By Lisa Sorg
About an hour after sunrise on a recent Tuesday morning, a large UTSA lecture hall was packed with about 70 students eager to discuss one of J.R.R. Tolkien's most difficult and convoluted works, The Silmarillion.
"It is about the will of the individual changing destiny," Professor Mark Womack explained. "Yet, there is a sense of inevitability. This story embodies that paradox."
After six years at UTSA, Womack, a popular and openly gay English professor, faces his own paradox: In March, tenure committees from the English and Classics department and College of Liberal and Fine Arts voted nearly unanimously (15-1 and 8-0, respectively) to grant him tenure; yet, at the final hurdle, the University Committee voted 8-0 against it. The votes are secret; committee members referred all questions to UTSA spokesman David Gabler.
Also by an 8-0 vote, the University Committe denied tenure to Classics Professor John Rundin, who is also gay, after the English and Classics Departmental Committee (10-5) and College of Liberal and Fine Arts Committee (7-1) voted to grant it.
Professors are eligible for tenure after six years. When committees review a professor's file, they are instructed to weigh their evaluations as 40 percent teaching, 40 percent scholarship, and 20 percent service to the university.
Although the University Committee - comprised of tenured faculty from departments ranging from mechanical engineering to finance - criticized Womack and Rundin for failing to publish enough scholarly works, similarities in the two professors' cases have raised questions about the real reasons behind their tenure denial: There was a notable disparity between the lower committees' votes and that of the University Committee. Historically, the University Committee has upheld lower committees' recommendations; it has been more than six years since an English professor was last denied tenure. Both professors are gay.
"What I love about teaching is introducing people to the best stuff that's ever been written," said Womack, who since 1998 has taught 17 courses at UTSA, including Milton, Shakespeare, and queer drama. "People think it's going to be difficult and horrible. But I focus on the beauty of the language and the complexity of what's going on."
Womack's enthusiasm has made him one of the English department's most popular professors. The English department's review advisory committee wrote that Womack's class preparation is "impeccable." The College's committee report added that Womack's student evaluations are "extraordinarily high." (After learning of the tenure decision, several of his students were so upset that they met with members of the administration, including the provost.)
Although the University Committee determined Womack's research record fails to meet standards for tenure - he has published five articles in nine years - lower level committees called his work, "while limited, superb in quality," noting that he had won a prize for best article in Studies in English Literature, one of the most prestigious and selective of scholarly journals.
Seven outside reviewers - tenured faculty at other universities whom Womack doesn't know - lauded Womack's work, all of them recommending or urging that he receive tenure.
While the committees noted that Womack's service record was limited, it wasn't to an "inappropriate degree for an assistant professsor."
Rundin, who has taught at UTSA since 1998, referred questions to Charles Zucker of the Texas Faculty Association, a union investigating the case. Zucker said that he is "suspicious," adding that Rundin often ran into opposition for some of his activism. For example, Rundin served on the Faculty Senate, where he lobbied for domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian faculty.
At Senate meetings, Rundin also raised issues that new faculty were reporting "experiencing unpleasant surprises after being hired by UTSA." According to minutes from a May 2003 meeting, "these include not being informed that UTSA is trying to move toward becoming a more research-oriented institution."
Although Rundin's evaluations were more uneven than Womack's, Dean Daniel Gelo noted that Rundin "should be commended for maintaining and growing the Classics program," adding that he had taught an overload nearly every semester. While the English department chairperson noted that Rundin's student evaluations "have a wide variation," he rated Rundin's efforts as meeting the standards for tenure.
Rundin's research record was divided, with two outside reviewers commending him for his scholarship, and one who, although impressed with Rundin's writing, expressed concerned that his publication record - four articles in nine years - was lacking.
All three committees ranked Rundin's service record as "exceptional."
Zucker said that the University Committee's evaluation seemed to underscore Rundin's shortcomings while minimizing his accomplishments. "They seem unbalanced. I don't know where the problem lies."
Gabler, a spokesman for UTSA, said that criteria for "intellectual productivity" - publishing and research - differs among departments.
Two other English department professors received tenure this year: Ben Olguin, who received votes of 14-1, Department; 8-0 College; 8-0 University, and Bernadette Andrea, whose received unanimous votes at all levels.
According to a UTSA memorandum, Olguin has established " a very good teaching record," and has been recognized for "outstanding service." It noted that his scholarly record includes seven book chapters, several articles, and he has a book in press.
During her time at UTSA, Andrea has published seven articles and one book chapter, with three more items pending. She also has received several grants and speaking engagement. Her service rated "good" to "very good" and she has consistently received high student ratings.
Bonnie Lyons, a member of the College Committee, said that the "junior faculty is alarmed" about the University Committee's tenure decisions. "If all four of them had been granted tenure, we would be a happier department."
Womack and Rundin's tenure denials could signal UTSA's continuing emphasis on research over teaching. "From the beginning, the university has insisted that you could not get tenure based only on teaching," said Lyons, a tenured English professor. "Research is equally important, maybe more."
As to whether Womack and Rundin's sexual orientation influenced the University Committee, Lyons acknowledged that, "There is homophobia at the university. But whether that played a part, I don't know. I want to believe it didn't."
Both professors can appeal to UTSA President Ricardo Romo, but it will be difficult for them to prove they were denied tenure for being gay. "Tenure denials are hard to pursue legally," Zucker said, adding that sexual orientation is not a protected class in Texas.
UTSA's statement of diversity calls for equal employment and opportunity regardless of sexual orientation.
If Romo determined that Womack or Rundin had been treated unfairly based on their sexual orientation, he would call for an internal hearing to be held by a committee of senior UTSA faculty.
Since being denied tenure, Womack and Rundin have weighed their options. "The faculty have been incredibly supportive," said Womack, who has another year left on his contract. "I don't know if I want to fight it. My brother told me, 'If they can't recognize what you are, go somewhere else where they do.'" •
By Lisa Sorg