Birgit Brander Rasmussen — an assistant professor in American Studies and Ethnicity, Race & Migration who is teaching one of the most popular courses in Yale College — will leave the University at the end of this academic year following a controversial promotion review process that some of Rasmussen’s colleagues have alleged was colored by bias against her gender, disability and area of scholarship.
Rasmussen’s departure comes amidst a series of high-profile departures of diverse faculty members and scholars who work on issues of diversity and ethnicity. Unlike some of her colleagues who left the University after receiving tenure, however, Rasmussen, who has written extensively about Native American literature, will leave Yale after the Humanities Tenure Appointments and Promotions Committee rejected her candidacy for the associate professor on term position, a step in the tenure track system that does not yet award tenure.
According to several faculty members interviewed, Rasmussen’s experience is yet another example of an imperfect tenure system that has failed to retain and promote faculty who add diversity to the community through their identities or areas of scholarship.
“My case was assumed to be strong, as I received a unanimous vote from the American Studies Department and was encouraged to submit my promotion file a year early by my review committee,” Rasmussen said. “My promotion was overturned at the divisional committee, for reasons that are not quite clear to me. It is part of a pattern where it is has been difficult for ER&M — and Af Am, and WGSS — to gain consistent institutional support despite increasing numbers of students.”
This semester, Rasmussen’s lecture course, Race and Gender in American Literature, has the highest enrollment of any course in Yale College.
Rasmussen arrived at Yale in 2009 as an assistant professor and came up for review for the associate professor on term position in 2013. Rasmussen’s first book, “Queequeg’s Coffin: Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature” was published in 2012 by the Oxford University Press and was a finalist for the Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize, an award for the best first book in American studies that highlights the intersections of race with gender, class, sexuality and/or nation.
As per standard procedure, Rasmussen was first reviewed by a committee within the American Studies Department, and then her candidacy was voted upon by the department’s senior faculty in fall 2013. Rasmussen said she received unanimous support from the departmental vote, a claim a senior professor in the department confirmed. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler also said the departmental vote was positive, but said the details of such votes are confidential and are never shared with the candidate.
Following the positive departmental vote, Rasmussen’s case was brought before the Humanities Tenure Appointments and Promotions Committee — a body composed of full professors in the humanities — where it was voted down by the committee members. Rasmussen said she received word that she had been rejected by the divisional committee in January 2014.
Rasmussen filed an appeal against the decision in 2014, arguing that the committee failed to address a disability issue, but would not elaborate further. However, the ad hoc appeal committee found no irregularities in the review process and her appeal was unsuccessful.
“I appealed my case, but Yale evaluates itself, and decided that it did nothing wrong,” Rasmussen said. Following the appeal’s failure, Rasmussen said she declined an “attractive lectureship” at Yale.
The majority of cases brought before the FAS Tenure Appointment and Promotion Committees pass. Gendler said only 20 of 172 internal promotion cases brought before the committee from fall 2010 to spring 2015 were voted down. And Amy Hungerford, divisional director of the humanities, added that she has seen a “handful” of cases rejected during her three years on the humanities committee.
Although Gendler and Hungerford stressed that details of the committee review are confidential and declined to provide further information about Rasmussen’s specific case, an American Studies professor who asked to remain anonymous said there have been rumors, which Rasmussen said she agreed with, that the humanities committee was concerned about the nine years that elapsed between Rasmussen’s Ph.D. and the publication of her first book. During this time, Rasmussen moved from the University of Wisconsin to Yale and took leaves to have two children as well as for disability issues. Rasmussen said that the University had promised to reset her tenure clock, but went back on the promise.
The American Studies professor said that if these rumors are true, then Rasmussen’s early career and maternity leaves would have counted against her in the committee’s calculations of “productivity” and would represent an act of discrimination against women in the review system.
Rasmussen said her review carried both gender and disability discrimination because she had her tenure clock extended due to a disability, in addition to her maternity leaves.
Hungerford said the committee is always aware of whether candidates have taken a leave off of the tenure clock, which is most often granted for child-rearing, though the reason for the leave is not reported to the committee. She said this information helps the committee judge productivity fairly while upholding promotion standards.
Despite these criticisms of the tenure promotion system, Gendler noted that over the past five years, the turndown rate for men has been higher than for women. She added that the turndown rate for federally defined underrepresented minorities whose promotion cases were brought before the FAS Tenure Appointment and Promotion Committee is 0 percent.
Several faculty members interviewed criticized the Humanities Tenure Appointments and Promotions Committee for its lack of expertise in Native American Studies and other areas of ethnic studies. Some also suggested that the tenure review requirements are unfavorable toward professors of diverse identities, backgrounds and fields of study.
“It is astonishing that a divisional committee, a group with little or no experience in interdisciplinary studies or the scholarly fields of racial formations or gender history and theory, would vote to fire Rasmussen after a unanimous vote in American Studies to award her tenure,” the American Studies faculty member who asked to remain anonymous said.
A senior faculty member of color who recently left Yale citing the University’s lack of commitment to diversity, and who also asked to remain anonymous, said many minority faculty are getting cut at the divisional level because of the humanities committee’s lack of expertise in the study of diversity and ethnicity. The professor added that while many University departments have strong senses of the degree of effort and intellectual prowess needed to accomplish certain scholarship, this “local knowledge” is lost on the divisional level, which imposes universalized external criteria to the review.
But Hungerford refuted claims of biases against or ignorance of ethnic studies within the humanities committee. She said that members of the divisional committee are drawn from a wide range of disciplines within the humanities, adding that in all cases, and by design, committee members would be engaging with scholarship outside their own courses of study.
“The divisional committee — no matter the division — is premised on the idea that the work of any scholar should be legible to senior scholars in their division,” Hungerford said. “Ethnic studies cases would be no further from the expertise of readers in the room than other cases are. In every case, the readers are from fields outside the candidate’s discipline or disciplines.”
Hungerford added that there are widely recognized signs of scholarship distinction that can be applied even in interdisciplinary fields, such as ethnic studies. The committee also relies on expert letters to understand the candidate’s accomplishments, she said.
Rasmussen will take a position at SUNY Binghamton in the department of English, Language and Rhetoric this fall.
Correction, Feb. 4: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Professor Birgit Brander Rasmussen had a disability issue that forced her to take time off from Yale. In fact, Rasmussen did not take time off, but had her tenure clock extended due to her disability.