University seeks to fire tenured engineering professor

The University administration is amid a historic attempt to revoke the tenure of an engineering professor who has been teaching at GW since 1986.

A hearing panel of the Faculty Dispute Resolution Committee held seven sessions between January and April 2006 to determine if administrators met criteria to revoke professor Debabrata Saha’s tenure, according to the panel’s final report. Tenured professors sign an agreement with the University allowing them to teach until they choose to retire.

Donald Lehman, executive vice president for Academic Affairs, and Timothy Tong, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, began proceedings to revoke Saha’s tenure in September 2005 after what the University said is a decade’s worth of neglect of the instructor’s duties. Saha, who is on paid administrative leave, is appealing the decision.

This is the first instance in the school’s history that tenure revocation has made its way to a hearing panel, according to the July 2006 decision of the hearing panel that reviewed the case. GW, which was founded in 1821 as Columbian College, has been operating for 185 years. Most cases of tenure revocation nationwide never make it this far, as professors usually resign when faced with these charges, experts said.

“Tenure is a cherished and important institution to the academy and must not be revoked lightly,” the six-professor Saha Hearing Panel wrote in their decision. “Unfortunately, this panel must agree with the University that this case represents such a case of egregious and persistent neglect of professional responsibilities … With the privilege of tenure comes obligation as well, and to allow a tenured professor to blatantly disregard the obligations of tenure to this degree severely blemishes the institution of tenure.”

The administration argued – and the hearing panel unanimously found – that Saha neglected many of his professional duties throughout the past decade. The panel’s decision stated that since at least 2000, he attended no faculty meetings, served on no committees, submitted no annual reports or student evaluations, conducted no research and had little communication with his colleagues.

“(P)rofessor Saha completely failed to meet all but one responsibility – the teaching of his classes,” the decision said of the 2000 to 2005 period.

Saha testified before the hearing panel that he did not attend faculty meetings because he wanted to distance himself from professors who were part of a heated dispute in 1996 involving exam grades. He said University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg suggested this to him during a meeting in 1996, according to Saha’s post-hearing brief. Trachtenberg is in England this week and could not be reached for comment.

Saha joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1986 and was granted tenure six years later. The professor worked without any major incidents for 10 years, according to hearing documents.

In 1996, Saha found himself in the middle of a departmental rift over the qualifying exams given to students entering the doctoral program. The expert in communications and information theory disputed the fairness of the test, and his disagreement with department colleagues spiraled into an enduring “scandal,” said Saha’s attorney, John F. Karl Jr.

Saha’s refusal to accept the results of an investigation into the exam triggered his professional neglect, which in turn led to the first of three suspensions. Saha avoided contact with professors involved in the test incident and began a period of “significant difficulty engaging in academic life with his colleagues,” according to the decision.

Karl said that D.C. law excludes events occurring three years before proceedings begin from breach-of-contract cases.

“They got into a big shoving contest … They fought bitterly almost a decade ago; that’s over,” Karl said in a telephone interview Monday. “Some of the people may have been bearing grudges … (but) anything that happened in 1996 is barred by the statute of limitations.”

Other defenses against the University’s accusations include that Saha could not serve on a committee because he was never appointed to any; that no superiors ever told him to submit annual reports; and that he never received student evaluation forms to complete.

The administration also accused Saha of engaging in “gross personal misconduct that destroys academic usefulness,” but the hearing panel said this charge lacked merit.

After two semester-long suspensions in 1997 and 1999 for negligence of his duties, Saha signed an agreement with Lehman in April 1999 allowing him to return if he abided by 11 conditions. The stipulations included many of the professional duties the University said Saha did not fulfill, including communicating with superiors and colleagues, attending faculty and committee meetings, filing annual reports and serving on committees.

Saha testified that he worked smoothly and “looked forward” to a new beginning in the department under the chairmanship of professor Roger Lang, according to Saha’s post-hearing brief. Saha’s difficulties reappeared under the leadership of professor Branimir Vojcic, who was involved in the 1996 exam incident.

“It worked for like a year until there was a new chair, and the department lost interest in trying to work on reconciliation,” Karl said.

In January 2005, a new department chair restarted committee efforts to look into Saha’s job performance.

Karl said these more recent proceedings were not fair because his client was not invited to two key faculty committee meetings discussing Saha’s career. The attorney said the “process was rigged” against Saha because he did not have an opportunity to present his side of the story during the spring 2005 meetings. At the Feb. 9 Personnel Committee hearing – in which Saha was not present – two engineering professors suggested Saha had mental health problems, according to one of Karl’s briefs.

Jonathan Knight, director of academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors, said tenure is “terribly important” for protecting academic freedom and only should be revoked in serious cases. He said of the 250,000 tenured professors in the United States, about 50 are dismissed each year – which is a rate of .02 percent annually.

Tong and several professors on the Saha Hearing Panel have not returned calls from The Hatchet. Lehman, several panelists, two lawyers representing GW, University spokesperson Tracy Schario, Faculty Senate Chair Lilien Robinson and Faculty Dispute Resolution Committee Chair Kurt Darr declined to comment on case details.

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