Fighting for tenure
- Feb. 19, 2012
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KU alumni are supporting a mechanical engineering professor who filed a lawsuit against the University after he was denied tenure.
Pamphlets and posters defending the professor, Albert Romkes, were distributed late last week, which brought more attention to the case. The Universiy maintains that nothing wrong was done.
In the fall of 2010, Romkes, an assistant mechanical engineering professor, applied for tenure.
On the department level, he was recommended by a majority except for the chairman, Ronald Dougherty, who Romkes said dissented because he did not have enough funding or articles published without his mentors.
On the school level, he received unanimous support; only Stuart Bell, dean of the School of Engineering dissented.
“The dean really narrowed the issue to the fact that I was not a P.I., principal investigator on any externally funded grant,” Romkes said. “Which was surprising to me that that was critical. It had never been an issue for anyone before.”
Romkes wrote a rebuttal asking why the dean singled out the one specific issue and disregarded the rest of his record.
“To me it was clear that there was some personal issue for the dean and the chairman to go against me,” Romkes said. “I had no idea what it was, except for one potential issue. The gay issue.”
Romkes said he introduced his colleagues to his partner after he began working at the University and brought him to social functions. Although his sexual orientation was never an issue for his colleagues or students, Romkes said he can’t exclude it as the reason he was denied tenure.
“But the fact that statistically, it is impossible that I am the only one tells you a little bit about the environment and how open it really is,” Romkes said.
Bell did not respond to a request for comment and Dougherty said to contact Jill Jess, director of the KU news service. Jess issued a statement via email that said the department chair, the dean, the University Promotions and Tenure committee and provost recommended Romkes not be tenured because he failed to meet University research standards. She also said the University does not discriminate and no charges regarding discrimination were filed.
The University Committee of Promotion and Tenure, or UCPT, also voted to deny Romkes tenure, citing the P.I. Rule.
Professors in Romkes’ position are given two weeks to either appeal the decision of the UCPT to the Faculty Rights Board on the grounds of a procedural violation or appeal directly to the chancellor. Although Romkes said he was looking for a violation, he was unable to find evidence during the time period and felt writing to the chancellor was his only option.
On April 15, Romkes was told he did not get tenure and would be given a year to find another job before he would have to leave the University.
Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, associate professor of aerospace engineering, researched with Romkes for years and said he was alarmed to hear that he would be losing a colleague because of the P.I. rule, which he had never even heard of.
“When they rejected him because of the silly P.I. thing, I couldn’t believe it, because he’s a? the heart of projects that vastly eclipse just about any center funding that we’ve got right now,” Barrett-Gonzalez said.
During Romkes’ two-week window of finding proof, Barrett-Gonzalez tried to look up the P.I. rule in the UCPT guidelines. Barrett-Gonzalez said he repeatedly asked the dean’s office to provide the rules for UCPT for him to look over, but he eventually had to file a Kansas Open Records Act request to get them.
“It took seven weeks and $103 to blast the official rules out of the dean’s hands,” Barrett-Gonzalez said.
When he got the records, they indicated that the P.I. rule had never been approved by the necessary committee. Although Romkes brought the issue to the attention of the UCPT and chancellor’s office, he was told the chancellor’s decision was final.
One of the few positives of the sequence of events was the reaction of his former students, Romkes said. He estimates that 40 to 50 students wrote letters to the chancellor defending him. One of those students was Eric Bayerschen, who came to the University in August 2010 as an exchange student.
Bayerschen said Romkes helped set up the exchange program between his school and the University, aided him in the application process and picked up him up at the airport. Romkes also advised Bayerschen on what classes to take, helped him procure a tutoring job and oversaw his independent research project.
“I personally cannot understand that a teacher and researcher who is so devoted to his job, so devoted to support his students, so devoted to ensure the best possible education for them, and so devoted to guide and advise them on their way through the studies in a way that makes the studies unique for a lifetime, is denied tenure on formal reasons of money,” said Bayerschen, who is now a doctoral student in Germany.
Alumni have organized a group, KU Alumni for Romkes, that has a website and Facebook group. Last week, the group started distributing pamphlets and hanging posters around campus.
Joe Lauth, a senior from St. Louis, hopes to help the group and get more students involved.
“He was a tough teacher and the class was a good deal of work, but I really enjoyed the class and certainly appreciated his teaching style as well as his personality,” Lauth said.
Others have been less supportive of Romkes. He said that although he has a few supporters in the School of Engineering, most of his colleagues have not made him feel welcome.
“They all pretend that nothing happened,” Romkes said. “I’ll be honest, I find that the worst, because I walk down that hallway every damn day as if nothing happened. ‘How are you doing?’ How do you think I’m doing? I made an effort for six years, an honest effort to play by the rules and I got thrown out. And you don’t call a foul here?”
Romkes and Barrett-Gonzalez both said they hoped the proceedings bring changes to the University’s tenure process policies. Reforms they would like to see include providing candidates a copy of the criteria they will be evaluated on, giving a larger window of time to appeal to the chancellor or Faculty Right’s Board and giving candidates a chance to apply for tenure again, a rule which was removed from the University’s guidelines several years ago.
Edited by Max Rothman