For six years now, when Ira Glass introduces a new piece by Scott Carrier for NPR’s “This American Life,” he mentions that Carrier is a professor of communications at Utah Valley University and adds “GO WOLVERINES!” Now that UVU has decided to deny tenure to Carrier, Glass will have to change his refrain to “not good enough for UVU.”
Scott Carrier is the most famous member of the UVU faculty. His publications have appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Mother Jones, and Esquire. Stories have been broadcast on public radio programs that include “All Things Considered,” “Day to Day,” “Marketplace,” and “Hearing Voices.” The National Federation of Community Broadcasters awarded him a 2004 Golden Reel Award for a series on Juarez, Mexico and in 2007 he received a Peabody Award for his work on illegal immigration.
As an assistant professor at UVU, Scott Carrier has put the lie to the cliché “those who can, do; those who can’t do, teach.”
Okay, let’s admit it before this veers any further toward hagiography: Scott Carrier is trouble. His single-minded pursuit of what he holds to be true has taken him to the heart of the war in Afghanistan and to the center of a raging avalanche in the pre-dawn Wasatch Mountains. And while seeking tenure at UVU, Scott published an essay about the university’s “esteemed president / propagandist’s” involvement with the anti-gay-marriage National Organization for Marriage and about similarities between Utah Valley students and the Taliban.
While you wonder “What kind of idiot would do that?” let me raise the question myself and suggest a possible answer: the same kind of idiot who finds similarities between the Taliban and himself, as in “I just accepted that I wasn’t going to be able to open their minds by force,”or as in this description of his attempt to force his will on a girlfriend: “I grabbed her cellphone and threw it against the wall. . . . [The cellphone] was what kept her from doing what I knew was right.” The kind of troubled and troubling idiot, in other words, whose lifework has been to expose the deeds of authoritarian ideologues, including his own.
Scott Carrier’s new book (Counterpoint, 2013) is called Prisoner of Zion. It is the Mormon “Zion” he is writing about, of course, and the Taliban “Zion,” and the “Zion” in Burma, and, to repeat the point, his own personal “Zion” that convinces him that he is right and that others must see things his way.
Which brings us back to Utah Valley University.
This spring, when the university announced its tenure decisions, it was reporting on the outcomes of an extremely important and sometimes difficult process. Decisions on tenure are best carried out on a departmental level by colleagues who have a good sense for the requirements of the discipline. Because multiple factors are in play, including complex evaluations of scholarship, teaching, and service, and because personalities inevitably play some part in tenure decisions, levels of review are built into the process, including an assessment by the Department Chair independent of the Department’s tenure committee. The Dean of the College and the Academic Vice President are likewise asked to review the tenure file and to ratify or question the previous decisions.
Given a close 3-2 vote against tenure, as was the case with Carrier, a Dean or Vice President might want to give the decision a careful second look. Given the fact that one of the votes against tenure was cast by the immediate past chair of the department whose personal animosity toward Carrier I witnessed in bi-monthly meetings of Department Chairs over the course of three years, the Dean who conducted those meetings might have examined the file more intently than usual. Given the fact that this is a young and fairly inexperienced department, a Dean or Vice President who recognized the extraordinary quality of Carrier’s journalism might well have recommended that the tenure committee take a second look (his published works, including two books with Counterpoint Press, far exceed—in sheer number, in the quality of the publishers and broadcasters, and in national exposure—the combined publications of the entire Department of Communication). He might have suggested that they read, if they had doubts about Carrier’s teaching, the brilliant essay in Prisoner of Zion about his early pedagogical mistakes and the conclusions he gradually came to and the practices he eventually adopted. He might have pointed to the detailed and enthusiastic letters written in support of him by students Carrier had mentored. If there were questions about the somewhat unorthodox tenure file, as there were, a Chair or Dean or Vice President might well have asked for additional supporting documents. None of this happened. The 3-2 vote was allowed to stand without question.
Am I arguing here for special considerations for one of my valued colleagues? No. Every candidate for tenure is required to meet the standards set out by policy. And yes. Every candidate should receive special consideration. Because each of us brings a unique set of abilities and disabilities to our job, a talented pedagogue with the ability to inspire large classes of introductory students might well be tenured with a mediocre publication record. And, I am suggesting here, a journalist of the quality and reputation of Scott Carrier might well be excused some quirks in his tenure file. He didn’t spend his six tenure-track years putting together a seamless argument for tenure. He had, for instance, disregarded an edict from his Chair that he spend a certain number of hours in his office and had instead spent the time with his students in the cafeteria. He had written critically about his University President. And so on.
Should he have done the things that all well-trained assistant professors do? It would have made things easier for him come tenure time. One thing was clear, however: he would not accept tenure on any but his own terms. Wasn’t it possible, he was thinking, that a job as a tenured professor with a regular salary might mean the end of his career as a hungry, independent journalist?
Scott Carrier will do just fine without Utah Valley University. We, however, have lost one of our best colleagues to a flawed process that might have been rectified had someone paid the kind of close and critical and generous attention to his file that a reader can find on every page of his troubled and thus troubling work.
[a shorter version was published in the Salt Lake Tribune, May 18, 2013: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/56309054-82/tenure-carrier-scott-university.html.csp]