Racism charged in DePaul chemistry tenure denial

Organometallics chemist and NSF CAREER awardee, Dr. Quinetta D. Shelby, has been denied tenure in the Department of Chemistry at DePaul University even after an institutional appeals committee determined that her negative departmental review was flawed. According to a note at Inside Higher Ed on Thursday:

Supporters of Quinetta Shelby released documents Wednesday suggesting bias in her tenure denial at DePaul University. Shelby is the only black faculty member in the chemistry department at the university, and while she was rejected by her department, a university appeals panel found that she was treated unfairly. Among other things, the appeals panel found that her department changed policies after the review started, refused to consider some of her publications and awards even though they met criteria that had been established, and seemed to focus on minor negative issues in otherwise positive portions of her tenure file. The “numerous procedural violations” raised significant questions of fairness, the appeals panel found, suggesting that the negative departmental recommendation be set aside.

The Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, DePaul’s president, has declined to reverse the decision.

This year, Shelby was one of a group of six persons not granted tenure at DePaul: two African Americans, two Asian-Americans, and two Latino professors. No white faculty were denied this year. Conflicting reports from Rev. Holtschneider and the faculty indicate that minority faculty tenure rates have historically been either equal to or lower than those for white faculty.

Admittedly, judging individual tenure decisions from afar can be unscientific, particularly since neither the released documents cited above or DePaul’s Department of Chemistry promotion and tenure document(s) can be accessed online.

But Shelby’s case in particular has the aroma of injustice. A diverse group of supporters – yes, even older, bespectacled and bearded white dudes (video here) – came to her side in a press conference on Wednesday noting that issues of racial bias have been going on for at least five years. The lack of higher administration action on the “numerous procedural violations” cited by the appeals panel also smells bad. Moreover, Holtschneider’s comments in the Fox Chicago interview are disappointing in that he says, “we have a committee of faculty working on that right now, so we make sure that what happened in one year at DePaul never happens again.”

How about examining why this happened in the first place before you jettison Dr. Shelby?

But, then again, Father Holtschneider is fine. DePaul trustees just granted him a six-year contract extension on November 4th.

Here’s what we can find out about Professor Shelby. She earned her BS from the University of Chicago and PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After NIH-supported postdoctoral work at Yale University, Shelby launched her independent career at Chicago State University then joined DePaul in 2004. Her early work with chemist John Hartwig resulted in a couple of nice publications with a first-author JACS paper in 2000 that has been cited more than 120 times and a second-author Journal of Organic Chemistry paper from 2002 that’s been cited more than 300 times.

It’s tough for me to count her publications since joining DePaul because I don’t know if the promotion and tenure committee gave her credit for the Acta Crystallography structure reports she’s published (three in 2009). Without them, Web of Science reveals three peer-reviewed publications since 2007 and a gap that extends back to 2003. Not knowing what the teaching-intensive DePaul University might expect from an assistant professor, I can’t really make any conclusions.

In 2006, Dr. Shelby successfully competed for a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation that supports her synthetic work and provides undergraduate research opportunities in chemistry for students at her former institution, an historically-black college/university (HBCU), and DePaul. The abstract from the NSF site reads as follows:

This CAREER award by the Inorganic, Bioinorganic, and Organometallic Chemistry program supports work by Professor Quinetta Shelby at DePaul University to develop palladium catalysts that promote the stereoselective allylation reaction of electrophiles with allylsilanes. The proposed research involves Pd catalysts ligated with anionic bidentate phosphine ligands. One aspect of the research plan focuses on methods to activate the reaction of allylsilanes with aldehydes and to promote the asymmetric synthesis of homoallylic alcohols, which are useful intermediates in the synthesis of natural products. The area of study is relevant to the fundamental understanding of principles that will improve catalytic systems for synthetic reactions. The aim of the education plan is to increase the number of women and persons in underrepresented minority groups who pursue careers as research scientists through activities including research internships, workshops on pursuing graduate education, networking, and mentoring. The education plan will provide experiences that allow students from DePaul University and Chicago State University, a primarily minority-serving institution, to become more confident in their ability to conduct research while they learn about academic options that are available in graduate programs.

Indeed, it seems that her work is quite consistent with the goals of the NSF CAREER program:

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Quinetta Shelby (far left) and her student assistant Elizabeth Sisler (far right) attracted the interest of Trustee James Czech, Father Holtschneider and Trustee Connie Curran on their exploration into helping medicines work more effectively. (Photo and caption from DePaul Newsline Online, 13 July 2009).

Shelby’s research had been featured prominently by the university and she was pictured here last July with her student Elizabeth Sisler, President Holtschneider, and two university trustees. She appears to have been active in student research mentoring, both from her own grant and in DePaul’s NSF grant from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program.

I’m not terribly fond of RateMyProfessors.com (no, I’m not listed there) but that’s all I have to go on for Dr. Shelby’s teaching. Out of 29 DePaul chemistry instructors rated, Shelby was rated better than the department average. She had some negative comments back in 2005 but has had very strong ratings since with a few complaints typical for any instructor teaching a tough course like organic chemistry. This 2006 comment probably explained some of the negativity:

“Shelby is one of the most driven professors I’ve ever seen. Determined to help students learn and to get better at helping them. But it’s a two way street. She’s not going to lower her standards to accom[m]odate some students. Problem: people get used to curving and think it’s sin she doesn’t. That’s her p[rer]ogative. Organic is hard but not impossible.”

So, she has high standards and expects from her students what other DePaul professors may not.

In service, I was able to find that Shelby served to write and edit the Department of Chemistry’s Catalyst newsletter as late as 2008. But, again, I don’t have much more than that.

I dunno. Something just isn’t right here. Not a peep from the student newspaper, often a place for the most frank commentary at other universities. Objectively, perhaps Shelby’s publication record was not extensive enough. But everything else seems to be in order relative to others in her department. The fact that issues of racism toward faculty are alleged to have been ongoing for five years troubles me (I can’t tell if the Fox Chicago news report was referring to racism in the department or at the university in general). DePaul is no stranger to claims of unfair bias in tenure decisions and hiring: gender last year and two denials in 2007 that led to a student hunger strike protest, plus the Thomas Klocek affair. In the current case, the biggest red flag for me is the note from Inside Higher Ed remarking that the department decision on Shelby’s tenure was compromised by procedural violations, regardless of whether race was involved.

In higher ed circles, DePaul tends to have a pretty good record with regard to student diversity and educational access. The student body is about 8.5% African American and 13% Hispanic and Latino and 35% of students are first-generation college degree-seekers. Named after St. Vincent de Paul who tended to the poor of Paris in the 1600s, the university refers to its Vincentian mission “with special concern for the deprived members of society.”

I’d welcome any comments or discussion, especially from those close to this case and particularly if Shelby supporters wish to share any of the documentation that was released earlier this week. Feel free to Gmail me at abelpharmboy.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. ” Perhaps Shelby’s publication record was not extensive enough.”

    Do we not know who was granted tenure? It should be possible to get an impression of what is enough then, shouldn’t it?

  2. I agree, something isn’t right. How does one one earn a prestigious and competitive NSF award and be denied tenured? And what is the department saying? That her work and productivity aren’t good enough? That her emphasis on mentoring and modifying the academic culture aren’t on par with rest of the department.

    I agree publications matter, however the emphasis on quantity & quality is something that troubles me. The whole point of academic research (used to be) is the be daring and creative. Having a host of pubs that are neither influential or interesting defeats the point….and it’s boring.

    I hate to see this happen. She has every right to fight this and something does seem off. But when it’s done, who really wants to in a department that treated you so poorly. I wouldn’t. Everything is sure to be awkward. If the decision is overturned, how does an individual operate/mingle with colleagues who obviously voted against her? How does a department come back from that?

  3. I get a different pub count. Yes, she has an OMets and a JACS paper from 2007-08, but these are clearly from her graduate work with Greg Girolami (not John Hartwig) at Illinois. At DePaul, she’s generated three Acta Cryst’s and a JOMC.

    Is that enough for tenure at a Master’s-granting institution? Not for me to say.

  4. Our academic world is geared toward personal bias and personal projects. The majority of our students, graduated and not, reflect this mentality in their work or lack of it.

  5. Schools have limited numbers of faculty (tenured) positions. Take a look at who was given tenure during this time. I guarantee whomever beat out Shelby was either more qualified or had better political connections. I doubt it had anything to do with her color.

  6. As a DePaul alum, I must admit that DPU is lacking in terms of non-white, non-male tenured professors, but I place that burden squarely on the shoulders of the Vincentian fathers and their “parent company”, the Catholic church. DPU does have a diverse student body, and it’s a shame that that diversity is not reflected in the population of tenured professors. OTOH, IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology, my other alma mater) is much more diverse in terms of tenured
    professors. The student body is also diverse, but there are likely fewer students who are first-in-family college attendees.

  7. If that were the case, though, then why did DePaul have to break its own rules to deny her tenure? If they had tenure criteria in place, and she didn’t meet them, well, they simply could have laid their cards out on the table and say that she wasn’t good enough had they been asked, but apparently they couldn’t do that.

    If the criteria for tenure were appropriate in the cases of others given tenure at the same time, well, then you have to wonder why that wasn’t true in her case. If DePaul’s criteria were too lenient, they likely hired unqualified people for other positions, and if they were too harsh that doesn’t help the others denied tenure, nor explains why they used harsher criteria. In either case, if you expect people to play a game for six years at low pay in the hope of winning (getting tenure), well, then changing the rules at the end of the game is sort of frowned upon.

  8. First, thank you David for writing such a thoughtful post about this, for trying to present as much information as you can, and for asking what should be an obvious and important question: why was Shelby denied tenure? Why were all the individuals denied tenure at DePaul in that round people of color?

    It seems disingenuous to tokenize a woman of color in the Chemistry department by featuring her prominently on the website, and then deny her tenure.

    Again, many thanks to David for featuring this important story, doing the legwork, and getting the conversation going!

  9. You should look into the layoffs of professional women of color at DePaul during the last two years – I know of five at a minimum.

  10. I just looked up the DePaul Chemistry Dept. web page & ran a handful of professors through “Web of Science”. The full professors have publication lists that are respectable anywhere. However, one associate professor had only 1 article show up *at all*. The department chair is an associate professor, and has 14 publications since 1996. Another associate professor has a total of 30 publications, of which only 12 were published since he joined DePaul, apparently in 2003, judging from the addresses given on the first page of his articles. I would say, therefore, that Dr. Shelby’s publication record is within the range among professors who outrank her & that in any sensible group, her awards should have made the difference. Also, it’s no surprise that it took her a few years to get her experiments to the point of publication. The more prolific publishers at DePaul I sampled tend to be theoretical or computational, rather than experimental, chemists.

    An observation from someone who lost the tenure roulette [though not in chemistry]: “An excellence in teaching award is the kiss of death for tenure”. Possibly a big NSF award is the same thing? I know of someone who wasn’t granted tenure because he was so much nicer than the professors on his committee, all the new grad students wanted to work for him, and he had enough grant funds to accept a lot of them [whereas the majority on the tenure committee had none or only quite small grants]. And yes, he had an excellence in teaching award, which is what prompted the observation… He went to a university higher up the food chain than this one, taking his grants & his group with him, so they actually did him a favor – though that most emphatically not their intention.

    I’ve become very aware of what I call tenure abuse [in a slightly different form] at smaller institutions – something a friend, who observed it firsthand, described to me as: first, they throw out all the applications from women. Then they throw out all the applications from anyone whose name indicates might be foreign, w/out checking if they are or not [at least one of my college classmates ran into that for graduate school, & a letter from a professor who knew the chair of the admissions committee did nothing to change the decision, but he got into an even better school in the end], then they throw out all the applications from men whose thesis advisers they don’t know personally. At this point, they trash the reputations of all these men & conclude there are no qualified applicants. However, any one of the applicants has already published more in his/her short adult life than any of the committee members has published in the last decade, because most of them stopped publishing pretty much the day they got tenure.

    Naturally this mindset also permeates tenure committees. There are so many applicants that they can play this game indefinitely, and chew up the lives of dozens of people who are more creative & more intelligent than they are.

    This country is sinfully profligate with its most talented people.

    • I have never bought the “too good at … (usually, teaching)” or jealousy rationales for denial of tenure. That is not to say it cannot happen; but, most of the time, those claims are facile ways of avoiding reality and bolstering one’s standing among friends.

  11. Firstly,
    This is a very nice blog entry, thanks for summarizing it. I am a chemist of color and also went to the Depaul site when I heard about this issue. While the publication record is of concern, it is comparable level of productivity to senior colleagues. Flushing someone who managed to get a CAREER award is a bit extreme. I hope she is able to leverage her success to find a more suitable department. The word is out, it is unlikely that anymore chemist of color will bother to apply for positions at that institution.

  12. Being a student of Depaul and working in the chemistry dept and knowing these professors, I can say there is more to it than strictly publications. Not all people are good professors. Depaul also has other minority prof. who have tenure but the media only focuses on those who did not receive it because as always, someone who did not get her way chose to play the race card. I, as a minority student, find it disgraceful that people feel the need to use this to their advantage. If you do not meet all of the qualifictations, no matter how small or what the justification is, then accept the consequences or deal with them with grace.

    • You obviously have no understanding of the tenure and promotion system.

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