Board reaffirms Rojo tenure denial, responds to faculty concerns

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Professor Juan Rojo – on hunger strike and only consuming drinks – was given two drinks by President Alison Byerly, who signed off to deny him tenure. (Ian Morse ’17)

Ian Morse

The board of trustees announced Tuesday afternoon that they will uphold their previous decision to deny professor Juan Rojo tenure.

After he got out of classes, Rojo picked up a two-paragraph letter from the Lafayette College Board of Trustees in the president’s office. He said that he had a feeling that it would be negative decision before he opened it.

Once he received the letter, the faculty was also notified. In a four-page letter addressed to the clerk of the faculty and professor Rob Root, the board affirmed that “all current procedures were followed appropriately” in Rojo’s tenure case and that they will not grant Rojo tenure.

The decision comes after faculty voted 121-35 to forward a motion to the board of trustees on Sept. 6 urging them to grant Rojo tenure. The board is the only body capable of granting tenure after hearing the recommendations from the department faculty, a tenure review committee and then the president.

In Rojo’s case, the first two groups voted 6-0 and 6-1, respectively, to grant him tenure. President Alison Byerly, noting what she called a lack of teaching “distinction” based on student evaluations, did not agree with the committees, and Rojo was denied tenure.

Professor Juan Rojo learned of the board's response to the faculty's motion.
Professor Juan Rojo learned of the board’s response to the faculty’s motion after class on Tuesday. (William Gordon ’17)

At the beginning of the semester, Rojo went on hunger strike for six days to protest the move, citing an effective absence of faculty governance.

In the letter to the faculty sent on Tuesday signed by chair of the board Edward Ahart ’69, the board wrote that, in a special meeting last Thursday, it believed the commitment to “the highest possible quality education for our students is perhaps [its] most important single priority.”

“…in declining to concur with the recommendation of the PTR committee, the President applied the standards of distinction in teaching that have been established by the Faculty and the Board, and fulfilled in good faith her role in the tenure review process as assigned to her in the Faculty Handbook,” the letter read.

The board ended its letter noting that it supports discussion and examination of the tenure process. The board also endorsed the section of the faculty handbook reading, “Integral to the mission of Lafayette College is the concept of shared governance.”

In a letter addressed to Rojo specifically, Ahart wrote, “I understand that the tenure review process is by its nature a trying one, and recognize that the length of the process has made it especially difficult in your case. I know that the administration stands ready to assist you, and I hope you will let the Provost’s office know if it can be of help to you.”

Professor Juan Rojo said he will drink the two grapefruit juices that President Alison Byerly gave him when the issue is resolved. "It has not been resolved as far as I'm concerned," Rojo said.
Professor Juan Rojo said he will drink the two grapefruit juices that President Alison Byerly gave him when the issue is resolved. “It has not been resolved as far as I’m concerned,” Rojo said. (William Gordon ’17)

Rojo said he was not surprised at the decision, but when asked what’s next, he said he needed to sit down and think about it first. He noted that there may be future legal action from another body because he said procedures were not adequately followed.

“One of the positives that’s arisen out of this,” Rojo said, “is that because the case has gotten so much attention, I think it makes it more viable that an organization might be able to pick up the case, without me having to go toe-to-toe with Lafayette College.”

“It’s a possibility, but it’s one that I haven’t explored yet,” he added. “I’m definitely going to look into it.”

Rojo would not be the first professor to take up legal action against the college regarding the tenure process. A professor in 1984 was denied tenure, sued the college, and won in state supreme court on the grounds that the college had not provided him documents he was allowed to have.

Byerly met with the department heads as well as some administrators in a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday. Byerly was already listed on the agenda for the meeting sent out Monday.

Many faculty members did not want to comment on what was discussed in the meeting, but Dean of the Faculty Robin Rinehart confirmed they discussed the tenure process. Math professor Chawne Kimber said the discussion was “collegial.”

“No solutions were discussed,” Kimber said, referring to faculty-administration relations.

“I think we have a tenure process with integrity,” she added. “It’s rare for someone not to get tenure at Lafayette, which is a good thing. We should actually feel proud about that. But people are scared unnecessarily prior to getting tenure.”

Byerly declined to comment on whether or not Rojo’s tenure case was specifically discussed. She said she goes to department head meetings “usually about once a semester.”

“It was, I thought, a very constructive conversation with a variety of thoughtful remarks about what kinds of communication would be helpful going forward and what are the ways we can, as one faculty member said, be good partners in moving the college forward,” she said.

Byerly also declined to comment on the specifics of what was discussed about the tenure process, how much of the meeting was devoted to that topic and whether or not she would have changed her actions in Rojo’s tenure case looking back on these new discussions.

The Lafayette was not given a copy of the meeting’s agenda due to its confidentiality.

An ad hoc committee, initiated by Byerly’s co-signature and faculty’s advice to the governance committee at the beginning of the semester, plans to respond to concerns raised regarding the clause in the faculty handbook about the president’s role in the tenure review process.

The board’s letter recommended that faculty schedule a meeting with the board as soon as reasonably possible.

“We encourage the Faculty to designate a group of representative leaders to meet with representatives of the Board’s leadership and the President to begin the dialogue that is needed to create a greater level of mutual understanding and agreement and as a result, begin to heal some of the divisions that have been caused by the most recent situation,” it read.

William Gordon ’17 contributed reporting.