Denial of Tenure to German-Studies Professor Brings Angst at Emory

July 13, 2010

An assistant professor at Emory University has alleged that top administrators there violated commonly accepted college-governance principles. Joined by the American Association of University Professors, he has charged that administrators blocked his bid for tenure, which had been endorsed by a faculty committee and a dean, and then denied him any right to appeal their negative decision.

H. Erik Butler, an assistant professor of German studies, asked the AAUP to take up his cause after being informed of his tenure denial last month. The association, in a July 2 letter to Emory's president, James W. Wagner, questioned the reasoning behind the administrators' decision and urged them to give Mr. Butler a chance to appeal their decision to a faculty grievance committee.

A spokeswoman for Emory, Elaine Justice, on Tuesday said administrators there would be responding directly to the AAUP and had declined to make further comment.

In a letter sent to Mr. Butler last month, Emory's provost, Earl Lewis, said he and Mr. Wagner had chosen not to recommend that the university's Board of Trustees grant Mr. Butler tenure and a promotion to associate professor because some of his colleagues had described his interactions within the department of German studies to be "consistently unprofessional."

"Indeed, it was noted that your behavior at times interfered with matters of teaching and curriculum, which is of paramount importance," the letter said.

The letter acknowledged that the two administrators' decision, made in consultation with the president's advisory committee, conflicted with the decisions of nearly everyone who had previously considered Mr. Butler's tenure request. His bid for promotion was approved by Robert A. Paul, who was then dean of the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, and it was unanimously endorsed by the college's tenure and promotion committee. The German studies department was divided on whether he should be granted tenure but ended up voting 4 to 2 in favor of him getting it.

Mr. Butler said in an interview Tuesday that his tenure bid had been derailed by opposition from a small faction of his academic department. "Basically, what it boils down to is a department that has been dysfunctional for years," he said. "All of my outside reviews were glowing."

In response to a question from Mr. Butler about his right to appeal, Provost Lewis said the appeals process in place at Emory applies only to negative tenure decisions at the department level or the dean's level, and there is no appeals mechanism applicable to his case. "Indeed, your file has been through multiple levels of review, and this is a final decision," the letter said.

The university's refusal to offer Mr. Butler an avenue of appeals is the primary focus of the letter sent to President Wagner this month by Gregory F. Scholtz, the director of the AAUP's department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance. "We fail to see the logic of such a policy," said the letter, which notes that the support for tenure for Mr. Butler among the dean and faculty is, ironically, what precluded him from making an appeal. Under principles of shared governance, the letter said, administrative decisions in areas where faculty members exercise primary responsibility should not normally outweigh the decisions of faculty bodies. Further, such administrative moves should be at least as appealable as the decisions faculty bodies have made.

The AAUP letter said the association is wary of any evaluation of faculty members based on collegiality, which can threaten academic freedom by subjecting professors to negative consequences for disagreeing with others.

Mr. Scholtz's letter said the AAUP recognizes that it has gotten its information about the case solely from Mr. Butler and invites Emory's administration to offer its side. It said, "We understand that there is a history of conflict between Professor Butler and his department chair, Professor Peter Höyng," and that Mr. Butler had requested a postponement of his tenure review because he had leveled charges of bias against his department chair. "Given this context and the prominent role his chair would have played in the review process, it seems to us particularly imperative that Professor Butler be afforded the opportunity to challenge the basis of the tenure decision," Mr. Scholtz's letter said.