StuCo Urges More Student Involvement in Tenure Process

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday afternoon, Student Council President Peter Gardner ’08 contacted the student body and select members of the administration to “emphasize the importance of student feedback for tenureship,” and “to convey … the importance of filling out requests for recommendations by professors and department heads.”

The letter was sent in response to a presentation by supporters of Spanish Professor Horacio Chiong Rivero, who was recently denied tenure, during Sunday’s Student Council meeting. You can read more about the student campaign here.

Erin Floyd and Claire Galpern, two of Rivero’s supporters, explained that “if the college is making decisions in the best interests of the students, [the denial of tenure] doesn’t seem to make sense to us.”

Gardner was reluctant to lead Student Council in endorsing Rivero’s cause in particular. “Tenure is so political, personal, and the school legally can’t disclose certain information, I don’t know if [this] is something we should get involved in,” he said. This is particularly true because research by Educational Policy Representative Elisha Ann ’08 has revealed that Swarthmore takes student input far more seriously than many of its peer schools.

The options the Council considered including signing a letter in support of Rivero, doing nothing, and issuing a statement of support for general student involvement in the tenure process. Campus Life Representative Alyssa Work ’08 came out in favor of the last option. “It is broad enough that we aren’t getting involved in the politics of the situation,” she explained, “but I do support students being involved in the process more.”

Appointments Chair Nate Erskine ’10 lauded Rivero’s supporters. “I think your activism has been really commendable. … It is great to see how much you guys really care about this professor. Erskine argued in favor of the general tenure statement, pointing out that Rivero is not the only tenure decision which has riled up students—for instance, the Classics Department is facing the loss of Deborah Beck.

Student Groups Advisor Paul Apollo ’09 cautioned the Council against expecting any kind of unanimous support for any statements on tenure. “I don’t think it is Student Council’s job to get involved in tenure decisions,” he said.


  1. 0
    Deborah Beck says:

    Just to clarify, while I have been very gratified by the support that students have offered me during my appeal process — including the supportive comments in this discussion — I haven’t asked anyone to submit letters of support for my appeal. If students approach me with questions about how they can support my appeal, I’ve told them how to go about it, but I haven’t solicited students’ support. Anyone who wants to talk to me about my tenure denial or how the appeal process works is welcome to come by my office.

  2. 0
    Pieter Judson says:

    I am a faculty member of the committee on promotion and tenure, and have served on this committee in other years as well. I can confirm for Swarthmore students that their input is taken extremely seriously. We could not do our job if hundreds of students did not write these informative letters every year. In fact, we sometimes have to chase after and nag students to get them to write these letters during the semester because we need to have a very large student response for every file.

    The various departments as well as our committee all spend an enormous amount of time and energy reading every one of the many letters they receive from students about faculty with the utmost care. We frequently discuss individual paragraphs and sentences written by students that make a particular point about a professor. We work very hard to try to understand everything about the classroom experience based on what the students letters are telling us.

    Personally, I think that it would be impossible for a professor to receive tenure at Swarthmore, even if s/he had won a Nobel prize, if the student letters did not portray that person as a very strong teacher. The student letters are a critical component–some would say the most important component– of a professor’s tenure file. They are not the only part of the file, obviously, but they are absolutely crucial.

    By the way, I would regret the unfortunate choice of the word “political” to describe the system by which tenure is awarded, but that particular statement may have been taken out of context; I don’t know. It is true, however, that the system requires a great deal of confidentiality, obviously, both to protect the candidate for tenure, and to protect those–most of them students–who write letters of evaluation. I also would refer people to the earlier post that mentions the faculty handbook, available on line.

  3. 0
    Diego says:


    You’re right in saying that many people (especially those that have just joined the discussion regardind prof. Beck) seem to know little about the process. For their reference, the tenure process is described in the Faculty Handbook, which is available online. If one is going to make judgements about the system, (like the anonymous poster above who said that “this is a sad system”) one should first know it.

    I also agree with you that tenure is “to some extent” beyond the reach of the student body, and it is important that it be kept this way for confidentiality reasons. And I do think that, as it stands, the process does allow for a considerable amount of student input: student letters are supposed to be very important, and teaching, of which I guess student input is the main indicator, is supposedly the most important factor in making tenure decisions. As such, I actually think it is a very good system.

    I also believe, however, that if one has a good grasp of how the tenure process works, then one can make informed judgements about the decisions made by the Tenure Committee. If in the eyes of the students a professor seems (to a reasonable degree) to fare well in the stated criteria but is denied tenure, then yes, it could mean that there are factors of which we are unaware, but it could also mean that the process is not being followed with rigour. As such, I think the “protests” have tried to emphasize student support for Prof. Chiong Rivero, but also our preoccupation – based on, I would hope, “reasonable” grounds – that other (non-stated) factors may have influenced this decision.

  4. 0
    Student2 says:

    Students’ input in the tenure process should be taken seriously, but ESPECIALLY their reactions to the final decision. No, usually students don’t know their professors the best. For many of my professors, I don’t know their reputation in their specific field and all of their commitments and services to Swarthmore. Some things I have no desire to know, such as their relationships with fellow coworkers or the politics within a department.

    It is when these factors force an excellent professor to leave Swarthmore College that I begin to doubt the current tenure system. Should the politics of a department be weighed more heavily than the students’ desires for him/her to stay?

  5. 0
    MB '07 says:

    These protests seem to be more based on the objections of a group of students to several individual decisions than to the process as a whole. But they are protesting the system as much as the individual cases, and without demonstrating a very firm grasp on how that system works. A little less rhetoric and a little more discussion is needed here.

    While I’m not sure if I agree with Peter about tenure being inevitably personal and political, I think he’s right that it does to some extent lie beyond the reach of the student body. The most important and most useful role students have in tenure is take the time to write detailed letters before tenure or reappointment committees meet (I know committees often have trouble getting enough letters!).

  6. 0
    Jeff says:

    You can still support Professor Beck! She is appealing her tenure decision and has asked for students to send letters to the Provost about it. However sooner is better on those, and they definitely have to be in by the end of finals.

    And they apparently solicited the recommendations of all students who had taken a class with her, so we have all had a chance to write in.

  7. 0
    anon. says:

    “I don’t know if [this] is something we should get involved in,” he said. This is particularly true because research by Educational Policy Representative Elisha Ann ’08 has revealed that Swarthmore takes student input far more seriously than many of its peer schools.”

    What is particularly true? Are petitions and recommendation letters the only way to get involved? If I had known a petition or anything else would make a difference, I would have supported Professor Beck. It seems like students have no choice in tenure decisions, but they should.

    This is a sad system; don’t we know the professors best? Why interview for a new Classics prof when we already have a full team of wonderful people? Students should be informed about the entire process, or at least the steps in a normal tenure process, from beginning to end. And what about a forum for student input, not just a recommendation or two.

  8. 0
    Student says:

    Why are we happy to accept that “tenure is political”? This is where I think we’re getting the picture wrong. In fact, I think tenure should not be political, but be based strictly on academic grounds and on factors like service to the school, etc (which are the factors outlined in the Faculty Handbook!). When we allow the political to come in, we also allow injustices to happen because there are certainly political imbalances in Swarthmore. By allowing the political to be a central factor, we underemine some of our College’s central commitments, such as academic freedom and balance within departments and the whole campus. If you look at the guidelines for tenure decisions, you’ll see that there are no political factors involved in the process.

    But maybe people mean something else when they say that “tenure is political”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *