"It's a body blow," says Barnard English chair Peter Platt. "But we're big and we're strong. We have to pick up the pieces, and we're doing that."
Platt is referring to the loss of former colleague Bashir Abu-Manneh, whom he helped hire in 2004—and who, in November 2012, was denied tenure by his department, effectively ending his employment at Barnard.
While students were quick to voice their resentment toward the tenure decision by circulating a high-profile petition demanding his reinstatement, Abu-Manneh's colleagues in the department have largely refused to speak on the matter. Abu-Manneh, too, declined to comment.
Abu-Manneh taught a number of courses, including Cultures of Colonialism: Israel/Palestine; Global Literature; Postcolonial Theory; and Marxist Criticism. He was the only Barnard English professor who specialized in postcolonial literatures and the only professor on campus who taught a course built exclusively around Arabic literature in translation. While Abu-Manneh's deep engagement with Marxist theory and Israel-Palestine was new for many students, his openness and dynamism attracted students of disparate viewpoints. Abu-Manneh is remembered as having the rare ability to strike a pedagogical balance that was neither dogmatic nor apolitical.
"Atypical," says Platt of his role in the department. "I've always been a big fan of his."
As Abu-Manneh was a campus favorite, his dismissal has invited speculation regarding the tenure process led to his rejection. In all cases, candidates are evaluated along three distinct criteria: teaching, research, and service. Linda Bell, Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Barnard, stresses, "Nobody can pass the Barnard tenure process without distinguishing themselves in all three areas."
While these three expansive categories are known, because tenure deliberations are confidential, cases often invite drama. What's more, Barnard tenure protocol requires that candidates be reviewed first at Barnard, then at Columbia. Since every step of the process is confidential (and since there are many steps), where and why a candidate was rejected is always obscured.
According to multiple sources, Abu-Manneh was initially approved for tenure by the Barnard English department, by Barnard's tenure committee, and, since the case went over to Columbia, presumably by President Spar.
Abu-Manneh's dossier was then passed to the Columbia tenure committee, which recommended that the Provost reject his case. While rejection at this stage is usually final, Abu-Manneh's colleagues appealed to the Columbia Provost to return the case to Barnard in fall 2012. These appeals are considered on the merit of "evidence of substantial scholarly growth," or publishing.
Because he had only published one book during his eight years at Barnard, the same panel that approved Abu-Manneh once before was now backed into a corner, as a process which was once based on three criteria was now whittled down to an evaluation of his publication history.
Of the four candidates considered for tenure in 2012 at Barnard, Abu-Manneh was the sole candidate that was denied. According to Professor Frederick Neuhouser, Chair of the Philosophy department at Barnard and a close friend of Abu-Manneh's, "after maybe years of serving Barnard and Columbia with great energy, Bashir is feeling very betrayed by the tenure process."
If most stories have two sides, the ones involving tenure have closer to twenty. Depending on who you hear it from, the villains and heroes change every time.
In trying to unravel the Abu-Manneh case, three main narratives emerge:
The first is that Abu-Manneh was a great professor, and that his ability to engage students in both academics and activism should have taken precedence over his publication history. Perhaps because Barnard defines itself as a small liberal arts college, many of those interviewed agree that dedication to students and teaching should come first.
The second holds that tenure criteria at Barnard are no different than tenure criteria anywhere else: "Publish or perish." During Barnard's end-of-year reviews, which can serve as course corrections for tenure-track faculty, Abu-Manneh was probably advised that he focus on publishing. Despite multiple reviews—one per year, with major reviews at the end of his third and sixth year—his bibliography remained thin. This narrative holds that the tenure denial may have been disappointing but was not unexpected.
The third narrative suggests that tenure review is simply a flawed process—at all universities and colleges generally and at Barnard specifically. Had the tenure process been independent of Columbia's input, had the criteria for granting an appeal not been so narrow, and had evaluations been less subjective or confidential, things might have ended differently for Abu-Manneh.
These are issues which affect every tenure case at Barnard. Abu-Manneh serves as a particularly poignant example of how the qualities that make for a beloved educator and scholar can get lost in layers of bureaucratic procedure.
When she heard that Abu-Manneh had been denied tenure, former student Nancy ElShami, BC '10, immediately launched a campaign to win him back. Her online petition to reverse the decision attracted nearly 400 signatures, many accompanied by messages attesting to Abu-Manneh's profound impact. Maya Wind, BC '13, says she "was devastated" when she heard the news. Gabriela Siegel, CC '13, puts it simply: "Bad choice, Barnard."
ElShami's petition, though intended for the administration, impacted the students: word spread about the school's enigmatic snub of an inspirational professor. The petition, which questions Barnard's "commitment to intellectual freedoms, diversity, and teaching," led some signatories to reflect on the role of Abu-Manneh's nationality as a self-identified "Palestinian from Israel," his politicized subject matter, and his personal activism—such as his multiple contributions to the radical Z-Mag and israeli-occupation.org—in the tenure decision.
However, no matter his personal political views, Abu-Manneh's former students laud him for encouraging debate in class and maintaining a non-hostile academic environment. Former student Sarah Lipkis, BC '13, says she was initially afraid she would be penalized for her pro-Israel views but instead, after taking two of his classes, recommended him to pro-Israel friends and wanted to enroll in more.
Abu-Manneh's legacy extends far beyond the English department: he chaired the Barnard Film Studies Program, served on committees for Africana Studies and Comparative Literature, and was active in the Center for Palestine Studies (CPS). In 2010, Abu-Manneh approached Neuhouser to create the Barnard Forum on Emancipation and Politics, which aimed to challenge identity politics with an unapologetically Marxist analysis. These efforts to enrich students' lives and create forums for discussion outside the classroom took place mainly in the two years leading up to his tenure review.
Platt says he recognizes this type of case from when he was a student at Yale. Then, he didn't understand how scholarship mattered more to tenure committees. Now, as a professor, he does.
When it comes to filling a spot permanently, Biology professor Paul Hertz, who served as acting Provost at Barnard from July 2011 to September 2012, maintains that good deeds and diversity of thought will never compete with a promising bibliography: "Service is really great in a dossier, but it doesn't get anybody tenure, anywhere. People often have great ideas. They read a lot. They synthesize a lot. But some people get blocked and just don't publish the stuff. And that's the same as not doing it."
Columbia University professor of Arab politics and culture Joseph Massad, who faced public scrutiny several times after rumors of intimidating pro-Israel students in class, was nevertheless granted tenure because he fit the traditional criteria. By the time of his tenure bid, Massad had published more books than most of his colleagues. Besides having a reputation opposite to Abu-Manneh, he had an opposite experience with the tenure process: Massad was reported to have been initially denied tenure when he was evaluated in 2009, a decision that was then reversed after an appeal.
However, where Massad's case only went through one tenure review, Abu-Manneh had to go through two: one at Barnard and one at Columbia.
Tenure review for a Barnard professor begins in the candidate's department, where all tenured professors anonymously vote on each candidate. If the candidate passes the vote, the decision then moves to Barnard's Advisory Committee on Appointments, Tenure and Promotion (ATP), which advises the Barnard Provost on the candidate's qualifications. Once approved by the President of Barnard, the case material is sent to the other side of the street. There, it is reviewed by the analogous Columbia department and the Tenure Review Advisory Committee (TRAC), Columbia's advisory body that is analogous to ATP. With their respective recommendations, the Provost consults with the presidents and Columbia's Board of Trustees to make the decision final.
According to multiple sources, it was TRAC that rejected Abu-Manneh for tenure, in either the spring or early summer of 2012.
Though Barnard's process is asymmetrical in ceding judgment to a third party, the Columbia review has historically exercised little influence on the decision. Hertz also says that Columbia's Tenure Review Advisory Committee (TRAC), which replaced a messier ad-hoc process in 2012, remains in conversation with Barnard during its deliberation. "If the discussion is heading toward a negative decision, they [TRAC] invite the chair of the Barnard department to come and meet with them and have a discussion. So my impression is that they would never vote no at one meeting."
TRAC's mandate, according to its chair, sociology professor Peter Bearman, is procedural as well as substantive. Neuhouser, who served on ATP from 2008 to 2011, says that the criteria that TRAC uses to evaluate candidates remain obscure. "It's a very fraught system," he says. "Some people both at Barnard and Columbia are worried that the kind of review that TRAC is actually carrying out is different from the kind of review that we thought it would be when it was sold to us."
After TRAC voted negatively, Abu-Manneh was given another chance. In the fall of 2012, Barnard's Department of English reviewed his case again.
According to terms of the appeal, Abu-Manneh was re-evaluated solely on his published works. But between the spring and fall of 2012, there was little time for him to significantly bulk up the first few chapters of his next book. "At the end of the sixth year, if the person has not produced a body of work that the department thinks is worthy of tenure, the clock will run out," says Hertz. "There's really no time left, at that point."
The final decision therefore rested on both the generosity of a narrow procedural clause and the goodwill of Abu-Manneh's colleagues. Despite the well-defined codes and structures laid out in the tenure guidelines, Platt says that in evaluating a candidate's contribution to his or her field, much is up for interpretation.
In 2001, departmental politics paralyzed the Columbia English department, making national headlines. The concern was that the content, rather than the quality, of published material was weighing too heavily in tenure evaluations, feeding an existential conflict pitting practitioners of mid-century new criticism against their postcolonial colleagues. The New York Times reported that "the political debates turned personal, with each side accusing the other of no longer being able to distinguish the quality of a candidate from his or her ideology." If Abu-Manneh's case came down to a judgement of quality, much would have been left to interpretation. If quantity took precedence, then the outcome had long been decided.
The deliberations of the Barnard Department of English will remain confidential. Because Platt was on leave during the final moments of Abu-Manneh's case, English professor Achsah Guibbory was acting department chair. She declined to comment.
The Barnard English department is expecting to fill Abu-Manneh's position in two years. While it has the largest faculty at Barnard, the new hire will set a certain academic tone—just as Abu-Manneh's denial of tenure made a statement about how his department will define itself. While it is certain that the position will be granted to scholar of postcolonialism, given the amorphous and expansive nature of the postcolonial field, it is almost as certain that the subject matter will differ from Abu-Manneh's particular areas of expertise.
"For me," says Neuhouser, Barnard's remaining resident Marxist, "the big loss is a loss of a certain intellectual perspective that I think is becoming increasingly rare on college campuses, not just at Barnard or Columbia." The Barnard Forum on Emancipation and Politics has not survived Abu-Manneh, the Film department is struggling, and the English department has lost an anti-colonial voice in its Western-focused faculty.
Abu-Manneh isn't adrift, though: less than one year after leaving Barnard, he's secured a visiting professorship at Brown University.