Tenure denial case of DePaul chemistry prof, Quinetta Shelby

This crosspost from the CENtral Science home of Terra Sigillata appeared on 21 November 2010.

Organometallics chemist and NSF CAREER awardee, Dr. Quinetta D. Shelby, has been denied tenure in the Department of Chemistry at DePaul University even after an institutional appeals committee determined that her negative departmental review was flawed. According to a note at Inside Higher Ed on Thursday:

Supporters of Quinetta Shelby released documents Wednesday suggesting bias in her tenure denial at DePaul University. Shelby is the only black faculty member in the chemistry department at the university, and while she was rejected by her department, a university appeals panel found that she was treated unfairly. Among other things, the appeals panel found that her department changed policies after the review started, refused to consider some of her publications and awards even though they met criteria that had been established, and seemed to focus on minor negative issues in otherwise positive portions of her tenure file. The “numerous procedural violations” raised significant questions of fairness, the appeals panel found, suggesting that the negative departmental recommendation be set aside.

The Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, DePaul’s president, has declined to reverse the decision.

This year, Shelby was one of a group of six persons not granted tenure at DePaul: two African Americans, Two Asian-Americans, and two Latino professors. No white faculty were denied this year. Conflicting reports from Rev. Holtschneider and the faculty indicate that minority faculty tenure rates have historically been either equal to or lower than those for white faculty.

Admittedly, judging individual tenure decisions from afar can be unscientific, particularly since neither the released documents cited above or DePaul’s Department of Chemistry promotion and tenure document(s) can be accessed online.

But Shelby’s case in particular has the aroma of injustice. A diverse group of supporters – yes, even older, bespectacled and bearded white dudes (video here) – came to her side in a press conference on Wednesday noting that issues of racial bias have been going on for at least five years. The lack of higher administration action on the “numerous procedural violations” cited by the appeals panel also smells bad. Moreover, Holtschneider’s comments in the Fox Chicago interview are disappointing in that he says, “we have a committee of faculty working on that right now, so we make sure that what happened in one year at DePaul never happens again.”

How about examining why this happened in the first place before you jettison Dr. Shelby?

But, then again, Father Holtschneider is fine. DePaul trustees just granted him a six-year contract extension on November 4th.

Here’s what we can find out about Professor Shelby. She earned her BS from the University of Chicago and PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After NIH-supported postdoctoral work at Yale University, Shelby launched her independent career at Chicago State University then joined DePaul in 2004. Her early work with chemist John Hartwig resulted in a couple of nice publications with a first-author JACS paper in 2000 that has been cited more than 120 times and a second-author Journal of Organic Chemistry paper from 2002 that’s been cited more than 300 times.

It’s tough for me to count her publications since joining DePaul because I don’t know if the promotion and tenure committee gave her credit for the Acta Crystallography structure reports she’s published (three in 2009). Without them, Web of Science reveals three peer-reviewed publications since 2007 and a gap that extends back to 2003. Not knowing what the teaching-intensive DePaul University might expect from an assistant professor, I can’t really make any conclusions.

In 2006, Dr. Shelby successfully competed for a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation that supports her synthetic work and provides undergraduate research opportunities in chemistry for students at her former institution, an historically-black college/university (HBCU), and DePaul. The abstract from the NSF site reads as follows:

This CAREER award by the Inorganic, Bioinorganic, and Organometallic Chemistry program supports work by Professor Quinetta Shelby at DePaul University to develop palladium catalysts that promote the stereoselective allylation reaction of electrophiles with allylsilanes. The proposed research involves Pd catalysts ligated with anionic bidentate phosphine ligands. One aspect of the research plan focuses on methods to activate the reaction of allylsilanes with aldehydes and to promote the asymmetric synthesis of homoallylic alcohols, which are useful intermediates in the synthesis of natural products. The area of study is relevant to the fundamental understanding of principles that will improve catalytic systems for synthetic reactions. The aim of the education plan is to increase the number of women and persons in underrepresented minority groups who pursue careers as research scientists through activities including research internships, workshops on pursuing graduate education, networking, and mentoring. The education plan will provide experiences that allow students from DePaul University and Chicago State University, a primarily minority-serving institution, to become more confident in their ability to conduct research while they learn about academic options that are available in graduate programs.

Indeed, it seems that her work is quite consisten with the goals of the NSF CAREER program:

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Quinetta Shelby (far left) and her student assistant Elizabeth Sisler (far right) attracted the interest of Trustee James Czech, Father Holtschneider and Trustee Connie Curran on their exploration into helping medicines work more effectively. (Photo and caption from DePaul Newsline Online, 13 July 2009).

Shelby’s research had been featured prominently by the university and she was pictured here last July with her student Elizabeth Sisler, President Holtschneider, and two university trustees. She appears to have been active in student research mentoring, both from her own grant and in DePaul’s NSF grant from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program.

I’m not terribly fond of RateMyProfessors.com (no, I’m not listed there) but that’s all I have to go on for Dr. Shelby’s teaching. Out of 29 DePaul chemistry instructors rated, Shelby was rated better than the department average. She had some negative comments back in 2005 but has had very strong ratings since with a few complaints typical for any instructor teaching a tough course like organic chemistry. This 2006 comment probably explained some of the negativity:

“Shelby is one of the most driven professors I’ve ever seen. Determined to help students learn and to get better at helping them. But it’s a two way street. She’s not going to lower her standards to accom[m]odate some students. Problem: people get used to curving and think it’s sin she doesn’t. That’s her p[rer]ogative. Organic is hard but not impossible.”

So, she has high standards and expects from her students what other DePaul professors may not.

In service, I was able to find that Shelby served to write and edit the Department of Chemistry’s Catalyst newsletter as late as 2008. But, again, I don’t have much more than that.

I dunno. Something just isn’t right here. Not a peep from the student newspaper, often a place for the most frank commentary at other universities. Objectively, perhaps Shelby’s publication record was not extensive enough. But everything else seems to be in order relative to others in her department. The fact that issues of racism toward faculty are alleged to have been ongoing for five years troubles me (I can’t tell if the Fox Chicago news report was referring to racism in the department or at the university in general). DePaul is no stranger to claims of unfair bias in tenure decisions and hiring: gender last year and two denials in 2007 that led to a student hunger strike protest, plus the Thomas Klocek affair. In the current case, the biggest red flag for me is the note from Inside Higher Ed remarking that the department decision on Shelby’s tenure was compromised by procedural violations, regardless of whether race was involved.

In higher ed circles, DePaul tends to have a pretty good record with regard to student diversity and educational access. The student body is about 8.5% African American and 13% Hispanic and Latino and 35% of students are first-generation college degree-seekers. Named after St. Vincent de Paul who tended to the poor of Paris in the 1600s, the university refers to its Vincentian mission “with special concern for the deprived members of society.”

I’d welcome any comments or discussion, especially from those close to this case and particularly if Shelby supporters wish to share any of the documentation that was released earlier this week. Feel free to Gmail me at abelpharmboy.

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6 Responses to Tenure denial case of DePaul chemistry prof, Quinetta Shelby

  1. Ben Braketu says:

    Whenever the issue of race is implicated in tenure decisions, I get nervous as I am also a black. I therefore looked at Quinetta D Shelby’s case from an objective perspective.
    I used web of science to look at her career publications. She only published 4 articles as independent scientists in journals that are low tier. None of her papers are cited.
    I am sorry but independent publication probably account for over 50% of the tenure decision in any good university, followed by research grant (about 30%) and teaching (15%) and other services (5%).
    For colleges that have high teaching loads and do not have PhD level students, maybe the percentages are, teaching (50%), good and cited publications (30%), research money (15%) and others (5%).
    These are rough guides but close to what most places use.
    If one does not want research grants and publications to count, then they should rather apply for lectureships and no professorships.
    You can not use her PhD and postdoc publications to argue for her tenure because tenure is not granted to assistant professors for work done during PhD or postdoc. After all those publications were driven by her former mentors.
    Also, it is important for professors going up for tenure to have active grants.

    Racism does occur in academia and no one can deny that. I have been a victim myself. However, we have to be careful not to call every decision a racist decision. Lets face the truth, her publication record was quite poor, even if you include the so-called paper that your article implies was not included. That paper is a low tier paper and uncited. So if publication accounts for 30-50%, then her case is already looking weak.

  2. Ben Braketu says:

    As a follow up to my previous comment on the tenure denial of Quinetta Shelby,
    I did more investigations on young associate professors who were granted tenure in the same department within the last 2-3 years.
    One of them has so far published 7 papers in medium tier journals and cited 47 times (from papers published at DePaul). The other also has seven papers that are cited 31 times from DePaul publications.
    Quinetta is an excellent scientist and was trained at Yale and UIUC. One has to be smart to get into these top programs. I think that based on her publication records and citation, the tenure decision was probably fair. The question that we should however be asking ourselves is, “How come such a brilliant scientist was not productive at DePaul?” Maybe, racism played a part in her inability to be productive. It is plausible that she did not get productive students because as a black women racial factors played into who joined her group. It is possible that she struggled to get her papers published in top tier journals because there were racist reviewers who gave her hard time. I have had similar experiences with my papers. It is possible that there were racist peer reviewers for her grants.
    Black professors face big hurdles and if they are to succeed, society has to look at the various factors that make one productive.
    I consider her case as “a brilliant scientist wasted due to societal racism and not faulty tenure decision”

  3. David/Abel says:

    The question that we should however be asking ourselves is, “How come such a brilliant scientist was not productive at DePaul?”

    Ben, your take on this case is invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing your analysis. Indeed, investigating the factors underlying productivity is a very interesting area to study. In that respect, I wonder how Dr. Shelby was mentored through her annual reviews as to whether she was on track for tenure and what plans could be enacted to maximize her chances for success.

  4. John says:

    I know almost everyone in the chemistry department at DePaul University and I find it hard to believe that racism is the main reason behind this. The department consists of maybe 3 strait white mail professors, 2 professors with very strong accents (one Hispanic and one Asian of some sort) three openly gay men and a few women from various backgrounds. I personally don’t believe that if the department was full of bigots who hated black people, they would also be so tolerant of gay people, Hispanic people, Asian people and everyone else. Furthermore as Dr. Shelby was my Chemistry advisor I can say that she was very rude to me and made me feel like I was a nuisance. I think that may be why she was unable to be productive. However, my girlfriend absolutely loved her and says she got along with Shelby extremely well. I honestly think if anything sexism is more to blame anything. But that case would be virtually impossible to make in trial due to the fact that women outnumber men in both the student body and the faculty, though many students do feel as though men are favored.

  5. N/A says:

    I’m a student at DePaul and have taken General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry with Dr. Shelby. I’ve never met anyone so enthusiastic to teach. She is extremely approachable and more than willing to help students with the course material when they stop by, even if it’s not her office hours. It was easy to tell how disappointed she was that she didn’t get tenure. It’s unfortunate that she won’t be returning because of this, but very understandable. You wouldn’t even know that she’s not returning next year because she continues to teach as she always has, exhibiting the utmost class by not letting this phase her. I honestly think Dr. Shelby will continue to do wonderful things with her career, and that DePaul is really losing out on a great professor. She embodies a true example of a hard-working, caring, and FAIR teacher.

    One of the professors that had received tenure this year USED to be my advisor. That professor wouldn’t show up for my advising appointments and would take forever to respond to my emails. He/she wouldn’t even give me the time of day to send me a quick email explaining his/her absence at my appointments. Then the one time I finally had an appointment, he/she spent the entire time on the phone asking departments questions since they weren’t prepared for my appointment. Obviously, I changed advisors and now am having no issues.

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