Students protest history professor Aishwary Kumar’s tenure denial

May 13, 2016, 1:35 a.m.

Several students held a demonstration at the History Corner on Thursday to protest the history department’s decision to deny tenure to Aishwary Kumar, an assistant professor of history. The demonstrators handed out information materials and refurbished Building 200 with a variety of printed signs and banners expressing outrage over the tenure decision and featuring testimonials from Kumar’s students that praised the professor’s work. The students also put caution tape on the building’s railings until a University representative arrived and instructed them to remove the tape.

The protesters, who had organized to hold the demonstration independent of other on-campus organizations, expressed concern about the secrecy involved in the tenure process and that the history department did not give adequate respect to Kumar’s area of study.

Students protesting the denial of tenure to assistant professor of history Aishwary Kumar decorated the History Corner in support of Kumar (MCKENZIE LYNCH/The Stanford Daily).
Students protesting the denial of tenure to assistant professor of history Aishwary Kumar decorated the History Corner in support of Kumar (MCKENZIE LYNCH/The Stanford Daily).

Some of the protesters had been personally moved by Kumar’s teaching. “He has singularly embodied my Stanford experience. If Stanford gets rid of what Stanford is for me, what is Stanford any more?” said Lara Prior-Palmer ’17.

Prior-Palmer explained that Kumar’s classes were uncommon at Stanford, which she sees as “undervaluing” traditions of thought from the global south.

According to Prior-Palmer, Kumar’s teaching had been important in persuading some students who might have majored in engineering fields to major in the humanities instead. Prior-Palmer also expressed concern that Kumar’s departure would leave Stanford without an expert on non-Western intellectual history.

Truman Chen ’17, another student involved in the protest, said that the group of protesters wanted to raise awareness about the tenure process. Chen said he recognized the importance of secrecy in the tenure process, but expressed concern that reasons for tenure denial were not given, and that it was not clear how departmental votes were weighed in tenure decisions. Chen said that the protesters were circulating a petition regarding the tenure decision and might decide to write a second op-ed (after their first in the Stanford Political Journal on the issue) going forward.

Appeals on the question of Kumar’s tenure go to the Provost for consideration. Chen said that the protesters had brief conversations with the Provost’s office but were going to talk more with them in the future. Chen said that the protesters were working on a tight timeline to have their impact before the end of the school year.

Chen was concerned that the denial of Kumar’s application for tenure was not a standalone incident.

“The denial of Professor Kumar’s tenureship has confirmed long-standing worries about certain biases within the humanities,” Chen said.

Chen said that even if the effort to help Kumar win his appeal was unsuccessful, the protests would still have a positive impact.

(NINA ZUBRILLINA/The Stanford Daily)
The students were eventually asked by the University to remove the caution tape, but they were permitted to keep the banner and posters in place (NINA ZUBRILLINA/The Stanford Daily).

“At least at this stage, what we want to make clear is that the decision to deny Professor Kumar tenure was a mistake,” Chen said.

Paula Findlen, the head of the history department, said in a statement to the Daily “The History Department fully respects students’ desire to express their support for Professor Kumar. It’s free speech and knowing how much they care is a wonderful thing! This is precisely why we solicit the views of students in the process, since excellent scholarship and teaching are both crucial components of a tenure review, and this is also why Dean [Debra] Satz and I were pleased to meet with students a few weeks ago to talk with them.”

Kumar declined to comment.

 

Contact Caleb Smith at [email protected]

Caleb Smith '17 is a Desk Editor from Oakland, California and is majoring in public policy. Outside the Daily, Caleb is Director of news at KZSU Stanford, the campus radio station. Have a tip or suggestion? Please contact him at caleb17 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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