Archive for Monday, July 16, 2012

Heard on the Hill: Story of Albert Romkes, KU engineering prof who was denied tenure, goes national; KU move-in day set for Friday, Aug. 17

July 16, 2012


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• The case of mechanical engineering professor Albert Romkes and his long tenure fight against the university went national this week, as the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote this lengthy article about the case (though you’ll need a subscription to read it).

The newspaper didn’t spend a whole lot of time sorting out the merits of the case (which we’ve covered as well), but did remark on just how unusual this case was in the amount of public discourse generated by Romkes and his supporters in what’s normally a process that’s very private.

There were at least two full-page ads in the Journal-World newspaper, brochures distributed to students and faculty, and an extensive website devoted to his cause.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking through the available record on this case, and I think reasonable people can disagree on whether his research record was good enough to merit tenure. I don’t think his research record is a slam-dunk either way, though I’ve heard from people on both sides of the argument claiming it was. His proponents have been very vocal about their case, and I’d encourage you to visit the website if you’re unfamiliar with their arguments. His opponents at the university have been less vocal, but have raised some good points to me in private.

Though he alleges discrimination based on his homosexuality, he didn’t raise that point in his court filing, and the university denies it discriminates. Though I think it’s worth pointing out that for this to be true, multiple layers of the university’s tenure review process would have to be in on it, including an entire promotion and tenure committee, a dean, the provost and the chancellor, who all made independent decisions to deny Romkes tenure, even though a department-level committee recommended he be awarded it.

The article also provided an update on Romkes — his last day at KU was May 16, and he since returned to his native Holland, where he married his longtime partner.

He thinks his very public fight will likely cost him in his future job search.

A district court judge is also reviewing the case, though it’s likely a long shot that he’ll overturn the university’s decision.

• I don’t know if we’ll ever have a really solid answer on whether or not Romkes’ research record was truly good enough to merit tenure or if he received different treatment from others in his situation, but I do think we can draw a couple of conclusions from this whole affair.

First, I think we can now safely even stop pretending that teaching has anything to do with granting tenure. Maybe we stopped doing that a long time ago, but I think this case highlights that more than any others I’ve seen. I’ve not heard anyone say that Romkes was anything but an excellent teacher. He won teaching awards, and inspired a whole bunch of students to rally to his cause.

But in a case where we had a professor with a borderline research profile, and an excellent teaching profile, the research won out.

Second, I think that these aggressive tactics from Romkes (and more to the point, his supporters, whom I believe acted without Romkes’ direct involvement in many cases) ultimately didn’t do him any favors.

This was particularly true in university governance, an arena where Romkes and his folks tried to push their case. They camped out in meetings and made their voices heard. I think it’s clear their brusque style cost them some support, even as some faculty and university senate members were curious about the questions they were raising.

It’s certainly an unusual case, and one we’re not likely to see the likes of again for some time. If you learned something else from the whole affair, feel free to share it in the comments below or in a message to me. I’d love to hear it.

• I spotted for the first time on Monday a reminder that summer will be winding down soon in about a month, and that the great annual Lawrence ritual of move-in day will be upon us before we know it.

If you’re the type that likes to mark calendars, you can circle Friday, Aug. 17, as the day to steer clear of the raging hordes at Target, because that’s when residence and scholarship halls will open.

Jayhawker Towers apartments will open on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

• I take tips for Heard on the Hill from all comers, regardless if they have tenure or not. Just keep sending them to


parrothead8 5 years, 8 months ago

"First, I think we can now safely even stop pretending that teaching has anything to do with granting tenure."

Unfortunately, this is so true. It's been known in the hallways of colleges and universities for decades, too, that most administrators care much more about the bottom line than about what students are learning or how they are learning it.

thinkinganalytically 5 years, 8 months ago

Actually I think it was the School of Engineering , not the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where he was trying to get tenure. Perhaps Andy could tell us a little more about how tolerant the Mechanical Engineering department is. How many female faculty are there in that department? How does that compare to other departments in the school, say Chem E?

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 8 months ago

A sad case romkes. Apparently his research was not sufficiently strong and independent. KU is a research university, after all.

I doubt his homosexuality was any factor, and it is too bad that it was used to try to attack the KU decision. It does disservice to both KU and to homosexual advance.

LloydDobbler 5 years, 8 months ago

My experience with tenure at KU has less to do with academic achievement and more to do with kissing the correct butts and showing the proper deference for self-flatulating administrators.

classclown 5 years, 8 months ago

This serves to highlight the sense of entitlement people have around here. Especially on the hill.

"I doubt his homosexuality was any factor, and it is too bad that it was used to try to attack the KU decision. It does disservice to both KU and to homosexual advance."

It's a card to be played. Anytime someone doesn't get their way and that someone happens to be a homosexual or lesbian or trannie or whatever., they will play that card. Just like any other protected group.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 8 months ago

"Just like any other protected group."

Your prejudices notwithstanding, the fact is, these are extremely vulnerable and unprotected groups.

Cai 5 years, 8 months ago

I won't disagree - many people in these groups ARE not only vulnerable and unprotected, but also actually discriminated against.

However, there do exist people who get fired, kicked out, not approved for something for other reasons (like not showing up, yelling at customers, inappropriate behavior, not paying bills) that claim they were discriminated against who actually weren't.

I have no idea which case this is, as I haven't been following it super closely. However, just because some people are bigoted doesn't preclude other people from using every possible card they can - even the unjustified onse.

question4u 5 years, 8 months ago

"First, I think we can now safely even stop pretending that teaching has anything to do with granting tenure."

Not at all. This case may suggest that excellent teaching is not enough to make up for inadequate progress in research at a research university, but it does not indicate anything about whether a faculty member with a poor teaching record can receive tenure there, regardless of how outstanding he or she might be as a researcher.

KU Faculty Senate guidelines for tenure, available online, state that "the record must demonstrate effective teaching" as well as "a successfully developing scholarly career".

A faculty member who is an excellent teacher but who has not successfully developed a "scholarly career" has not met the tenure guidelines, but neither has a faculty member who is an excellent researcher but has not demonstrated "effective teaching".

If the latter were granted tenure then there would at least be a logical basis for questioning whether "teaching has anything to do with granting tenure." As it is, the only conclusion that can be made from the Romkes case is that KU was true to its tenure guidelines and did not grant tenure to someone who was judged not to have met the requirements in both teaching AND research.

just_for_comments 5 years, 8 months ago

I've had what I consider the great privelige of knowing Dr. Romkes as a student, colleague, and friend, and I know for a fact that what was done to him was a great injustice. I would like to say a few things about some of the points made in this article and in the comments.

Firstly, Albert never blamed his denial of tenure on his sexual orientation. The closest he came to that was saying that he couldn't rule it out as a possibility, considering the denial for tenure had no strong basis in terms of his professional accomplishments. I spent hours discussing it with him, and we both agree that it seemed most likely that Dean Bell just had a problem with him, which may have had nothing to do with his homosexuality. The primary proponents of the idea that he was discriminated against were the student and alumni support groups, with whom Dr. Romkes tried to limit his direct involvement as much as possible. So before you go accusing him of trying to get free handouts because he's gay, try to remember that he never had anything to do with it.

Secondly, anyone who claims that Albert Romkes's research record was anything but exemplary is only showing off their ignorance. The quality of his research is actually quite superior to that of almost all of the tenured Mechanical Engineering faculty. The problem, as the administration claimed, was not the research itself, but the lack of money it generated. Our work focuses on very fundamental scientific and mathematical research, which typically do not generate monetary results immediately. The fact that research's worth is measured in dollars should be extremely concerning to anyone; Maxwell's work in electromagnetics could have been considered "worthless" when he did it, but our world runs on his principles today.

Furthermore, money isn't even really an issue. Our program generates hundreds of thousands of dollars. The administration used what is called the "PI rule" to attack Dr. Romkes. The rule, which was created after Albert came to KU and to my knowledge still hasn't been approved, requires that tenure-seeking individuals be the primary investigator on research grants totalling to a certain amount of money. Dr. Romkes did astounding work, but never bothered to have his name put down as the PI because no one told him when the rule came into effect.

As I said, it is truly a disappointment that something like this could happen.

gccs14r 5 years, 8 months ago

There is a saying for tenure-track faculty: Dare to suck. What that means is, do the bare minimum in the classroom and for service and dedicate all your effort to your research, because that's all that matters to the college and university P&T committees. Teaching in particular is nearly irrelevant to the tenure process, despite administrative bleating to the contrary.

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