Campus students, faculty fight to reverse tenure decision for environmental science professor

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Environmental science, policy and management professor Carolyn Finney was denied tenure in May by the ESPM department, which reasoned that her research did not meet the campus’s academic standards for tenure.

Although Chancellor Nicholas Dirks upheld the decision, Finney’s colleagues circulated an online petition last year, which garnered about 600 signatures from across the nation, asking Dirks to reverse the decision and extend Finney’s contract. According to her colleagues, Finney was denied tenure largely because of philosophical differences in scholarship within the interdisciplinary department.

Finney began tenure review in an ad hoc committee in her division within the department, which recommended a one-year deferral instead of tenure. Although the committee was asked to reconsider the decision, the department voted on the deferral, which was then submitted to the campus for review, along with a request for a raise.

The campus denied the deferral and requested that Finney’s file be submitted for tenure, Finney said. The department, however, ultimately denied Finney tenure.

When someone is denied tenure, he or she can formally resign. Otherwise, she will not be appointed to certain faculty titles on any UC campus for a period of five years. Finney chose the latter option.

Although policy prohibits administrators from explicitly stating the reasons behind the denial of someone’s tenure, Finney was able to view redacted review documents a year later and said her tenure was rejected because of her untraditional research methods, such as her engagement with public media and her use of accessible language in writing.

Finney’s colleagues also said she was denied because she is a social scientist in a department comprising mostly non-social scientists.

“When it came to evaluating (Finney), the standards don’t really apply the way they should,” said Margot Higgins, a doctoral student whom Finney advises. She added that there are some social and non-social scientists alike at Berkeley who do not fully value Finney’s contributions in the field.

Former assistant professor Kim TallBear left UC Berkeley because she felt that her “credibility and approach was second-guessed constantly” as a feminist scholar in ESPM. TallBear said she was privy to conversations in the department during which faculty members openly discussed Finney’s role as a public intellectual, as opposed to a traditional academic, and how that would negatively affect her career.

According to the petition, the ESPM department has never offered tenure to a black individual. If Finney leaves, the petition said, there would only one tenured underrepresented minority in the department.

“Carolyn is like a case study of the problems with tenure for women and people of color, and what happens when they embody both,” said Chryl Corbin, another one of Finney’s doctoral students.

If Finney is not given tenure, her absence — in addition to Jeffrey Romm and Louise Fortmann’s retirements, as well as TallBear’s departure — will leave a vacancy in her subset of the department’s division, Corbin said.

“We’re trying hard to hire professors in the area of race, culture and environment,” said George Roderick, ESPM department chair. “It’s something that concerns all of us that we try to make for a diverse workplace in ESPM.”

A previous version of this article may have implied that Margot Higgins believes all non-social scientists tend to think that good social science is quantitative, not qualitative. In fact, Higgins was specifically referring to some social and non-social scientists at Berkeley who do not fully value Finney’s contributions in the field.

A previous version of this article also stated that Higgins works under Finney. In fact, though Finney is Higgins’ advisor, Higgins does not consider herself to work under Finney.