Professor denied tenure after founding major


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After 15 years at Penn, Nathan Ensmenger — the undergraduate chairman and co-founder of the Science, Technology and Society program — was denied tenure.


Nathan Ensmenger, the undergraduate chairman and co-founder of the Science, Technology and Society program, was denied tenure after 15 years of teaching and research at Penn.

Despite endorsements from his department and school deans, Ensmenger’s application for tenure was ultimately denied by the Office of the Provost.

The denial comes at the end of his contract. Ensmenger is currently considering academic offers from other institutions for the next academic year.

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Rebecca Bushnell said the reasons behind tenure decisions are confidential and that the administration cannot comment on any specific personnel actions.

The tenure review process is known for its complex structure and evaluation criteria. Last year, the University’s decision to deny tenure to history professor Ronald Granieri provoked a series of discussions about the selection process.

Ensmenger said the tenure application is a long and complicated process. Simply preparing a portfolio can take a year.

The applicant is then evaluated by the department, a personnel committee with 12 members and relevant deans.

If the applicant is approved at all three stages, he is then recommended to the Provost for review. It is at this final stage that Ensmenger was denied tenure.

Tenure denials are not uncommon in academia, but they are almost always accompanied by a sense of disappointment and bewilderment from the student body — especially when the professor in question is as highly regarded as Ensmenger.

“I have to admit there was no little anger at the situation when I first heard about it,” College junior and STSC major Rebekah Larsen said. “It’s a great loss to the STSC department as well as the whole Penn community.”

During his time at Penn, Ensmenger co-founded and built the STSC program from scratch, John Tresch, an assistant professor of history and sociology of science, wrote in an email.

In addition to advising undergraduate and graduate students in the department, Ensmenger also developed popular lecture courses for students across the University, Tresch added.

Courses such as “The Information Age,” “Cyberculture” and “Technology and Society” consistently rate above a 3.0 on Penn Course Review, and Ensmenger has yet to receive a professor rating below 3.27 since 2003.

Failed tenure cases are often framed as a tension between teaching and research, Ensmenger said. However, in light of the recommendations he received from his department and deans, Ensmenger said the reasons behind his failure to gain tenure are less clear.

Ensmenger has published widely on the history of computing and the relation of technology, computing, information management and medicine, Tresch wrote.

He has written two books and collaborated on two other book projects in addition to countless essays, articles and reviews.

“[Ensmenger] is truly one of the founding figures of the history of computing,” Tresch added.

“Anytime a tenure case is denied … there’s an obvious explanation which doesn’t say everything and says nothing at all, which is that you should publish more.” Ensmenger said. “But it’s not clear I could’ve done that and run the STSC program and taught the kind of big courses we needed for our department — I think my record is actually very comparable.”

Ensmenger said when he was appointed undergraduate chairman of the STSC program, he knew that his teaching and administrative role might not be as highly valued in his tenure review, but he took the position anyway.

“I wanted to get tenure in a strong and thriving department,” Ensmenger said. “What’s the point of getting tenure without any students?”

Ensmenger’s commitment to his students is apparent.

“What makes him unique and stand out is his passion for what he’s teaching and his devotion to the class and students,” College senior Madison Wojciechowski said. “There’s a reason why kids go back and take courses with him even if they’re not in the major.”

Ensmenger’s planned departure came as a blow to his graduate students as well.

“Many of the junior grad students were looking forward to working closely with him and his departure poses immediate challenges for them,” said Joanna Radin, an advanced doctoral candidate in history and sociology of science.

Ensmenger’s failed tenure review was also a cautionary sign for students like Radin.

“To me, he represents the kind of scholar and teacher that makes people want to become academics,” Radin said. “As someone who is beginning to look for academic jobs I definitely find the University’s decision unsettling … I will proceed in my academic career with great caution.”

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