Many within and outside of the NYU community are questioning the NYU Department of German’s decision to deny Professor Alys George a tenured position.
George joined NYU as an Assistant Professor–Faculty Fellow in 2011, and was promoted to tenure-track Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in 2012. While at NYU, she won the Golden Dozen Teaching Award in 2014. Six years later, she applied for tenure in 2018, but was rejected in 2019. George proceeded to appeal the decision, which reinstated the earlier decision.
Arne Sander, a graduate student in the German department who has previously worked with George, said that the news of George’s tenure denial came as a shock to him.
“I had a class together with her,” Sander said. “She was definitely among the most important people for me in the department intellectually.”
“I would have never guessed,” Sander added. “I also didn’t really believe it. At first, I was like, ‘OK it’s clearly a mistake.’ I was 100% sure that this was a mistake.”
While Sander is unaware of the details of the tenure process, he was surprised the department was ready to part with George.
“I have no idea about the laws or policies, or how this thing works,” Sander said. “I couldn’t think of a better professor, honestly … I couldn’t see [why] you would not want to have her in the department. It’s almost crazy to me.”
Sander commended George for her work as Director of Undergraduate Studies, especially with the transition to remote classes due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
“I don’t think that our transition to remote teaching would have been possible in the same way,” Sander said. “It was pretty smooth and she was really there for everybody. She must have been working 24/7 and it was crazy how much support we got from her. I don’t think this whole language program which the German Department is absolutely dependent on […] her. It’s just unimaginable.”
Sander expressed in a Sept. 29 statement that he has no reason to suspect malpractice of any kind and distances himself from students questioning bias. Sander was among 44 people in the NYU community — including several current and recent graduate students of NYU German, many Comparative Literature and History graduate students and recent alumni — who wrote a letter to Dean Antonio Merlo contesting George’s tenure decision. Dean Merlo, who became Dean of FAS in Summer 2019, had assumed deanship at the time of George’s appeal. He was brought in to replace Dean Thomas Carew.
A source approached WSN to share the details of George’s review process and suggested apparent malpractice. Some of the sources in this piece, some of whom are grad students, wish to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution from NYU. The sources stated that George had faced intra-department tensions against a person — whom they did not wish to name — which may have influenced her tenure decision.
On Apr. 2, the T-Faculty Senators Council’s Grievance Committee sent a memorandum to Provost Katherine Fleming stating that “in the majority of the cases the committee has found that proper procedures were in fact followed, but concerns remain.” The council reviews denial of tenure appeals at the University level.
“It is definitely against NYU policy for spouses to hold simultaneous administrative positions in the same department,” they wrote in an email to WSN. “During the year of Alys’ tenure review, [Elisabeth] Strowick and [Andrea] Krauss were Acting Chair and DGS (director of graduate studies) respectively.”
“There was special dispensation for this by GSAS, because there were few faculty members available in the department to fill these positions,” the source continued. “That year, Strowick was an Acting Chair. Currently, Strowick is officially appointed Chair of German by GSAS, while her spouse Krauss is presently DGS — which is properly speaking in violation of GSAS policy.”
While Professor Krauss did not serve on the committee reviewing George’s case, professor Strowick did. Strowick became the Acting Chair of the German Department, replacing Professor Christopher Wood. There is a seperate chair for the Departmental Tenure and Promotion Review Committee.
NYU’s Academic Conflict of Interest and Conflict of Commitment policy explicitly states that a conflict of interest arises with respect to “immediate family members” which, according to the policy, includes spouses.
Siarhei Biareishyk, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, echoed the anonymous source’s sentiments. Biareishyk earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Comparative Literature in 2017. Although he has not worked with George in any official capacity, he considers her to be one of his mentors.
“There is kind of a systematic abandonment of graduate and undergraduate advisors by more senior professors,” he said. “People like Alys George, who are willing to step up to this labor — that is ultimately counted against her … In the academic circles where I am, it is a running joke that the sure way to get your tenure rejected is to get a teaching award.”
He also shared our sources’ concern for potential malpractice regarding George’s case.
“The particular dynamics of this department — the German Department at NYU — these people should be submitted to Title IX,” he said. “There is no doubt for me.”
In a later email dated Sep. 28, Biareishyk clarified his statements.
“I do not insinuate that any individuals are personally guilty of Title IX violations, but the culture of the department that goes beyond the current department administration should be scrutinized on its continued treatment of women in lesser positions of power,” he wrote.
The German Department previously came under fire for its continued employment of Professor Avital Ronell, who was found guilty of sexually harassing her graduate advisee.
Biareishyk said that he has noticed a malicious pattern of tenure approvals against women.
“Women are under much more pressure.” Biareishyk said.
“In the last three tenure track cases, the German Department turned down two female professors, while their male peer was accepted,” Biareishyk continued. “In my opinion, all three were qualified, but Professor George was most qualified.”
With regards to his comments about the department’s tenure applicants in the past three cycles, Biareishyk clarified in his Sept. 28 email that he did not intend to compare the three applicants’ academic prowess.
“In my opinion, all three were qualified, but Professor George was particularly qualified in view of her excellent record of teaching, advising, and service,” he wrote.
George published her first book, “The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body” earlier this year with the University of Chicago Press. The book received acclaim and several positive reviews soon after its release.
Biareishyk pointed out that publishing her first book with the University of Chicago Press is an achievement in and of itself due to the status of the publisher. He also expressed doubt that George was “not taken seriously academically”.
“If you talk to people in her field, her book is going to be a paradigm changing book, it came out with the best press, better than any other publication in this department for years,” he said. “Once people in her field, in my field, found out that she did not get tenure, everyone was appalled.”
Additional sources, who also requested anonymity due to fear of retribution from the University, suggested that institutions might be slashing their tenure acceptance rates in order to elevate their status as a competitive academic institution.
“The implication is that a high achieving and much-respected scholar in her field would be evaluated on the basis of NYU administration’s desire to appear competitive with institutions like Yale and Harvard, who have notoriously f-cked up tenure-granting processes, including deliberately denying tenure to early career faculty and then poaching tenured faculty from other institutions,” they wrote in an email to WSN. “The point being, NYU may be intentionally (artificially) shrinking its tenure lines in order to appear competitive.”
In a message published on the University website in October 2019, Fleming questioned if NYU’s tenure rate is concerning.
“Tenure is intended to mark scholarly excellence and work that is at a discipline’s leading edge,” the message read. “In the abstract, should it be a concern that NYU’s tenure rate has been above 90% for the last seven years, significantly higher than that of institutions we think of as peers?”
The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences did not respond to WSN’s request for comment at the time of publication.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 e-print edition.
Email Aarushi Sharma at [email protected]
Correction, Sept. 29: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated various facts about Professor Alys George’s career at NYU, misspelled Andrea Krauss’ first name and Arne Sander’s last name, incorrectly reported when Antonio Merlo assumed deanship and misstated the positions and titles of Elisabeth Strowick and Siarhei Biareishyk. The article has been updated and WSN regrets the errors. The article has also been updated with additional information from George and statements from Biareishyk and Sander. The headline has been changed for accuracy.