The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

"Yes, the Harrow," said the officer, "a good name for it. The needles are set in like the teeth of a harrow and the whole thing works something like a harrow though its action is limited to one place and contrived with much more artistic skill. Anyhow, you'll soon understand it. On the Bed here the condemned is laid -- I'm going to describe the apparatus first before I set it in motion. Then you'll be able to follow the proceedings better."

Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony

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Members of the Dean's Advisory Council (DAC) and the Promotion and Tenure Committee (P&T) recently gathered for an 8:00 a.m. meeting to begin another round of the tenure review process.
by George Hudson
Professor of English

The candidate is afraid. The four members of the Faculty Committee on Promotion and Tenure have asked all of their stock questions straight from the checklist: Have you read the guidelines? Have you met with your division director? Have you been treated fairly by your department chairman? by the senior members of your department? All have been answered in an uncertain affirmative or with a faint nod. Yet something is clearly wrong and now they are probing: "Is there anything at all you want to tell us? Anything at all that causes you concern?" On this afternoon in late May the light flooding into the western windows of Persson Hall reflects the green of the campus. The ashen pallor of the candidate's face is faintly tinged with chartreuse. Haltingly he begins, "Well, I don't know if I should mention this . . . . I'm not sure that it's really important . . . . Actually, no one in my department has said anything about it to me . . . but then no one talks to me that much anyway, and . . . ." So it begins to come out, first a trickle and then a torrent -- all of the insecurities, the harrowing doubts, the agony that can be generated by the tenure process. The members of the committee are reassuring: "The process is fair." "The Dean's Advisory Council is wise and experienced." "We will be there, listening, every step of the way." "None of the things that worry you are either relevant or admissible." At the door they smile and shake hands. When the door closes, their expressions change. They are worried, too.

It might be said, by one unafraid of clichés, that this is the beginning of a long journey, but the word "journey" does not accurately describe the action of the committee familiarly known as "The P&T." P&T sits. It sits and listens, usually with a patience beyond that of the man from the Land of Uz, but sometimes with growing exasperation, to the deliberations of the dean and the four division directors who form the Dean's Advisory Council. It sits in absolute silence, forbidden by the rules to speak unless there is an objection. Yet when it does object it has the power to halt the proceedings altogether. Before the May sunlight streams into Persson Hall again the following spring, the members of this elected committee of the faculty will have sat in 74 separate meetings for more than 150 hours, taking up some portion of 60 calendar days. They will have interviewed 11 tenure candidates, nine candidates for promotion to full professor, and six candidates facing third-year comprehensive review. They will have met not only those candidates burdened with unjustified doubt and gloom but those glowing with justifiable pride and confidence. During the coming year these 26 case histories will unfold before the DAC, and the direction of 26 lives and careers will be confirmed or changed as P&T, "The Watchdog Committee," sits and listens.

It is 7:50 on a morning in early October. McGregory Hall seems nearly empty. At the locked door of the office of the dean of the faculty the four members of P&T are already waiting. They are consistently, as if by some unspoken agreement, the first to arrive. Perhaps it is their awareness that nothing at all may be said about any candidate until they are there and in place. At 8:00 the first round of discussions will begin, as it always does, with a reading by the dean from the Faculty Handbook: "Decisions about reappointment, promotion and tenure at Colgate University are based on the quality of performance in three areas: teaching, scholarship, and service to the university. Excellence in teaching is the most important consideration. No degree of excellence in scholarship and service can compensate for teaching which is not of high quality. Yet excellence in teaching, though necessary, is not alone sufficient for retention or advancement. It cannot compensate for mediocre scholarship." If there is any single moment of these proceedings which will remain in the mind of those who serve on P&T, it is this one. The reading seems to take on profound ritual significance. The university is speaking of its ideal. A small hush envelops the nine people around the table. The words are daunting, absolute, oracular. How will they match the human reality? We are at a beginning. The director of the division of social sciences opens the dossier of the first candidate. At this point he will speak on the candidate's behalf, outlining a career -- teaching, scholarship, service. He begins. Two hours and fifteen minutes later he concludes. No one has budged. This is no country for weak bladders.

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November 29, 21:30 hours. It is the middle of round two. Each of the five speaking participants will now argue the case from his or her own point of view. They have already been at this for two hours. Outside, darkness cloaks the campus. Only a few cars remain in the snowy parking lot. Inside the dean's darkened office the great, round table is illuminated by a single hanging lamp. The scene resembles the setting of an all-night poker game with very high stakes, but there the resemblance stops. This is no game and no one is dealing. P&T must guarantee that. The table is covered with dossiers. Each bristles with dozens of Post-it Notes. Someone observes that the college should buy stock in the company that makes them. The yellow and pink scraps of paper are covered with jottings that refer to pages that are themselves covered with further notes, scrawls, underlinings, double and triple underscoring, asterisks, stars. Lines in black ink and lavender ink become snaky arrows pointing to some crux in the text. S.E.T. forms, letters from colleagues, letters from outside reviewers, all bear the marks of intense scrutiny. Nothing has gone unnoticed. What do the students say? What don't they say? What is it that they are praising? What annoys them? What are they learning? How are they learning it? Who are these outside reviewers? What have they themselves written? What do they know about small liberal arts colleges? How well do they know the candidate's work? What journals are involved here? What is the publication rate? How long does an article wait in queue? What's the circulation? What about the service? Where is the contribution to university-wide programs? What about committees? What about the gap in 1994? Thumbing the pages, one division director speaks, "I remember a remark about that . . . ." "Yes," says another, completing the sentence, "it's on page 167." They appear to have memorized the contents of these three-ring binders. The scrawls and scribbles and stars are evidence of many solitary hours of study spent outside this chamber. The preparation is meticulous. Not one of them takes this responsibility lightly. We bear on toward midnight. We have vanished from the lives of our families. At some point in the night the thought occurs to each of us, "Long ago my dossier was open on this very table, and my soul was laid bare like this." It breeds humility.

December has come. It is a bright, crystalline day. The snow sparkles. The sky is a high, cold, transparent azure. The tenure decisions are due. No more can possibly be said about these candidates based on the evidence before the DAC. There is no more time. P&T watches silently. The dean is circling toward the inevitable moment. The DAC are called upon, each in turn. "Yes." "Yes." "Yes!" "Yes." "And the dean says, `Yes!'" They turn to the next vote. There is a moment's pause, the slightest hesitation -- the foot of a Noh player momentarily suspended above the wooden stage. Each answers again in turn. "No." "No." "No." "No." The dean's hand pauses above the notebook. "And the dean says, `No.'" There is a small, quiet sound, a catch in the breath. The light in the room changes almost imperceptibly. The air becomes heavier. The Noh player's foot descends on the hollow stage. They go on.

It is bitter January. The four members of the Faculty Committee on Promotion and Tenure are closeted with the president. There has already been an appeal. The president is quite clear about what he wants. We are not here to second-guess the dean and the DAC. We are not asked to decide this case for ourselves. We must say whether there have been procedural errors that might have affected the outcome. After so many hours spent in the hard, wooden chairs of the dean's office, the president's cushioned furniture is comfortable. After so many hours of silence, it is a relief to be asked to speak. We have not discussed this among ourselves. We have not agreed about what we will say. Each of us must speak to the truth of the matter as clearly as he can. The president probes four separate memories, reviews his notes, probes again. Finally he says, "Thank you all. I will let you know my decision." The four members of P&T trudge back up the hill to the dean's office. There are more than 50 hours of meetings left on the spring calendar. The wooden chairs are waiting. The discussion of promotions has begun. Our silence resumes.

Sometimes thoughts intrude into this silence. Is all this long debate necessary? Do we need to devote over fifteen hundred personnel hours to this task? Couldn't intuition tell us just as well who belongs at Colgate? Old-time baseball scouts make it sound so simple: "I knew the kid could do it. He had `the good face'." Would we reach the same decision after the first hour that we reach after five or six? An old rhyme rattles around in the brain, "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small . . . ." Could we, in good conscience, devote less to a matter of such importance? Something in this ponderous, interminable process is finally reassuring. Its enormous weight is comforting.

Finally May returns. It has been a long, dark winter. Our spouses have begun to refer to us as Los Desaparecidos -- the disappeared ones. But it is almost over now. We have had our last meeting with the president. At the end of the month we will have one last session with the dean and the DAC, the Postmortem, to discuss clarifications of the guidelines. I am leaving Lawrence Hall with my colleague, two grumpy old men set loose in the improbable, sudden green of the campus. A young woman pauses to speak to me. When she turns away my colleague growls, "Who was that?" Like most senior professors he does not know all of his younger colleagues from the other divisions. I tell him her name, and then in delight I begin to describe her work to him in great detail. I know her research interests. I know how very well she teaches, how highly her students regard her. I go on and on. "How the hell do you know all this?" he grumbles. I smile and turn to watch her as she disappears down the slope toward the library. In the afternoon light she seems to be surrounded by an aura of gold. "She just got tenure," I answer.