Will Justice be Served? The Parallel Cases of the Professors Okosun and Kagan

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.

For an extra $500 I can get a supersize PhD?! Sign me up!

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.

After 6 p.m. clients use the night entrance.

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.

Except she hasn't written a book.

The collected works of Elena Kagan.

“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.

Tough call, isn't it?

Is the tenure system corrupt? You decide.

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15 thoughts on “Will Justice be Served? The Parallel Cases of the Professors Okosun and Kagan

  1. I’m really offended by the assumption you make—and I underscore assumption—that the university waved the usual PhD to give this guy tenure because of “double minority points.” I wonder if this person had been white if you would have made the same racist assumption. I doubt it. Being a professor at a college in the Chicago area, I’ve been following this story with great interest. The only official information about this situation comes from the Sun Times story you quote. Every other blog or article about the situation comes from that Sun Time story. Nowhere in that original Sun Times story does it suggest that the professor was given tenure because of “double minority” status. Your assumption dangerous because it perpetuates some of the worst stereotypes about minorities in academia and minorities in general. You’re projecting your own racist bullshit and inability or unwillingness to think critically about the situation. Your assumption may or may not be true, but you write it as if it’s fact and that’s what really happened. Parading assumption as fact is the heart of racist and reactionary thinking.

    • I can tell from your use of vulgar language, ad hominem attack, and inability to recognize hyperbole and satire that you truly represent the best the academy has to offer. You make my case for me. Thank you.

      • You’re right about the vulgar language. I’m angry. Inexcusable.

        However, you ignore the main point that I make about assumptions. You can use my vulgar language as an easy distraction or you can address the point that I make.

        Which is it?

      • OK; let’s talk about assumptions. Professor Okosun is Nigerian; he is from a different country and he is black. It would be naive not to assume that these personal attributes were not germane to his hiring inasmuch as “diversity of its learning environment” is in part how the university defines itself in its “Vision Statement.” Like many other institutions, moreover, NEIU adds the following tag line to its announcements of vacancy: “Northeastern Illinois University is an AA/EO Employer and is strongly and actively committed to diversity. Applications from women and minority groups are encouraged.” So, to answer your question directly: yes, of course I assume his color and nationality were taken into consideration by the university when it hired him. What possible reason would I have to believe otherwise? What is racist about that?

        Professor Okosun—whom I presume was up for tenure after 2006—did not meet the basic academic standard for achieving tenure, according to the NEIU faculty handbook

        The following educational requirements for tenure at Northeastern Illinois University apply to all tenure-track faculty members appointed as of September 1, 2006.
        All degrees must be in the field of academic assignment or in an academic area appropriate to the needs of the department or programs, subject to approval by the Provost.
        All degrees and/or required graduate study toward an advanced degree must be from an institution accredited by a regional accrediting association, or in the case of foreign institutions, accepted by the appropriate agency that evaluates institutional degrees.
        The earned doctoral degree is the standard with the following exceptions where an alternate is provided.

        In justice studies, the alternative to the PhD is a JD, which as far as I know Professor Okosun does not possess.

        The faculty handbook does not reference the “exceptional” exception cited in the Sun Times article. Whatever the university’s reasons for granting tenure to Professor Okosun, they were not the reasons it uses to grant tenure to others.

        In looking for racism where it doesn’t exist, you miss entirely the point of my essay. Let me try again: Academics are forever squealing about the sanctity of tenure, the rigor of its requirements, and the even-handedness of peer review in applying those requirements to individual applicants. For most members of the faculty this is true. But it is not true in every instance, which NEIU’s tenuring of Professor Okosun and Harvard’s of Dean Kagan clearly illustrate. When the stakes are so high—a job for life with little or any post-tenure accountability for the faculty member—one would hope the evaluation standards and their application would likewise be rigorous—and applied without exception.

    • To your response:

      Three points:

      First, nothing you talk about in either of your posts is based on anything from the original article. Hence, I restate one of the points I made in my previous post—you’re projecting your own racist assumptions onto the situation. Perhaps you haven’t read in entirety the actual Sun Times article, the only source that has, to my knowledge, covered the story. Perhaps you have instead relied on a secondary source like the Chronicle for your primary information about the situation. Here’s the link to the actual Sun Times article.
      I actually ran across your blog because I was trying to find reliable information about the situation at Northeastern. I googled and some blogs came up; only one news story—Sun Times—came up.

      Where in this article is there support for any of your assertions about the seductiveness of the professor’s double minority status? When I read the article, I am frustrated because of the fog surrounding so many questions about the professor’s hiring and tenure decision. In the article, it seems as though neither the professor nor the university is fully disclosing what happened. Worse, it sounds as though there might have been huge negligence on both sides that no one wants to own up to. Each side seems to be covering itself, particularly the university which has the responsibility to properly vet candidates before hiring them. Now, the university is stuck with a professor because of giving him life-long tenure. I’m assuming all of this because, as I’ve stated, neither party is forthcoming in the article. Therefore, if this is the case and I’m reading this article accurately, how can you be so steadfast in your assertions that he was hired and/or promoted because of his juicy “double minority status” ? You have no more idea about the whats, whys and wherefores than anyone else. You know as much as anyone who reads the article knows—NOTHING.

      Two, if the candidate had been white and/or white and an African (i.e. Afrikaaner) and the same situation happened, what assumptions would you make about why he was hired and why he was given tenure?

      Third, if your claims are mere satire and hyperbole, what in your original post is hyperbole and what exactly is satire? Sorry…I guess I don’t recognize hyperbole and satire because when I think of both I think of Jonathan Swift and others as models. What are you saying by labeling your claims as satire and hyperbole? Are you implying that readers like myself really shouldn’t take your claims seriously or given them any reasoned analysis? That it’s hyperbole after all—“It’s meant to be over top so don’ take it seriously.” Is that what you’re saying? As far as your claims to satire, I don’t see anything amusing or funny about your post—good satire at least makes one laugh out loud. Though, to be sure, humor is in the eye of the beholder.

      • My link, which is working correctly, brings readers to “‘Diploma-mill’ Ph.D.? No problem/Northeastern Illinois still grants lifetime tenure to ‘exceptional’ professor Comments,” a story appearing in the May 10, 2010 online edition of the Sun-Times with the byline “DAVE NEWBART Staff Reporter.”

      • One thing people please: The place that tenured the bogus Okosun is NEIU NOT NIU. NIU is Northern Illinois University, a much more reputable place than Northeastern Illionis University (NEIU).

  2. It’s not the assumption that is racist or that does an injustice (no pun intended) to privileged victim groups – it is the hiring practice itself that is bigoted and racist. THat is what people should be upset about, especially highly qualified blacks and woman and others in progressive privileged victim groups. It would be justice indeed if people were actually based on their merits as they relate to the job in question.

  3. Hey JT:

    Please climb up out of mom’s basement, step outside, place a paperbag over your head and take slow deep breaths. Hyperventilating is very bad for you. Once you’ve calmed down a bit take a deep breath and unclench your sphincter. I promise you’ll start to feel a lot better before you know it. Your grammar and logic should start to improve almost immediately!

  4. I wonder if JT is the same guy just arrested for stealing a professor’s article, claiming it was his own, and cheating his way through four years at Harvard. Caught, he was trying to cheat his way into Yale to finish is degree. Creative morals are part of the curriculum nowadays at most colleges. Professors set the bar, and some of them belong behind bars.

    • “Creative morals”; how delicious. I may invite you to be an honorary “Miss” and write a guest post, which I of course would approve beforehand thus making it a guest post facto, I suppose.

  5. It has been some weeks since the case of professor Okosun was discussed here. I just found this blog, which was the first I knew of the controversy, so please excuse my tardiness.

    I happen to have a Ph.D. in History myself from Northwestern University, another of the Chicago schools.

    If only the ethical questions involved here were limited to the Windy City!

    In my time I have met degree holders who I wish were not pursuing their profession in the classroom, laboratory or research archives. Indeed, many of these seemed to wish they had something else to do as well!

    Then there are those who seemed very well suited indeed, and eager to do so, and yet they lacked some credential or other and did not seem able to obtain it.

    Finally, there are those who employed sharp practise to game the system.

    Professor Okosun may in part fall into the last two categories, though the case of sharp practise does not appear to be prima facie, exactly.

    All such mismatches seem to be a part of the tragedy of modern credentialism.

    I only know Professor Okosun from his most recent book, >>Social Justice and Increasing Global Destitution<<, which just arrived on the new book shelf at the University of Virginia library. I did not know what he looked like (until I checked the Sun-Times article online), I did not know his credentials, and in fact I did not know his first name (Theophilus).

    As with other new books, I settled down for about a half hour or so to have a look at the ones whose titles or cover descriptions appeal to me.

    In Okosun's case, what first caught my attention was the following from the back cover: "…powerful social influences augment individualistic aspirations, which detract from the critical, local, and global advancement of the human condition."

    This thesis seemed to me well worth a look-in.

    I read through the entire book. I found it by turns refreshing and frustrating. When Okosun writes outside of his field's jargon, he does so with an appealing directness and sincerity. Okosun's over-reliance on a single episode of the PBS Bill Moyers' Journal programme from 2003 was not particularly wise, but otherwise his scholarly apparatus seemed to me to fall within the bounds of reasonable expectation. The book definitely needed a proper editor, but this can be hard to come by even at the flagship academic presses, much less the workmanlike UP of America.

    Okosun rises above all this and enters an entirely more important and higher realm when he asks the following:

    "[I]f a massive catastrophe actually ever occurred, then to what would populations disconnected from conscience, human interaction, co-responsibility, and reliance on each other turn? … It is clear that should the current course of global violence continue[], post-capitalist and post-materialistic societies may have no history of social coherence from which to garner solutions to rebuild. … Some people would seek survival through continued neo-liberal capitalism[,] insisting that accumulation and profit is still the best way out. The second kind of survival (mostly already depopularized as dated, ancient, pre-modern, anti-progressive, and unreliable), would fashion life around people, social interaction, recognition of each other [citations], and shape personal experiences through commitment to each other." (p.146)

    Later on, he writes:

    "[John] Rawls' (1971) perspective is that no matter how social arrangements are configured, they must [i.e. ought to] be organized to that the least advantaged would still benefit. But such a consciousness cannot simply happen in a society that leverages everything on competition and profit. … [S]uch a caring process must not be mechanical and based on the exchange of remuneration for labor only. … Social well-being here signifies not being comfortable alone [i.e. by oneself], but being comfortable in relation to others. Social justice emerges when everyone is comfortable with each other. On the other side, social justice diminishes when public distrust and discomfort enters the scene." (p.184)

    After reading these and several other passages, it mattered very little to me where or even if Okosun received a doctorate. Wisdom and insight transcend such matters. If I sat on a review committee of a person who wrote these words, I would have no difficulty whatsoever in awarding tenure, other than to worry that the system itself might dull the vigour of such a mind and such a heart.

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