Blogs > Cliopatria > Andrea Smith denied tenure

Mar 4, 2008 5:12 pm

Andrea Smith denied tenure

Blogger Brownfemipower has taken the lead on reporting the story of Andrea Smith's denial of tenure at the University of Michigan. Read here and here, and see the report in the Chronicle of Higher Ed here.

It's a strange case. Smith had been given a joint appointment in American Studies and Women's Studies at the Ann Arbor campus; 'twas the latter department that nixed her promotion while the former supported her tenure cause. She's also the director of the campus Native American Studies Center. Few of us are privy to the details of her file, and the Women's Studies department at Michigan has not commented on why it has denied Smith tenure. But to those of us familiar with Smith's published work, the decision is inexplicable. Her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide is a master-work of both advocacy and feminist scholarship, and is used in women's studies courses across the country. (It's on the short list of books I'm considering rotating in to my women's history syllabus).

At research universities, the proven ability to publish is a critical part of getting tenure. So many assistant professors struggle to get anything notable into print; Smith has already done so by producing a text that is not just interesting but fundamentally ground-breaking. She's got another book coming up: Native Americans and the Christian Right, which is available for pre-order.

Of course, being able to publish is not the only prerequisite for tenure. Teaching counts for something, even at mammoth state institutions. But the statement released by faculty and students at Michigan (available here, in PDF format) makes it clear that Andrea Smith has immense talents as a teacher and mentor. Her students and colleagues are asking that letters in support of her tenure case (which has been appealed) be sent to

* Teresa Sullivan, Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs, LSA,
* Lester Monts, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, LSA,
* Mary Sue Coleman, President,

Anyone who reads the feminist blogosphere is aware that the most painful struggle of the past year, played out in so many places, is over the issue of the intersection of racism and sex. A number of prominent women of color have written, time and again, of feeling marginalized or ignored by white feminists. Whatever your feelings on the issue of race, gender, and intersectionality, it's disastrous PR to have the Smith denial come at the hands of the Michigan Women's Studies department. To a community of activist women of color, many of whom are already suspicious of the bona fides of white feminists, the Smith decision can only serve to increase a sense of cynicism about the prospects for real inclusion.

I've never met Andrea Smith or heard her lecture. I wouldn't recognize her on the street. But I've read her work and been galvanized by it. I've chatted with people who have worked with her and heard her speak at conferences. Anecodotally, everyone I've heard from says she's not merely a competent and inspiring teacher, she's an extraordinary one. Her more than one-dozen published, peer-reviewed essays, her edited anthologies, and above all, her first masterwork"Conquest", are building blocks of a tenure file that would put those of virtually any other junior scholar to shame. The Women's Studies department at Michigan surely has its reasons, but until it makes those reasons clear, the shock and anger and alienation generated by their denial of tenure to Andrea Smith will continue to spread. And that's bad news for all feminists.

And here's hoping that if Michigan doesn't come to its senses, someone else (are you listening, USC?) makes a nice offer. Soon.

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More Comments:

Kelly Woestman - 3/5/2008

Indeed, dual appointments are inherently dangerous despite the need for interdisciplinary scholarship. It can be as simple as one department thinking that the person was spending too much time in the other.

Hugo Schwyzer - 3/4/2008

As others have said elsewhere, the Smith case is a cautionary tale against junior faculty taking dual appointments!

Jonathan Dresner - 3/4/2008

There has to be a balance in dual appointments, but I've never seen it. I've seen technically "joint" appointments in which one department had all the power, and then cases like this one, where both departments had veto authority.

What I don't think I've ever seen is a situation in which a joint appointment was anything like an actual collaboration between departments, where the needs of both were being addressed and the departments shared a process for coming to joint decisions.