The serious problem with Yale’s promotion system

The fact that one of my senior colleagues in American Studies felt it necessary to comment anonymously in the News on the denial of promotion to Professor Birgit Brander Rasmussen is a sign that Yale is less the exalted public sphere of free speech it claims to be than the weird hybrid it is: part elite secret society; part University with the freedoms of the academy; and part private corporation, always watching for whistleblowers. But I can understand the impulse of my colleague. The American Studies program would lose the respect of scholarly colleagues across the country if they thought we had turned down such a promising scholar for promotion to associate professor on term (it was not a case of tenure at this point). Moreover, the case does point to serious problems with Yale’s promotion system. I was one of the senior faculty members who presented the case to the University promotions committee. Afterwards, we were told by the dean that more people voted for Professor Rasmussen’s promotion than voted against it; however, there were so many abstentions that the promotion did not have the necessary majority of the committee, and was thus turned down (since I was not in the room for the deliberations or the vote, I am not bound by the meeting’s confidentiality; moreover, in this case, Yale’s confidentiality is a positive harm to Professor Rasmussen’s scholarly reputation, since it encourages the inaccurate inference that a majority of those who reviewed her voted against her). It has always seemed to me that there could only be two reasons for the numerous abstentions: Either conflicts of interest (in which case the members should have recused themselves), or the lack of knowledge or interest on the part of the committee members about the fields in question and the candidate’s work, making them reluctant, or unable, to judge its scholarly value, even with the testimonies from expert outside letters. Those abstentions belie Professor Hungerford’s confidence that, as quoted by the News, “Ethnic studies cases would be no further from the expertise of readers in the room than other cases are.” And it confirms the words of the “senior faculty of color who recently left Yale” who, according to the News, “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.”

Michael Denning is a Professor of American Studies.