Publication Date

September 1, 1997

Tenure, tenure requirements, and gender discrimination were brought into focus this past spring, when a board of Stanford University deans rejected tenure for Karen Sawislak, an assistant professor in history who had been unanimously recommended for tenure by her department.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the board of deans rejected Sawislak on a 3-to-1 vote because she had not been “sufficiently productive.” However, Sawislak told Perspectives that “it is difficult to understand this negative decision by the Stanford dean, given that my tenure case was so strongly supported by my colleagues, my students, and the historians who served as external reviewers of my scholarship.”

Her first book, Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874, has been well received, and she has partially completed work on a second book, entitled The "Labor Problem" in America: 1880-1905 Moreover, she was a popular teacher, and students have organized a letter writing and petition campaign on her behalf.

Two weeks after the decision this past April, several senior members of the history faculty met with the dean and associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences to discuss Sawislak's specific case, and to raise more generally the university's commitment to hiring and promoting women. The issue of tenuring women faculty in the history department is particularly sensitive. According to Joel Beinin, chair of the department's affirmative action committee, over the past 15 years there have been seven cases in which the deans intervened either to change the hiring rank or to reverse a recommendation to hire or promote an individual to tenure. Of those seven, six were women and the seventh was a minority. At present, just four of the 39 tenured history faculty are women. Sawislak noted that “in light of the Stanford deans' overall record of decisions in cases involving women historians, my tenure denial appears to extend a troubling pattern."

According to a university press release, Sawislak is gathering information about an appeal of the decision. However, according to John Shaven, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, her case could only be appealed "if new evidence is brought to bear, such as whether something was procedurally wrong with the decision or if the decision itself was thought to be 'unreasonable.'"

According to Sawislak, the administration has been slow in providing "a complete and historical set of data concerning gender and the rate of tenure in the school." Nevertheless, Sawislak said she expects to begin the appeal process in September.

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