career without making a good faith effort to read what they have written.”

MORE CONTROVERSY

In response to questions from the press as the controversy unfolded, Johnson said he could not discuss specifics of individual cases. In February 2011, Clarion asked for his response to the criticisms from UNT faculty, in particular the charge that he had denied tenure in one case without reading any of the candidate’s published work. Johnson did not reply.

Johnson landed in hot water again in December 2004 when the North Texas Daily student paper found that he had lifted whole sections of his proposed strategic plan from several other universities without attribution. Johnson defended himself by saying that his proposal was essentially a draft – “something to react to,” he told the paper. But one of the schools, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, threatened to sue for copyright infringement. “He profoundly embarrassed us,” said Smith.

‘DEVASTATING’

With two-thirds of full-time UNT faculty voting, a resolution of no-confidence in Johnson was approved in 2005 by a vote of 72%. In 2007 Johnson stepped down as provost to become a special assistant to the chancellor of UNT. He left for Chicago State University in 2008, and in 2009 was named provost at Medgar Evers by Pollard, who knew Johnson from their years at Syracuse University.

Johnson’s impact on UNT was “devastating,” said Smith. “We lost a fair amount of scholars who didn’t want to be at a place that would do something like this.”

“It seems evident that Provost Johnson’s history followed him from the University of North Texas to Medgar Evers College,” MEC PSC Chapter Chair Clinton Crawford told Clarion. “He has replicated the same behavior here, and this is why our faculty gave him a vote of no-confidence.”

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