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Students, staff voice anger following controversial tenure denial

Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Provost Ann Davies, who was regrettably not asked for comment before the story went to print.

Beloit College announced early last week that chemistry professor Kevin Braun’99 was denied tenure. He was the only professor eligible for tenure this year who did not receive the honor.

This came as a shock to a majority of campus, especially the student body, as Braun is well known as a student favorite among professors. Students quickly rallied and started a petition — led by Maddie Barron’17 — in an attempt to persuade administration to overturn the decision.

“Kevin has been a gift to this school and is one of its strongest professors,” Barron wrote in an email to all students and professors in the biology and chemistry departments. “Please sign the petition below to protest this decision and help fight to keep him at our school.”

The petition received 197 signatures from students, alumni, parents and faculty. Many of those who signed left lengthy comments praising Braun and the impact he has had on the school.

“Kevin is a great professor and one of the best at Beloit,” Sarah Farr’19 wrote. “He cares deeply about his students and all of his advisees, and the chemistry department wouldn’t be nearly the same without him.”

“My first semester at Beloit College, I was in Dr. Braun’s Intro Chemistry course, and my relationship with him as my advisor, research mentor and professor has propelled me into a successful career path in biochemistry research,” Clare Harper’17 said. “I have had the unmatched opportunity of conducting research with Dr. Braun in my four years at Beloit… I can personally vouch for his professional engagement and scholarship.”

“[Braun] is the reason I took so many classes in the chemistry department (which is not my major),” Andrew Bremner’17 said. “While he challenges his students as much, if not more, than other professors, he is always willing and able to help you succeed in those difficult classes.”

Barron proposed that she, April Apfelbaum’17 and Harper should meet with President Scott Bierman, Provost Ann Davies and any other members of the tenure committee to discuss the decision.

“I explained that I could not talk about details of a personnel matter but was happy to talk about the tenure review process at Beloit,” Davies said in an email. “An hour and a half conversation ensued, in which the students asked excellent questions while offering further testimony regarding the strengths of a faculty member about whom they clearly care deeply, for good reason.
“The evaluative process leading to tenure usually extends over six years, with periodic review every two years,” Davies continued. “Each review includes careful attention to course evaluations. At the point at which a faculty member stands for tenure, a survey asking questions about that individual’s teaching and advising is also sent to every current student and alumni who has taken a course with them. Both play an incredibly important and valuable role in the evaluative process for faculty members, and are part of larger dossier of teaching and scholarship materials and evaluations by colleagues from within and beyond the college. At each stage of review, these materials inform lengthy deliberations by the Faculty Status and Performance Committee (with the provost attending as an ex officio member), written feedback from both the committee and provost, and a debrief with the tenure-track faculty member.”
This feedback, Davies said, allows students to play “an important role in the evaluative process outlined in our Administrative Policy Manual, petitions do not.”

“A part of my responsibility — and I would argue all of our responsibility — is to ensure that the college abides by the governance structures designed to facilitate the information-gathering and deliberation undergirding one of the most important decisions any college makes,” Davies said. “That obligation holds true even when we don’t agree with a particular outcome.  From my perspective, there is often value in people registering questions and concerns about what they perceive to be an injustice.  My hope is that they do so in as an informed way as possible and that they simultaneously recognize the necessity of adhering to existing policy and process, which is what the college continues to do.”

Braun’s case for tenure might not be finished, though. A separate petition was distributed at the Academic Senate meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15. The petition received over 171 signatures; political science professor Ron Nikora and chemistry professor Laura Parmentier were among faculty who signed.

The tenure process is an arduous procedure and can differ slightly depending on the school. Beloit’s Faculty Status and Performance Committee (FS&P) considers four primary areas in evaluation of its faculty: teaching, professional development, college service and advising. According to the FS&P, a candidate’s record in teaching is the most important factor in determining the committee’s recommendation, as excellence in teaching is expected of all Beloit College faculty. A sustained pattern of scholarly and/or creative engagement is considered the second most important factor in evaluation because this engagement creates the professional and intellectual vitality of a faculty member and informs their teaching. The FS&P considers unsatisfactory performance in either teaching or professional development as grounds for dismissal or denial of tenure.

The FS&P says that the pre-tenure years are a time to “establish a pattern of consistent and diligent service to and engagement with the college community.” A faculty member is reviewed for tenure after their second, fourth and sixth years with the institution. The FS&P looks for signs that a faculty member “has demonstrated a commitment to contributing to the life of the college beyond the classroom and [their] department/program.”

During the second, fourth and sixth-year tenure reviews, a candidate must submit an effective self-evaluation reflecting upon their experiences and goals. The FS&P recommends that candidates should “reflect upon their successes and challenges in their professional life, citing evidence from student evaluations, course materials, scholarship/creative works and other appropriate material.” The self-evaluation must include an introduction, separate sections regarding each of the four areas of assessment (teaching, professional development, college service and advising), and a conclusion.

The FS&P also advises that review candidates should maintain regular communication with senior department and program colleagues about one’s teaching goals and agenda, develop relationships with scholars in one’s field of interest both on and beyond campus, and meet with the dean of the college and the chair of the FS&P to discuss strategies for successfully achieving tenure. Each of these steps is meant to help the candidate navigate the journey to tenure and bolster his or her chances of receiving the honor.

Administration also has a significant impact on whether a candidate will be offered tenure. The provost, president and board of trustees all need to approve of a candidate in order for him or her to receive tenure; if a member of administration has an issue with a candidate, there is a good chance he or she will be denied.

It is unclear at this point which part of the process caused Braun’s denial of tenure. Braun, who graduated from Beloit in 1999 with degrees in anthropology and chemistry, has an extensive resume for his field. He received his doctorate in physical chemistry with an organic minor from the University of Arizona in 2005. Braun spent time at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for his postdoctoral research in 2006. He then returned to Beloit in 2007, where he has been an Assistant Professor of Chemistry since. Braun has also published several works, tackling subjects such as electrophoresis, analytical chemistry and photochemistry.

If Braun’s denial of tenure stands, he will have the rest of this semester, as well as the fall semester of 2017 and the spring of 2018, before Beloit officially dismisses him.

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