Tenure denied due to “reputational risk”: Cherian George

Cherian George
Prof Cherian George

Former Nanyang Technological University (NTU) professor Cherian George revealed in a blog post that his denial of tenure at the university in 2013 could have been politically motivated, when he found it necessary to respond to remarks made recently by university president Bertil Andersson that could potentially hurt his academic standing.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Prof Andersson said, "Dr George “was subjected to the same scrutiny as everyone else” in the institution’s tenure process. He added that “one can have different opinions if that academic decision [by] our tenure committee was right or not. That is an academic decision. But the decision was not political."

Writing in his blog post, Prof George had asked Prof Andersson to retract his statement, to which he eventually issued a clarification that “there was no intention to lower the reputation or standing of Dr George in his field of work”.

"This fails to reduce the sting of his published remarks," wrote Prof George. "They amount to a statement by the NTU president that the reason I was forced to leave his university was that I was unable to meet its academic standards required for tenure."

The issue here does not boil down to “different opinions”, as he suggests, but the following objective facts that contradict his quotes. First, I was assessed to have met the university’s academic criteria for promotion and tenure in 2009. Second, NTU withheld tenure nonetheless. And third, it gave only political and not academic reasons for its decision...

The positive academic assessment of the Provost’s committee materialised in my promotion to Associate Professor in 2009. However, the other half of the recommendation – to grant me tenure – was set aside.

Only political and no academic grounds were ever cited by the university leadership for this 2009 decision. I was told of a “perception” that my critical writing could pose a “reputational risk” to the university in the future.

My subsequent annual performance reviews from 2009-2012 never highlighted any deficiency in research, teaching or service that I was required to address in order to secure tenure. Instead, the only remedial actions discussed with me by any level of the university during that period were that I could perhaps try reaching out to the government, or moving to a role within the university that might be less politically sensitive than journalism education.

Prof George also revealed that NTU had earlier assured him that he would not need to reapply for tenure, as he had already met all the necessary academic criteria. The university was supposed to have reconsidered his case at the right time, but did not do so.

I accepted my school’s decision to renominate me as a way for the university to review and correct the anomaly of 2009. Instead, willful blindness set in – aided by the removal from my tenure application of six pages containing background information about the earlier round. This redaction was done without my consent or knowledge, before internal and external reviewers received my dossier.

Consequently, Prof George felt that Prof Andersson's remarks were "incorrect, insensitive and injurious to the reputation of a Singaporean forced to reestablish his career outside his home country by his employer’s failure to treat him like other academics." He is currently teaching at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

Prof George also indicated that he is prepared to waive his rights for personnel confidentiality, and invited Prof Andersson to stand by his interview statements by disclosing the minutes of NTU's tenure committee in 2009, the reasons given for withholding his tenure in 2010, and his annual appraisals between his first and second tenure applications.

When Prof George was denied tenure a second time in 2013, his students started a petition against the decision that garnered over 1000 signatures, with several of Prof George’s colleagues writing letters of support for his tenure.

While at NTU, Prof George had been a critical voice speaking up publicly on media freedom and Singapore politics