• September 12, 2014

Denied Tenure, a Professor Takes His Battle Public

U. of Kansas alumni rally to his cause, to little effect

Denied Tenure, a Professor Burns His BridgesKicker 1

Julie Denesha for The Chronicle

Albert Romkes, until recently an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the U. of Kansas, works at home in Lawrence, Kan. He acknowledges that his public campaign to reverse his tenure denial will make it difficult for him to find another academic job.

When Albert Romkes was denied tenure, he decided he wasn't going to leave the University of Kansas without a fight.

First the mechanical-engineering professor appealed directly to the chancellor. When that failed, he turned to the courts to force Kansas to reconsider. Finally, still facing the loss of his job, he and his supporters made the fight very, very public.

Color brochures. A Web site. Posters. Picket signs.

At the very least, they figured, they would make sure the university's version of events didn't become the official narrative.

"People need to know what happened," said Mr. Romkes, 39, whose bid for tenure failed last year. He believes that the decision by his dean and department chair not to follow the recommendation for tenure that came from his school's promotion-and-tenure committee and most of his departmental colleagues stems from his being openly gay. "To me, standing up for myself was a matter of principle."

Mr. Romkes's supporters—a mix of faculty members, friends, students, and Kansas alumni—agreed.

By the beginning of this year, Mr. Romkes's homegrown public-relations machine was in high gear.

First, they decided, they needed an icon. They browsed clip art on the Internet, but nothing seemed quite right. Then Mr. Romkes had an idea. He offered to wear his regalia—a burgundy gown with a red-and-white hood—for an impromptu photo shoot. But they agreed the image should be faceless so as to serve as a sort of Everyman, since they believed what happened to Mr. Romkes could happen to any tenure-track professor. They also wanted a cryptic image that would stick in people's minds.

A little Photoshop magic erased Mr. Romkes's head, and the campaign's trademark image, the headless professor, was born. It has since graced the front of color brochures, posters, and picket signs. It also has a place on the home page of the Web site that serves as an anchor of the campaign. At that site, KU­alumni4romkes.org, alumni posted numerous documents to help bolster support for Mr. Romkes's case.

Every year, assistant professors like Mr. Romkes are denied tenure. Some challenge the decision, sometimes in court. That step alone carries risks for scholars, who then might have to explain the litigious move to potential future employers.

Mr. Romkes took his fight even further, realizing it could jeopardize his academic career.

The alumni who put together the Web site took the site's tagline, "Carefully Documenting the Case of Inappropriate Tenure Denial," seriously. Just about anything anyone would want to read about Mr. Romkes's tenure case is online.

Text of the rule that the university had not officially approved but used to evaluate his bid for tenure? Check. Mr. Romkes's rebuttal to his department chair and his dean? Check. Letters of support from professors and testimonials about the quality of his teaching from former students? Check. A letter from the provost reflecting the chancellor's final decision on the matter? Check. A list of Mr. Romkes's research grants? Check.

"We would like the world to know the circumstances that lead to this injustice in hopes of preventing similar travesties in the future," the site reads.

A Higher Standard?

Jill Jess, a spokeswoman for the university, wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Romkes's work simply didn't meet the mark. "The department chair, the dean, the university promotion-and-tenure committee, and the provost all recommended against tenure because his research record did not meet the university's standard," she wrote. "There are no allegations of discrimination in Romkes's court filings because the university does not discriminate."

The university told Mr. Romkes that his track record of getting research money—he had two $50,000 grants at the time he was reviewed for tenure—wasn't sufficient because he was not the principal investigator on those grants. Mr. Romkes had two more grants, worth a total of $570,000, that were pending.

The Alumni for Romkes Web site, which went live in February, makes it clear that the professor's supporters aren't buying the university's explanation. According to them, and Mr. Romkes, the principal-investigator rule hasn't been used to deny tenure to other professors. The Web site frames the situation much differently, saying the university produced a standard that didn't officially exist, held Mr. Romkes to it, and then denied him tenure when he didn't measure up.

Mr. Romkes, who specializes in computational mechanics, says he is the first and only openly gay faculty member to work in the School of Engineering—a fact he believes is the reason for the unprecedented actions that took place during his tenure review. The promotion-and-tenure committee for the School of Engineering unanimously supported his tenure bid as did all but two of the professors (the chair and another faculty member) in his department. Mr. Romkes said a dean hasn't opposed a unanimous recommendation from the School of Engineering's promotion-and-tenure committee in the recent history of the university.

"It was a lot of personal information for me to share," Mr. Romkes said of the Web site's contents. "But I decided that every once in a while in life, you have to do something like this."

Ron Barrett, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Kansas and one of Mr. Romkes's most outspoken supporters, worked with the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors to publicly back Mr. Romkes. The AAUP issued a sharply worded statement urging Kansas administrators to reconsider their decision.

The open letter, signed by Mohamed El Hodiri, president of the Kansas chapter of the AAUP, and ratified by that group's members in late February, was addressed to Bernadette Gray-Little, the university's chancellor. The association turned to local newspapers to get the letter printed as a full-page ad.

"Our membership was just so incensed by what was going on that we just took the bull by the horns," Mr. Barrett said. "I don't think Albert really had a say in whether or not we should go with it. We just all thought, We need to make sure that the chancellor understands that we as a group support Professor Romkes. And we need to make sure that our colleagues are aware of this situation across campus."

But that awareness began to make Mr. Romkes somewhat of a pariah. Students were overwhelmingly supportive, Mr. Romkes said, although some said they were fearful of repercussions if they stood by him openly.

Many of his advocates on the faculty, despite having the protection of tenure, supported him surreptitiously, Mr. Romkes said. Others steered clear of his campaign.

"They would say something to me, one on one," he said, "but not out in the open."

'Many Hands Make Light Work'

About 200 Kansas students and alumni signed an online petition that told the chancellor that "firing KU's great teachers and researchers without valid justification does nothing but harm KU." It went on to say that many of the signers would be withholding donations to the university's alumni association until the decision not to grant tenure to Mr. Romkes was reversed.

Another petition, for members of the public, garnered an additional 95 signatures. "We wanted to show that there aren't just a couple of people upset about this," said Christopher Armstrong, a 2010 graduate of the mechanical-engineering department at Kansas and a former student of Mr. Romkes's.

Mr. Romkes's supporters put together a brochure for students. It told them that they and the university would be "missing a good teacher" if he had to leave.

They designed a second version of the brochure for the faculty. It summarized why the way Mr. Romkes was evaluated was unfair, and urged professors on the campus to flex their faculty-governance muscles and "take steps to correct the situation."

Both versions of the brochure featured the headless-professor icon, highlighted Mr. Romkes's achievements, and offered testimonials.

Brochures were handed out to students across the campus. Several hundred faculty members at Kansas received a personal copy of the brochure via U.S. mail. Mr. Barrett and his wife, Karin, held an envelope-stuffing party. A hearty bowl of stew prepared by Ms. Barrett helped keep the group of about a half-dozen people on task. "We just had an assembly line going," she said. "Many hands make light work."

Supporters also stepped up to cover the costs of the public campaign. Many students and alumni who had signed the petition gave $5 or $10 after reading an appeal for donations on Facebook. Tenured faculty who were members of the Kansas AAUP chapter gave money as well.

One evening during the same week in February that the mailings went out, Mr. Romkes's supporters blanketed many academic buildings with posters. When they were done, the headless professor stared out from kiosks and bulletin boards around the campus. The wording on the poster raised questions about the university: "KU ... open, tolerant, centered on shared governance? ... Think again ..." Then it plugged the Web site, saying, "Discover how one of KU's best was denied tenure ..."

With the posters in place, the professor's supporters were ready for their grand finale. They called local television stations and told them to be ready.

Enter Lady Gaga

The day after the posters were hung, Ms. Barrett and eight others arrived on the campus dressed in blue jeans or black pants and matching T-shirts that read, "No one is equal until everyone is equal."

The air was nippy, typical for a mid-February afternoon in Lawrence, Kan., as the group set a boom box behind them. On Wescoe Beach, a large concrete plaza that is a popular student hangout, they got into formation.

When the first strains of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" began to play, the dancers broke into a tightly choreographed dance routine cribbed from a Jazzercise class many of them were in. After about two minutes, their version of a "flash mob" for Mr. Romkes was complete. A clip of the routine made the local news.

About a week after that event, the group held a "Rally for Rights, Rally for Romkes." The headless academic resurfaced on picket signs, and about 30 people, including faculty members, former students, friends, and even some high-school students, circled the campus in the cold. Mr. Romkes, as planned, didn't attend.

"We did not want Albert out front too much," Ms. Barrett said. "We didn't want people to think that he was just out there blowing his own horn. We wanted to indicate that he had support from other people. We think he's a good professor."

But in the end, the campaign didn't work. His last day at Kansas was May 16.

Not long after, Mr. Romkes traveled to Holland, where he married his longtime partner, Matt Murphy. The outcome of Mr. Romkes's petition for judicial review—which professors can file within a month of a tenure denial, according to university guidelines—is pending in a district court. References to it are prevalent in Google search results for Mr. Romkes's name, and the publicly acrimonious nature of the professor's parting with the university is also clear.

"There were some people who were absolutely against dirty laundry being aired in public," Mr. Barrett said. "But if you keep all your secrets buried in the closet, it stinks to high heaven. The better way is to expose it."

Mr. Romkes, a native of the Netherlands, has made peace with the idea that he might never work as a professor again. Before taking the job at Kansas, in 2005, he spent two years in a postdoctoral position at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 2003.

"Yes, I have lost. I lost the tenure process, I've lost my faculty job. I've lost my career," said Mr. Romkes, who won several teaching awards from his department at Kansas. "But to me, personally, it was the discrimination element that made me say I'm going to fight this.

"If it were something procedural, that's a different story," he said. "My advice then would be to look for another job during your terminal year."

Life After Academe

Looking for another job is what Mr. Romkes is doing now. He hopes to find work as a researcher, perhaps in a national research lab. A job in industry is also a possibility, Mr. Romkes said, if he could find work in the research-and-development unit of a software-development company that specializes in engineering software or at a large engineering company that has its own engineering analysis and development department.

Supporters among his former colleagues talk animatedly of the skills that should keep him in higher education, saying he is a good teacher and has a knack for mentoring graduate students.

They point out that Mr. Romkes ultimately was awarded a total of $670,000 in research money—the bulk of which, ironically, came within two months of the chancellor's decision to deny his appeal in April of last year.

But Mr. Romkes's former colleagues are not very hopeful about Mr. Romkes's future in academe.

"Other academic institutions are simply going to push his applications over into the 'do not consider' file," said Peter W. TenPas, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a supporter of Mr. Romkes. His colleague, Mr. TenPas said, was "courageous" for turning to the courts, but "if you don't get tenure at a place like the University of Kansas, you're done."

Mr. Romkes agrees.

"A faculty position is very difficult to get at this point for me," he said. "That's really sad for me because I think I'd be the perfect guy for a position like that. It's sad that good teachers are not really appreciated."

Still, Mr. Romkes said he had no regrets about going as public as he did with his tenure battle: "I didn't want to leave with my tail between my legs."

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