Earlier this week The Chronicle of Higher Education broke startling news:
May 11, 2010, 10:31 AM ET
Tenured Professor at Northeastern Illinois U. Has Bogus Ph.D.
A professor with a Ph.D. from an unaccredited, now-defunct institution was given tenure last year by Northeastern Illinois University. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Theophilus (T.Y.) Okosun, a professor of justice studies, received his Ph.D. from the California-based Pacific Western University, which was deemed a diploma mill in a 2004 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office. Mr. Okosun, a native of Nigeria, said he wasn’t aware that Pacific Western was unaccredited when he attended. Northeastern Illinois declined to reveal exactly when it learned that the professor’s Ph.D. was not legitimate, but officials said that Mr. Okosun had been given tenure for his teaching ability.
The full story of Professor Okosun’s deception was first reported in the Chicago Sun-Times.
What interests me about this story is, well, everything.
First, it shows the extreme lengths the academy will traverse to “diversify” its faculty. As a job applicant, Mr. Okosun no doubt racked up double diversity points, for being (1) a person of color and for being (2) “international.” Double points for this criterion, critical as it is to an academic appointment, quell any reservations a search committee might have about a terminal degree from a dodgy institution. It’s not even surprising that Mr. Okosun’s transcript, thesis, and recommendations were given no more than a cursory, if even that, review. If the hiring department, in this case “justice studies,” was desperate enough to diversify its ranks, why then the answer to its troubles was as plain as the nose on Mr. Okosun’s face.
Consider, too, the subject area of Professor Okosun’s undocumented expertise, the aforementioned “justice studies.” Here’s how the University of Northeastern Illinois’ web site describes the department. Justice studies:
offers a variety of challenging and well-taught courses on various aspects of justice. This major prepares you for services in various departments of justice in The United States as well as within international justice systems.
I did not—I could not—make this up. The definition wins the hat trick for using the term “justice” no less than three times in describing the word, “justice,” it seeks to define. Oh, the injustice to grammarians everywhere!
Those of you really, really turned on by the prospect of plunging into the exciting world of “justice studies,” where you can learn about, you know, justice, may want to delve further into NEIU’s web site for in-depth information about the department:
In Justice Studies we seek to discover the social and historical roots of justice and injustice and examine how popular understandings of these shape public policies, including those of the criminal justice system. We study systematic explanations for the failure (or triumph) or [sic] justice in society and explore the potential for transformative justice. Through critical inquiry, social science investigation, and experiencial [sic] learning, Justice Studies students develop an understanding of social and economic justice issues and critical criminology, which studies the structural roots of crime and takes up the legal and social concerns of diverse, urban, low-income, and disenfranchised communities whose members are often clients of the criminal justice system.
Don’t you love it? “Criminal justice clients”; in the English-speaking world, these would be miscreants, offenders, lawbreakers, felons…criminals. But I suppose in our consumer-driven society, your neighborhood B&E guy is not just a thief, he’s a client.
Given the sophisticated level of discourse and reasoning evidenced by the justice studies department’s self-definition, I am dead certain Professor Okosun fits right in. After all, he wasn’t granted tenure (job for life) on the basis of his scholarly track record; his sinecure was awarded for his “exceptional” teaching. So says NEIU’s chief academic administrator to the Sun-Times:
Northeastern Illinois Provost Larry Frank wouldn’t say at what point in the tenure process the school learned the degree wasn’t valid. But the school allowed Okosun to pursue the lifetime employment contract — without a Ph.D. — based on his teaching skills. Okosun eventually demonstrated to faculty and administrators that his teaching is so “exceptional” that he is worthy of tenure, Frank said.
“You already have to present yourself as a superior teacher or scholar to be tenured,” said Frank, who as provost is the school’s chief academic officer. “So ‘exceptionality’ means better than superior.”
If Provost Frank’s high standards aren’t enough to convince you that Professor Okuson is qualified for his life tenancy in the groves of Academe, then you will probably find Elena Kagan a tough sell for Supreme Court Justice.
Dean Kagan has had a remarkable academic career. According to SCOTUSblog,
[Dean] Kagan has published six scholarly law review articles, all of which predate her receiving tenure at Harvard in 2001. Her earlier articles focus on First Amendment doctrine, while the last two discuss administrative law.
She has also published numerous book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and tributes to figures in the law.
“Numerous book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and tributes to figures in the law” do not a tenure file build. In most instances, writing for an encyclopedia and opining in memory of a deceased colleague are not considered assets in one’s quest for tenure. Most (but not all) book reviews aren’t, either. Six articles, moreover, in a career that spans nearly a quarter century is not much of an output. Oh, I am sure they are fine articles. Superior articles. Maybe even “exceptional” articles. But a basis for tenure? Pretty flimsy. A substitute for judicial experience when evaluating Dean Kagan for the Supreme Court? Maybe not, but as the Boston Globe assures us, “former co-workers, however, counter that her job performances provide ample evidence of a considerable intellect.”
Professor Okosun and Dean Kagan are poster children for tenure’s dirty little secret. The standards for achieving a lifetime academic appointment demand excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service. Except when they don’t.