Topeka TOPEKA — A panel of the Kansas Court of Appeals on Friday upheld Kansas University’s decision to deny tenure to an assistant professor in a case that drew national attention.
Albert Romkes, who had taught mechanical engineering, was denied tenure in 2011 by KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. KU officials had said Romkes failed to attract research funds.
The appeals court wrote: “We are loathe to substitute our judgment for the University’s business judgment on whether to award academic tenure to a faculty member in a research-driven scientific discipline who has not demonstrated the ability over the long haul to attract research funds on his own.”
Two review committees had recommended that Romkes be approved for tenure. Romkes said he was never informed he would be evaluated on generating external research funds, and that the rule concerning that criterion was never approved by the university’s standards and procedures of promotion and tenure committee.
Despite the committee recommendations in favor of tenure, Stuart Bell, then dean of the School of Engineering, said that Romkes shouldn’t get tenure because he had failed to establish “a sustainable independent research program.”
Bell and others had said that Romkes had not served as a principal investigator on an externally funded grant.
Romkes filed a lawsuit, but Douglas County District Court Judge Robert Fairchild denied relief, saying KU’s decision was “supported by substantial evidence and is not arbitrary nor capricious.” The appeals court panel affirmed the district court decision.
Romkes’ case drew national attention and support from numerous students and professors at KU.
Chris Armstrong, who graduated from KU in 2011, helped lead the student effort to try to get Romkes tenure. Armstrong said Romkes was one of the best professors he had had. Told of the appeals court decision, Armstrong said, “I will probably burn my diploma.”
Ron Barrett, an aerospace engineering associate professor, co-wrote several papers with Romkes. “He is the finest junior professor I ever had the pleasure of serving with,” Barrett said.
He said Romkes was dealt with unfairly and that will hurt KU. “This type of decision will catastrophically affect the ability to recruit faculty members who are looking for a respectable place to go,” he said.
Some of Romkes’ supporters noted that Romkes was openly gay, and suggested that may have been a factor in his being denied tenure. But his sexual orientation was not part of his case before the court.
Romkes is now an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. He could not be reached for comment.
Romkes’ attorney Robert Keeshan did not return a phone call for comment.
In a statement about the decision, KU spokesman Jack Martin said, “The appeals court’s ruling, like the district court’s ruling, speaks for itself. The decision to not grant tenure was based on Dr. Romkes’ research record, and, as the court’s decision makes clear, that decision was made appropriately.”