October 16, 2003

Rhodes Professor Process to Be Reviewed

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Following a request this summer made by the Board of Trustees, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin has begun a review of the process used to select the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professors. In the next month, Martin said she will seek to solve problems highlighted by the aftermath of this year’s appointments.

Martin and others say that the trustees’ request has less to do with this year’s appointees, former Congress member Cynthia McKinney and filmmaker John Pilger, than with the procedures and practices that the University uses to select the visiting professors.

The faculty committee chose McKinney and Pilger but turned down the nomination of Dr. Thomas Simons Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Poland and more recently Pakistan, according to Prof. Richard Schuler, economics.

“I wasn’t a member of the faculty committee. I wasn’t in their heads. I just can’t comment on what went on in their own evaluations,” Schuler said.

A scholar of Islamic affairs and religion and emerging countries, Simons received a special appointment as a Provost’s Visiting Professor under the same terms as the Rhodes Professorship. Simons’ visit is being supported by Profs. Barry Strauss, Walter LaFeber, Valeria Bunce, Ronald Herring, Matthew Evangelista, Alaka Basu, David Powers, Ross Brann and David Lewis.

In November 2002, Schuler wrote a letter of recommendation for Simons that began: “For breadth of experience, depth of knowledge, eloquence of expression and ease of personal interaction, I can think of few people more amply endowed with the attributes needed to fulfill the aspirations for the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professorship than Thomas Simons.”

Schuler did not criticize the committee for turning down his nomination or offer any judgment of McKinney and Pilger.

“I just threw someone’s name into the hat,” he said, adding that he is glad that Simons, McKinney and Pilger will share their experiences with the community.

The provost and committee chair Porus Olpadwala stand behind the decision “150 percent,” Olpadwala said. Both, however, acknowledged that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

What went wrong is analogous to a fraternity brother inviting a pledge to join before the entire fraternity agrees, said Board chair Peter C. Meinig ’62. McKinney and Pilger were prematurely informed of their appointment by the faculty committee before the provost, the president or the Board of Trustees had a chance to give final approval.

“We have these kinds of issues from time to time,” Meinig said.

Provost Biddy Martin agreed.

“These things just happen,” Martin said. “It just didn’t get noticed.”

Martin said that she will ensure that future appointees will be submitted to the provost and the president early enough so that there is an opportunity to review and approve the faculty committee’s choice. No final appointment will be made until after an official vote by the trustees.

The reason that McKinney and Pilger were notified early, according to Martin, was “so that they could ensure early on that [nominees] would accept” the post if final approval was given. It has always happened that way. In past years, with everyone pleased by the appointments, concerns such as these were not raised. The issue was not contentious until this year, when the trustees learned that McKinney and Pilger had already been notified.

Martin has begun meeting with committee chair Porus Olpadwala to implement a schedule for this academic year that includes ample time for provost, president and trustee review.

Martin is also going to be looking throughout the year into making broader changes to the professorship, though she has not made any decisions yet.

She said that the professorship was “meant to be a different kind of professorship” and that its current definition is “very general and somewhat vague.” She identified the low number of nominees as a concern and ruled out shaking up the composition of the faculty committee.

Meinig said that the Board did not request that the Provost make any specific changes, only that the process be reviewed. He said that the Board committee did vote this summer to approve the faculty committee’s selection of McKinney and Pilger.

“The board committee respects the judgment and recommendation,” he said.

The professorship has been at the center of a controversy since the announcement in September that two outspoken opponents of the Bush administration, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and film-maker John Pilger, would be this year’s appointees. The appointment of McKinney was particularly unpopular with many alumni and the consequences for the University are still unknown.

“I’m still hearing concerns from alumni,” said Inge Reichenbach, vice president for alumni affairs and development. She is contacted by three to four per day, she said last week.

Long-term she believes, “it’s manageable, but of course it concerns me,” she said.

Archived article by Peter Norlander