On Monday night, nine College seniors in the final stages of writing their honors theses gathered on the third floor of Van Pelt Library. They wanted answers.
The seniors are part of a 17-person History honors thesis class that is leading a charge to protest the tenure denial of their thesis seminar advisor, Ronald Granieri.
An assistant professor of modern European history, Granieri was recently denied tenure in his second and last chance to apply for the standing. He originally applied last year in his sixth year of teaching at Penn.
His students — many of whom call him a mentor, a friend and the best teacher they’ve had at Penn — say the University’s decision raises serious questions about its commitment to quality teaching.
“Over the past year and a half Professor Granieri for all of us has been the most amazing teacher, honors director [and] support mechanism,” said Aro Velmet, a College senior in the seminar. “It seems terribly puzzling that a professor who is this well respected by undergraduates, has won this many teaching awards, is under threat of leaving the University.”
School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rebecca Bushnell declined to comment because of the confidential nature of the faculty appointment and promotion process. The exact reason for Granieri’s tenure denial is unknown and is not likely to be available to the general public.
SAS tenure decisions go through many review processes before receiving final approval by the Trustees. Granieri’s application was approved by the History Department, the first stage. It was rejected at the SAS level by the Personnel Committee, a group comprised of a chairman and 12 faculty members representing the humanities, natural and social sciences.
At those stages, the faculty consider an applicant’s research, teaching and service to the University. Though there is no fixed formula for weighting those variables, research is considered to play a substantial role.
Once an application has been rejected by the Personnel Committee, the only way it can make it to the next committee — the Provost’s Staff Conference, a group composed of the provost, deputy and associate provosts and a group of deans — is to be forwarded by the dean of the school, in this case, Bushnell.
If Bushnell does not forward the application, Granieri’s position will be terminated in June. At Penn, assistant professors like Granieri are given a seven-year contract when they are hired that expires unless they receive tenure.
But the students aren’t satisfied with silence from the administration. With the support of nearly 80 students and recent alumni who have contacted them in support of Granieri, the group is demanding answers. They are seeking an explanation for the decision.
“We’re not trying to anger anybody or go behind anybody’s back,” said College senior Zac Byer, a member of the seminar. “We’re trying to shed light on a process that has a bearing on somebody’s profession, somebody’s career and somebody’s family.”
Velmet said one of the group’s goals is to solicit experiences from other undergraduates in which a popular teacher has been denied tenure. He said there is a “contradiction” between the University’s commitment to teaching excellence and the tenure denial of faculty members who have won awards for teaching. Granieri, for instance, won two teaching awards in 2006 and another in 2008.
Students pointed to the most recent issue of the Penn Arts and Sciences Magazine, which contained an article by Bushnell on the importance of this “fundamental mission of the School.”
“We fear that decisions like these on the part of the College will chip away at the most important academic component of undergraduate student life at Penn,” said College senior Daniella Rohr, co-chair of Penn’s History Undergraduate Advisory Board.
And students consistently point to Granieri’s teaching as the source of his popularity among students. Daniel Rubin, a 2009 College and Wharton alumnus, called Granieri “one of the best lecturers of any class I’ve ever been in.” College senior and seminar member Maia Liechtenstein called him “everyone’s favorite history professor” and a “mentor.”
“We think that he has made an invaluable contribution to our undergraduate education. It would a shame and a great loss to Penn to see him leave,” College senior and seminar member Daniella Mak said.
Their sentiments seem to be shared by the faculty as well. Kathy Peiss, the History Department chairwoman, could not comment on the process of tenure consideration in her official role as department chair. She did, however, say that, as a colleague, “I think that [Granieri] earned tenure at Penn and that his being denied tenure is a loss for the University and especially for the students.”
And combined with the recent retirement of diplomatic historian Bruce Kuklick, the departure of Granieri will leave a large gap in one of Penn’s most lauded departments.
As for Granieri, this unprompted outpouring affection by his students has been touching.
“I am gratified and flattered by my students’ concern,” he said. “I certainly want to stay at Penn if at all possible. With all respect for the University, its leadership and its institutions, I hope that a way can be found to reverse this decision.”