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.
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.