A Lafayette College professor has gone on a hunger strike this week after being denied tenure.
Since Tuesday afternoon, Juan Rojo, an assistant professor of Spanish at the Eastern Pennsylvania school, has drunk only water and Gatorade. The extreme step, he said, comes after Lafayette College’s president vetoed his bid for tenure, even though Rojo received positive recommendations from two separate faculty committees.
Rojo, 41, told The Washington Post that he was using the strike not only to protest the decision about his own future in academia but to question the role of faculty members in the tenure process.
“What I’m trying to make the administration understand is, if in fact these decisions are primarily faculty decisions and the decision has been made overwhelmingly in my favor, then the nonconcurrence of the president should be relatively a minor blip,” Rojo said.
A Lafayette College spokesman issued a statement to The Post and said the college would not be commenting further on the case: “As we’ve previously stated, we were very concerned to learn from Professor Rojo that he had commenced a hunger strike in response to his recent tenure denial. We are of course not able to comment on the specifics of this case,” the statement said.
“However, in this tenure case, as in all others, we followed our procedures as laid out in the college’s faculty handbook. We respect Professor Rojo’s right to disagree with the decision but hope he will express his views in a way that does not endanger his health.”
As part of his tenure bid, Rojo said he was interviewed by a six-member committee made up of people within his own department, as well as a seven-member “promotion, tenure and review” committee comprising faculty outside his department.
The first committee approved his recommendation unanimously. The second committee recommended Rojo on a 6-1 vote.
Ultimately, Lafayette College president Alison Byerly denied his tenure, citing negative student evaluations Rojo had received in his upper-level courses. The board of trustees backed her up.
Rojo said that “in many cases, students can confuse likability with ability” and it was unfair to use those evaluations as the basis for a tenure denial when his colleagues had overwhelmingly supported him.
“As you probably know, student evaluations can be very subjective,” he said. “In any course that one teaches, there’s likely to be at least one student that doesn’t respond well. There are definitely negative comments in my evaluations. I certainly don’t hide from them. … But those are not the only ways in which performance is evaluated.”
Rojo said he did not have significant interactions with Byerly before the tenure denial, aside from some faculty meetings in which he had voiced his displeasure regarding changes in their health-insurance premiums.
The Lafayette College faculty handbook includes extensive sections detailing the academic tenure process, including one Rojo cited as the basis for his protest:
The faculty status of the teaching and research Faculty is primarily a Faculty responsibility; this area includes appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal. Determinations in these matters shall first be by Faculty action through established procedures and then by the President and the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees and the President should, on questions of faculty status, concur with the faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.
“And that word, ‘compelling,’ unfortunately is not defined,” Rojo told The Post. “The faculty committee concluded the president’s arguments were not compelling.”
On Tuesday — after, he said, he consulted with his family and doctor — Rojo announced his decision to go on a hunger strike in a statement to the college:
I have long ago come to terms with the notion that life is not fair. This process, however, is not about fairness. It is about right and wrong. It’s about what is just and what role we as faculty play in our own governance,” Rojo wrote in the statement. “At stake, is the role of faculty in the tenure process. If the granting of tenure is primarily a faculty decision and the faculty by way of two committees have voted 12-1 in favor of granting tenure, how does the single vote of the President overturn that decision? This is simply not right.
In higher education, academic tenure amounts to a teaching position that is guaranteed for life — though tenured professors may still be dismissed with due cause — and therefore dearly coveted. Often, there are strict publishing, teaching and research requirements for those on a tenure track to achieve before being considered for a tenured position.
Tenured teaching positions are becoming increasingly rare: From 1994 to 2010, the number of higher-level institutions in the United States with a tenure system decreased from 62.6 percent to 47.8 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In recent years, critics have argued that academic tenure is irrelevant, costly for universities and does not encourage professors to innovate or be productive after they have achieved tenure. In a column for Time magazine, education analyst Andrew Rotherham noted one of the problems with tenure is there are no uniform standards for earning it, and that the tenure system can be abused at universities.
“So perhaps it is time for a tenure brawl in higher education, and time to take the ideas to mend — rather than end — tenure more seriously,” Rotherham wrote. “Otherwise, before too long, the point may become academic.”
In 2014, a lawsuit challenged California’s teacher tenure laws as they applied to the state’s public schools, alleging that “poor and minority children were more likely to be saddled with ineffective teachers who were difficult to fire” because of tenure, as reported by The Post’s Emma Brown. The California Supreme Court decided to leave existing laws in place.
Still, those in favor of tenure have argued that the process protects educators from being terminated without due cause and is necessary for academic freedom. About 2 percent of tenured faculty are dismissed each year, according to the National Education Association.
Rojo said he will not end his hunger strike until he is granted tenure and the Lafayette College’s board of trustees makes changes to its tenure review process.
“Specifically, I would propose that deadlines be established after the Promotion, Tenure and Review Committee’s decision is made so that no candidate endures eight months of doubt,” he told the college. “In addition, I would suggest that the term ‘compelling reasons’ be defined to clearly establish the grounds by which a President may overturn the Promotion, Tenure, and Review Committee’s decision. In short: no President should have the power to arbitrarily decide a Faculty member’s career against the will of the Faculty.”
Rojo, who has been documenting his hunger strike on Facebook, said a handful of students have stopped by to offer water and support. Others, he said, have left him hateful comments.
Rojo noted that he had “first contact with the powers that be” on Wednesday evening, referring to Lafayette College administrators. “It was brief and cautious.” He did not elaborate about what transpired.
Lafayette College’s academic year started Monday. A college spokesman confirmed that Rojo is still employed by the college and scheduled to teach this semester.
On Thursday morning, as he was rushing to teach a 9:30 a.m. class, Rojo said he was starting to feel a little tired.
“It feels kind of like when you get off a long-haul flight,” he said. “You’re tired and a little weak, but that’s more or less how I feel.”