Cherian speaks up about NTU’s tenure rejection

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For the first time, academic Cherian George has given his side of the story on twice being denied tenureship by NTU.

In his blog, he calls his exit from the university a forced on, that it was the university that wanted him to apply for tenureship the second time round and said NTU’s stringent process does not stand to scrutiny in his case

On his move to HK Baptist University, George said he was impressed with the media departments in the universities there and they welcomed him more warmly than those in Singapore.

His story and in his own words:

“Tenureship issues”

I have been publicly silent about the circumstances surrounding my forced exit from Nanyang Technological University. One reason was that I didn’t want to slip into the cliché of the disgruntled employee – who, let’s face it, tends to draw equal measures of sympathy and condescension.

I want neither, still considering a privilege to have spent a fulfilling nine years working with staff and students at NTU.

And although many saw that my case raised larger issues about the state of academia in Singapore, I did not want to echo the claim that my plight had national significance, as this could have been dismissed as self-serving and self-important, without necessarily advancing the discussion.

Unfortunately, by opting to err on the side of discretion, I allowed some less-informed opinions to propagate, including the truism that tenure decisions are increasingly rigorous and inherently subjective.

It didn’t help that my employer issued this public statement about its general policy: “The tenure review process is purely a peer-driven academic exercise… The two equally important criteria are distinction in research and scholarship, and high quality teaching.”

While this may be true in general, the process was not followed in my specific case. For the sake of closure, I should clarify.

I’ll confine myself to the barest of facts. NTU’s official criteria for tenure are indistinguishable from its criteria for promotion to Associate Professor – promotion and tenure go together. In 2009, I was promoted to Associate Professor. I was told I had met all the necessary criteria.

As for why the university took the exceptional step of withholding tenure from a faculty member who it decided had earned promotion, I will only say that I was assured categorically that this had nothing to do with my research and scholarship, teaching or service, and also not because I had conducted myself inappropriately in any way.

Similarly, in 2010, no academic reasons were cited when the university leadership decided to turn down my school’s request to re-appoint me as head of journalism.

In 2012, when the university suggested that the school put me through the tenure process again, I assented in order to allow it to set right what had been left unresolved in 2009.

Unfortunately, the university once again could not bring itself to follow through on what it had described to me as a “clear” academic opinion that I had already earned tenure in 2009. Thus, my contract ended in February 2014, with no possibility of renewal.

When set against the facts of my case, my employer’s public statement that “all” NTU faculty go through the same “purely” peer-driven process is inaccurate.

Fortunately, peers – including senior colleagues in NTU and the Wee Kim Wee School, external reviewers and others with knowledge of my case – spoke up for me. Thanks to them, foreign universities I dealt with subsequently could see past the cloud of controversy.

Let me stress that NTU’s tenure decision was problematic not because my subjective opinion of myself differed from my employer’s academic appraisal of me. (To object to that would have gone against the work ethic that I have tried to apply throughout my professional life – to do my best, and leave it to my bosses to decide whether my best is good enough.)

Rather, the real issue was that my employer’s ultimate actions were inconsistent with its own positive assessment of my academic performance.

Among the colleagues who were saddened and mystified was one kindly soul who popped into my office to commiserate. On her way out, she remarked on how I had arranged my furniture.

My desk was positioned to face the window, which meant that my back was to the door – a big fengshui faux pas. My two tall bookshelves were also all wrong. They faced me, and the books were pushed deep in. The result: multiple shelf edges pointing at me like so many knives, she said, karate-chopping the air for emphasis.

In five years of conversations, this colleague’s good-natured remarks count as the most internally coherent theory about why things went wrong between me and NTU leadership. Alternative explanations may be more accurate – yet make less sense.

When a journalist friend from Guangzhou heard this story, she presented me with a pair of cheerful soft toys, comical updates on traditional Chinese guardian lions.

To protect me from negative forces in future, she said.

“Move to Hong Kong”

Since then, things have turned out more positively than I had a right to expect. For some years, I had been eyeing Hong Kong as the best place to move to, should I want or need to leave Singapore.

I admired the city’s media departments both for the quality of their scholarship as well as for the way they engaged with issues facing their tumultuous society.

The location would also allow me to continue studying Asia’s media up close and interacting with its vibrant freedom of expression community. It was a bittersweet irony that, when I was forced to start searching, universities in Hong Kong welcomed me more warmly than did university administrators at home.