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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published October 15 2013

Faculty group vindicates terminated UND professor

GRAND FORKS – A University of North Dakota French professor whose career at the university effectively ended because colleagues felt she was not collegial enough should get to continue on her path to tenure, a faculty committee has determined.

On the other hand, it’s the Languages Department as a whole that lacks collegiality according to a report from the University Senate’s Standing Committee on Faculty Rights. It recommends intervention by the university president.

Sarah Mosher would be starting the sixth year of her tenure track now, but for the “terminal contract” she received in April for this school year, which effectively ends her career at UND.

She appealed to the five-member committee, choosing to keep her hearings open to the public and offering a glimpse into an academic department rife with conflict.

What followed was 32 hours of hearings stretched over six days in early September. The committee deliberated nearly 10 more hours over three days. Its report landed on President Robert Kelley’s desk Tuesday.

“This grievance identifies a symptom of a greater problem in that this committee has observed evidence that there is discord, dysfunction, chaos and interpersonal conflict within the Languages (Department) and the French section,” the committee said.

“In order for the university to reach its full potential, (the committee) recommends the President take a proactive stance to resolve the underlying departmental issues surrounding this grievance,” the committee said.

Kelley has until the end of Nov. 4 to decide on the committee’s recommendations.

“It’s his call,” said John Bridewell, a professor of aviation elected to serve on the committee.

It was Mosher’s colleagues in the Languages Department who voted to recommend that she be denied tenure. That recommendation went through the department chairman, a dean and other academic officers, leading ultimately to the terminal contract.

Witnesses from the Languages Department said Mosher lacked “collegiality.” They accused her of slamming doors, arguing with colleagues and seemingly competing with them for students. They said she had rolled her eyes at faculty meetings when she disagreed.

But Mosher argued, and the committee agreed, that the department’s policy, as those of most at UND, looks only to the traditional three “pillars” for tenure evaluation: teaching, research and “service to the institution and society.”

People on both sides of the issue agreed Mosher did well at all three, Bridewell said.

“No testimony or documents were provided that indicated Dr. Mosher did not meet the criteria for teaching, research, and service,” the report said. “In fact, every year for which Dr. Mosher was evaluated, she met or exceeded the criteria.”

Collegiality

“An implied fourth pillar” of collegiality was not a documented part of the tenure policy of the Languages Department or the College of Arts and Sciences of which it’s a part, Bridewell said.

In fact, the committee found that while some colleagues criticized Mosher’s personality and behavior at work, there also was evidence that she “demonstrated significant collegiality” when she covered for classes of professors Virgil Benoit and Sherrie Fleshman “when they were incapacitated for an extended period of time.”

Benoit testified last month that Mosher’s lack of courtesy and collegiality fit into “a larger issue of trust, communication and balance. This can’t go on.”

But according to the committee, “No evidence was provided that Dr. Mosher was ‘intentionally’ disruptive or ‘substantially’ detrimental to the well-being of Languages. There was no decline in class enrollments in the French section and there was an increase in French majors.”

Bridewell said he dissented from the full committee in that he saw collegiality as a legitimate concern, but he agreed it was not an explicit tenure requirement.

He said his school, the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, actually is discussing adding such a criterion for tenure but using the term “academic citizenship.”

Academics’ goal

Tenure is a big deal within academia, seen as a protection of intellectual freedom but more practically because failing to obtain it usually means the end of a professor’s career at a particular university.

UND officials say the typical process is “six years up and out” for those seeking tenure.

There are about 381 tenured professors at UND out of a total of about 827, not all of whom are in tenure-track positions.

From 2003 to this year, only five faculty members have been denied tenure, said UND spokesman Peter Johnson.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, he said.

“It’s a pretty selective process, but it’s a good process” and involves mentors who make clear to faculty members what is expected, Johnson said. “So they don’t go up for tenure, most of them, until they are pretty much ready for it.”

If Kelley agrees with the committee, Mosher would still have a crack at tenure. And, when that judgment is made, the committee recommends, “all applicable processes and protocols be followed.”