There was a knock at the door. He thought he had — once and for all — made it.
It was November 2002. Assistant professor of history Drew Isenberg, who focuses on the American West, sat in his simple office in Dickinson Hall, home to the University's history department.
Department chair Robert Tignor walked in and extended his hand to Isenberg. "Congratulations," he said, in an account confirmed by both men. "The department has voted to recommend you for tenure."
Isenberg couldn't help but smile.
"But," Tignor added, "you're on the market — aren't you?"
A year-and-a-half later, Isenberg is sitting in the same office, but won't be there past the summer: On April 7, 2003, he was denied tenure — a guaranteed lifetime position at the University as an associate and then, possibly, full professor — something he thought he was sure of receiving until the day Tignor visited.
When a senior University committee, the Committee of Three — made up of six tenured faculty members, senior deans and the provost and president — rejected his bid for tenure, 500 students signed a petition urging the University to reconsider.
"We couldn't let [a professor] who had impacted our academic careers so deeply leave without expressing how much his presence meant to us as students," said Katherine Boone '05, an organizer of the petition who picked history as a major after taking two of Isenberg's classes.
By December of last year, Isenberg's appeal had failed, putting him at the center of a political and academic maelstrom that has brought into the public light the contentious nature of the tenure process at Princeton.
It's a contest between the importance of an assistant professor's scholarship and his ability to teach. It's a debate between the cryptic review procedure and a totally transparent system. And it's a device President Tilghman acknowledges is problematic and plans to thoroughly review next year, particularly focusing on the five-year evaluation period for assistant professors.
After months of being tight-lipped, University officials and outside scholars were willing to discuss the Isenberg case, debating his scholarship — long-thought the reason for his denial of tenure — whether his story reflects the experience of other junior faculty and what changes, if any, should be made to the system.
There is even debate among the highest ranks. While Tilghman said she wants a review next year, Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin said he is doubtful that one can be initiated in the near future. "I'm not sure we're ready for it," he said of the review, given the recent appointment of a new provost.
He also declined to release generic data on Princeton's tenure rates, saying they might not be a fair representation of reality. Most faculty members surveyed for this article believed that roughly one in three assistant professors is tenured by the University.
Despite the numbers, what is clear is that some junior faculty think the tenure system needs reform and that a well-accepted consensus of one's scholarship — which Tilghman said must be considered "first and foremost" in the tenure process — sometimes might be impossible, if not excruciatingly difficult, to find.
Scholarship in question
Parts of Isenberg's only book — "The Destruction of the Bison," published in 2000 by Cambridge University Press — were criticized by some academics as flawed and unoriginal. Others praised it, highlighting just how indecisive academic peer review can be.
In a January 2001 review in the Journal of American History, Mark Spence, a professor at Knox College and chair of its American Studies department, described the book as "not without shortcomings."
Though he praised parts of the book, Spence characterized some of its arguments as "strained and inconclusive," the mechanics of its narrative "somewhat confusing" and its depth of research as lacking at times — overall a piece of scholarship that would "no doubt invite rather than dispel controversy."
But professor David Lewis of Utah State University, in a review in the American Historical Review, praised the work as a "powerful interdisciplinary synthesis, exhaustively researched, and keenly argued."
Isenberg charged that criticism of his book has stemmed from political and not scholarly considerations. "Anytime you write about the environment, it's politically divisive, and anytime you write about Native Americans, it's divisive," he said.
But not everyone agrees it's about politics. Among the criticisms cast at Isenberg is that his book contributes nothing "new or original" to the field and "simply echoed the work of other scholars," said a professor outside Princeton, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Originality in scholarship, history chair Tignor said, is one of the most critical factors in deciding whether to award tenure to an assistant professor.
Indeed, nobody agrees about how original Isenberg's work is. The debate runs on three threads: first, whether his book has any worthy originality; second, whether he began with an original idea that other scholars fleshed out before his book was finished; and third, whether its research methodology is sound.
Both supporters and critics believe Isenberg's work mirrors that of Dan Flores, a professor at the University of Montana. Asked about similarities, Flores straddled, saying that criticism of Isenberg was "probably fair" considering Isenberg's "take" on plains Indians and buffalo was similar to his own, but that it wasn't surprising, he said, since his "storyline has become fairly general in the field."
Flores' views were elucidated in 1991 — a full nine years before Isenberg's book was published — in an article entitled "Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy" in the Journal of American History.
Both Flores and the Spence review questioned Isenberg's methodology, saying it doesn't sufficiently take into account the voices of Native Americans as much as other scholars have done.
But despite these flaws, Flores said Isenberg's work has merit. It goes "far beyond in its coverage anything that I did," he said, praising a chapter on the 20th century as the work's "best contribution." Indeed, Flores uses that particular chapter in his own teaching, though he does not use the whole book because, he said, "the earlier chapters were probably not as original as the last couple of chapters."
Isenberg's work has proven popular among colleges despite the controversy it has drawn. An online search reveals that at least 10 schools, including MIT, Berkeley and Georgetown, use his book.
Flores' 1991 essay was a landmark in studies of the American West and, he said, negatively impacted Isenberg's career because scholars "were familiar with my own work and when they saw his work, [they] saw echoes of mine."
Indeed, according to Tignor, senior history faculty saw those same echoes — and that hurt Isenberg's tenure chances. "It's a field that's in flux," Tignor said. His book "was not as original as I think it seemed to be at the beginning," he added, referring to the department's first review of Isenberg's book three years into his appointment.
After two years at Princeton, all assistant professors undergo a departmental review where their scholarship and teaching are examined. Failing a positive outcome, assistant professors are often asked to withdraw from the University. Successful candidates continue at the University for another two years, at which point they undergo a tenure review in their fifth year.
Isenberg, however, is not without those who defend the originality of his work. "Almost no historical scholarship is entirely or absolutely original," said the University's award-winning Civil War historian James McPherson, who supported Isenberg's tenure bid. "Historians always build on the work that is done by others and then develop their own additional interpretations, understandings, and information from research that is original and other people haven't looked at."
Inside the process
The debate over Isenberg's scholarship hints at a larger question about tenure at Princeton: What exactly happens inside the room where the tenure committees debate a candidate's merits?
Isenberg, who won the President's Distinguished Teaching Award in 2001, believes the closed-door nature of the process, in which he had little say, resulted in "a caricature of me as a good teacher who was not a good scholar."
Whatever the truth, what Isenberg and other junior faculty interviewed for this article dislike about the Princeton system is its, in their words, "secrecy." They say politics and personal vendettas can creep in to departmental discussions and outside letters — written by outside professors analyzing the work of a candidate at the request of the University — while junior faculty are in no position to correct unfair perceptions of their scholarship.
To avoid unfair political interference, Tilghman, in an interview at One Nassau Hall, said the Committee of Three asks for more than 12 letters per review, "so that if there are individuals out there whose opinions are outliers, it would be very clear . . . and we ignore those opinions."
But that doesn't work, according to some junior faculty, who emphasized that the system is not only flawed at the final decision time, but along the way. They say the University — or at a bare minimum the history department — fails to give junior faculty a fair clue as to how they're progressing in their scholarly work.
One particular professor, a former junior faculty member who chose to leave Princeton and is now tenured at a major research university, said the tenure system at Princeton is "a corrupt, exploitative, intentionally opaque system that is completely rigged to the benefit of the institution."
Though Isenberg didn't go as far in his criticism of the system, he agreed with the professor's characterization of the tenure process as "intentionally opaque."
For this article, only those willing to speak positively of Isenberg's work spoke on the record. One professor, who offered what was perhaps the most scathing indictment of Isenberg's work in describing it as "disappointing" and "not worthy of tenure at Princeton," said, "It is not easy for academics to comment on the work of their colleagues."
At some other institutions, in particular state schools, candidates are allowed to read their department's review of their scholarship and teaching, Isenberg said. Furthermore, he said, they are also privy to the names of the scholars writing their outside letters and, in certain cases, are actually allowed to read the letters.
At Princeton that doesn't happen — unless the information is leaked, as it routinely is, according to senior faculty.
"You don't know who's writing; you can't see the letters; you don't know what the departments saying," Isenberg said. Though a candidate may ask that certain scholars not be contacted for outside letters, "that doesn't really mean anything," he said.
Tignor said his department would "absolutely" honor such a request, but that he didn't know if the Committee of Three would.
But Isenberg believes more is needed. If a candidate is not privy to what's being said about him, he argued, there is "an invitation to some people [who are assessing the candidate] to say things that they would never say if they had to attach their name to it publicly."
That's just the point, Tignor said: If the University opened up the whole system, the department and Committee of Three may not receive honest assessments — a view backed by Tilghman and Dobkin.
"I do not believe that you're going to get honest outside letters unless you can assure a high level of confidentiality," Tignor said. Honest assessments of junior faculty are becoming increasingly difficult, he argued, because outside letters are so often leaked and thus scholars "are very reluctant to speak their minds."
Isenberg denies ever having read an outside letter concerning his candidacy or ever asking individuals if they had written for him.
Better mentoring necessary
If one thing is clear, it is that Isenberg's case has prompted greater introspection in the history department at Princeton about how it handles junior faculty.
"It probably should be more open," Tignor said of senior faculty mentoring of junior faculty, concurring with a sentiment expressed by other senior members of the department. "One of the results of the Isenberg case is that we will try and be more open with our junior faculty as they come through the ranks."
Tignor said that throughout the five-year period — and particularly after the three-year evaluation — senior faculty should be mentoring assistant professors about the strengths and weaknesses of their scholarship.
"We review our candidates at three years and [senior faculty are] meant to have good conversations with people: 'You ought to do this, you ought not to do this,'" Tignor said.
But Isenberg said, "Among the assistant professors here the idea that this department mentors any of its junior faculty is just a joke, it's laughable. It simply doesn't happen."
Two other junior faculty members confirmed this view.
In his own case, Isenberg said then-history department chair Philip Nord called him at home one evening after his three-year review.
"As I remember the conversation," Isenberg said, "it lasted about a minute, and it was, 'Everything is fine, don't rest on your laurels,' and, 'The department members will be coming to talk to you individually and taking you out to lunch to talk about the last three years and the next.' . . . Those individual conversations never happened."
Nord said that, though he did not remember the conversation in its entirety, Isenberg's account seemed reasonable.
The University doesn't closely monitor mentoring relations among faculty. Dobkin said his office only maintains contact with department chairs and that it is the chairs' responsibility to ensure effective mentoring.
"We meet with every department head once every year and one of the questions is how junior faculty are being mentored," he said. "So, if the chair comes in and tells us something that seems very plausible, we don't go and check on them."
Dobkin added that he hasn't heard any concerns regarding the efficacy of the informal mentoring of junior faculty, while admitting, "I haven't gone looking for concerns." He cautioned, however, that "you don't want to infer something about a system with 800 faculty [members] from one case."
But despite that view, both Tignor and Isenberg seem to agree there is room for improvement — at least in the history department.
Tignor said there exists "a lot of cowardice, professional cowardice" among senior faculty members when it comes to confronting junior faculty about their strengths and weaknesses as scholars and teachers. "You don't want to hurt somebody's feelings," he said.
Isenberg, however, has no sympathy for such a rationalization. "To whom do they think they're doing a kindness?" he asked. "I would rather have been told by the people who voted against me that they were going to vote against me."
Tenure review announced
Tilghman said she has recognized that problems may exist and pledged an exhaustive review of the tenure system next year, which she has been planning since she became president in 2001.
Speaking to the University's current five-year tenure system — one that is significantly shorter than Harvard and Yale's eight-year processes — Tilghman said that she's not "sure it is a good fit for Princeton," adding that she continues to believe the review will have to address concerns that tenure, as it currently stands, is inherently biased against women.
In 1993, Tilghman wrote an oped for The New York Times in which she argued that tenure discriminated against women because the time when a candidate comes up for tenure "coincide[s] precisely with the time when women are likely to want to have children."
Though she advocated abolishing tenure then, Tilghman said her opinion has since changed and that she worries that, were tenure to be eliminated, academics would not be able to take experimental risks with their work.
"What would you replace it with?" she asked. "It's all very well and good to say that the system doesn't work — that may be true. But you have to have something to replace it with and I'm hoping that we'll have an opportunity next year to really think through [this]. What is the best system for ensuring excellence at Princeton?"
Regardless of what changes the review proposes, one thing will always remain the same, she said: "If we want to continue to be ranked as one of the great universities in the world, our faculty have to be great scholars. They can't be just good scholars.
"[T]here is this incredible connection between the quality of the students and the quality the faculty," she said. "The minute we start lowering admissions standards or we start lowering the standards we have for the quality of the faculty, we will be a different university, I can tell you that."
Are mistakes made?
"Sure, mistakes are made, and I'd just be foolish to say that mistakes are never made. This is a human endeavor we're talking about," she said.
In the end, however, that may not be enough for Drew Isenberg — who now heads to Temple University, with tenure — and his supporters.
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