A troubling case of tenure denied at UVU
Scott Carrier may be the best-known member of the Utah Valley University faculty. His publications have appeared in Harper's, GQ, Mother Jones, and Esquire. Stories have been broadcast on public radio programs that include "All Things Considered," "Day to Day," "Marketplace" and "Hearing Voices."
As an assistant professor at UVU, Carrier's single-minded pursuit of truth has taken him to the heart of the war in Afghanistan and to the center of a raging avalanche in the pre-dawn Wasatch Mountains. And while seeking tenure at UVU, Scott published an essay about the university's "esteemed president/propagandist," Matthew Holland, and Holland's involvement with the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, as well as drawing similarities between Utah Valley students and the Taliban.
What kind of idiot would do that? The same kind of idiot who, in his book Prisoner of Zion (Counterpoint, 2013) finds similarities between the Taliban and himself, as in this description of his attempt to force his will on a girlfriend: "I grabbed her cellphone and threw it against the wall. ... [The cellphone] was what kept her from doing what I knew was right." The kind of troubled and troubling idiot, in other words, whose lifework has been to expose the deeds of authoritarian ideologues like himself.
This spring, when the university announced its tenure decisions, it was reporting the outcomes of an extremely important and sometimes difficult process. Because multiple and complex factors are in play, and because personalities inevitably have some part in tenure decisions, levels of review are built into the process. The department chair, the dean of the college, and the academic vice president all review the tenure file and ratify or question the previous decisions.
Given a close 3-2 vote against tenure, as was the case with Carrier, given that one vote against was cast by the immediate past chair of the department whose personal animosity toward Carrier was public knowledge, given that the department is young and fairly inexperienced, a dean or vice president who recognized the extraordinary quality of Carrier's journalism might well have recommended that the tenure committee take a second look. That they read, if they had doubts about Carrier's teaching, the brilliant essay in Prisoner of Zion about his early pedagogical mistakes and the practices he eventually adopted.
If there were questions about the somewhat unorthodox tenure file, as there were, someone might well have asked for additional supporting documents. None of this happened. The 3-2 vote was allowed to stand without question.
Am I arguing here for special considerations for one of my valued colleagues? No. Every candidate for tenure is required to meet the standards set by policy. And yes. Every candidate should receive special consideration. A journalist of Carrier's quality and reputation might well be excused some quirks in his file. He had, for instance, disregarded an edict from his chair that he spend a certain number of hours in his office and had instead spent the time with his students in the cafeteria. He had written critically about Holland. And so on.
Should Carrier have done the things that all well-trained assistant professors do? Although that would have made things easier for him come tenure time, Carrier is not in the business of making things easier for himself or for others. He made it clear from the beginning that he would not accept tenure on any but his own terms. He speculates in Prisoner of Zion that a job as a tenured professor with a regular salary might mean the end of his career as a hungry, independent journalist.
Scott Carrier will do just fine without Utah Valley University. We, however, have lost one of our best colleagues to a flawed process that might have been rectified had someone paid the kind of close and critical and generous attention to his file that a reader can find on every page of his troubled and thus troubling work.
Scott Abbott is a professor of integrated studies, humanities, and philosophy at Utah Valley University. He lives in Woodland Hills. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org