Denial of Tenure At Vanderbilt
By Frye Gaillard
Vol. 5, No. 4, 1983, pp. 7-8
By almost any measure, the last year has been a good one for Elizabeth Langland. Her first two books, published by the University of Chicago Press and the University Press of New England, have drawn praise from the critics, and a third book–Society and the Novel–has been accepted by the University of North Carolina Press.
In addition, her teaching is going well at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., where Langland is the 34-year-old Chairman of the English Department. Teaching generally goes well for Langland. She was widely acclaimed by the students at Vanderbilt, where she taught until 1982, and where students lined up one hundred and twenty at a time for her British Novels class.
But Langland was forced to leave Vanderbilt. The University’s Arts and and Science Dean, Jacque Vogeli, overruled a recommendation by the school’s English faculty that she become the first woman in the department’s history to be granted tenure. That decision has sparked a federal lawsuit and a national controversy, and Vanderbilt’s image has taken a beating.
The court case will be heard sometime in October. In the meantime, Vanderbilt officials have sought to defend themselves against charges of egregious sexism, which is a difficult task, given the facts that are available to the University’s critics. At the time of Langland’s tenure vote, for example, Vanderbilt’s Arts and Science College had two hundred and ten tenured faculty members, of whom two hundred and three were male.
There were already “grumblings about those statistics. But the complaints grew louder after June 13,1981, when Langland was summoned to the office of English Department Chairman James Kilroy. “The news is not good,” Kilroy told her. And he read her a letter from Vogeli, approximately two pages of single-spaced type, informing her that her tenure request was being denied. Vogeli, who had approved tenure for twenty-nine men and one woman during his time as a Vanderbilt dean, ordered Kilroy not to show Langland the letter or allow her to take any notes on its contents. Just read it to her once, Vogeli had said.
Still, Langland got the gist of it. Vogeli found her scholarship deficient; she had failed, he said to establish “a national reputation” in her field.
Langland was shaken and dismayed. but many of her colleagues were outraged. One of the angriest was Susan Ford Wiltshire, a tenured, Southern-bred classics professor who arrived at Vanderbilt in 1971. Wiltshire knew that no woman hired after that had been granted tenure at Vanderbilt, despite lofty assurances by the school’s administration that Vanderbilt was committed to equality.
In addition, Wiltshire was familiar with Langland’s credentials as a teacher and a scholar–the three books she had written or edited during three years at Vanderbilt, a time during which she also wrote several scholarly articles, chaired the University’s Women Studies Program and taught at least three courses a semester.
“Elizabeth was widely recognized as one of the genuinely excellent teachers on campus,” said Wiltshire. “As for Jacque Vogeli’s estimation of her scholarship, there are a great many people–including the majority of her own department, and more recently, critics around the country–who clearly disagree with him.”
For Wiltshire and many others, the issue boiled down to this: Despite Vanderbilt’s atrocious record in promoting women faculty members, a University dean went out of his way–took the unusual step of overruling the recommendation of a respected department–to deny tenure to an excellent teacher and promising young scholar.
The move seems all the more surprising in view of Vanderbilt’s national reputation for excellence. The English department has long been one of the best in the South, with writers such as Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom passing through in recent decades.
And during the political and social turbulence of the 1960s, Vanderbilt’s chancellor at the time, Alexander Heard, stood up strongly for academic freedom–keeping his campus peaceful not by threats of repression, but by honest open dialogue that impressed even the most radical of students.
Vanderbilt people take pride in all that. But they also wince at the University’s shabbier moments, including its decision in 1960 to dismiss the Reverend James Lawson from its graduate divinity program. Lawson was black, and his offense, in the eyes of the Vanderbilt administration, was to lead sit-in demonstrations at Nashville lunch counters.
Harvie Branscomb, Vanderbilt’s chancellor before Heard, explained the University’s position this way: “There is no issue involved of freedom or thought, or of conscience, or of speech, or of the right to protest against social custom. The issue is whether or not the University can be identified with a continued campaign of mass disobedience of law as a means of protest.”
Susan Wiltshire and other critics argue that the same institutional defensiveness and startling lapse of vision have characterized Vanderbilt’s handling of the Elizabeth Langland case. As proof, they cite Vogeli’s recent quotes in a student publication:
“(The press) reported that I denied tenure. I do not deny tenure. I sometimes fail to concur with a department recommendation. There is a difference. Deny has a pejorative ring. Deny implies that tenure is something that rightfully belongs to a faculty member, and that I am preventing that member from receiving it. It is like saying your professor denied you an A.”
Wiltshire, Langland and many of their colleagues were unimpressed, at the least, by Vogeli’s stance, and they formed an organization called WEAV (Women’s Equity at Vanderbilt) to push the Langland case and to raise the larger questions about women’s equality. Regardless of the outcome of the Langland suit, the WEAV members are convinced their efforts will have a long-run effect.
“The history of this institution will be significantly altered by what has happened in the last year and a half,” concludes Wiltshire. “Elizabeth Langland and Jim Lawson each said ‘no’ to the ‘no’–and that makes all the difference.”
Frye Gaillard, a Southern author and editorial writer at the Charlotte Observer, is a graduate of Vanderbilt, class of ’68.