Albert Romkes needs the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass to save an academic future jeopardized by the University of Kansas' complicated bureaucracy.
An assistant professor of mechanical engineering at KU since 2005, Romkes was denied tenure in 2011, despite the support of his colleagues. Now, time is running out to save his career, which will likely end with this year's academic calendar in late July.
Since KU refused to grant him tenure, Romkes has tried to piece together why he was spurned. KU administrators say it was Romkes' inability to secure external funding for his projects — a guideline that isn't an official university policy. But Romkes and his supporters say KU's decision may be due to another factor: He's gay.
"I'm the first one to be openly gay in the School of Engineering in the most supposedly liberal campus in the state of Kansas," says Romkes, 39, who was born in the fishing village of Urk, in the Netherlands.
Does he believe that's why he wasn't granted tenure?
"It's a difficult question for me to answer because I don't have any explicit proof," he says. "But I can't exclude it."
Surrounded by his colleagues, Romkes has come to the March 29 meeting of the University Senate for one of his last gasps. A motion is on the agenda that would reinstate a rule giving faculty members who are denied tenure a chance to appeal. A faculty member must show evidence addressing the reason that they were rejected, and the appeal must occur during the so-called "terminal year" that follows the denial, when the professor is still on staff. KU's faculty senate eliminated that appeal in 2007. This motion would give back the appeal only to faculty hired before 2007.
In the weeks following Romkes' tenure denial, he was awarded a $240,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. If the senate passes the motion, Romkes has a fighting chance to save his career.
But first, he must wait in this KU lecture hall through an agenda packed with administrative business so dull, it could be used on sleep-study subjects at KU Medical Center.
The group of senators — made up of students, faculty and support staff — spends a tedious 22 minutes discussing whether to start fall break on a Saturday or a Sunday. Then a couple of officials drone through a 15-minute presentation about how researchers will have to disclose potential conflicts of interest. Finally, two hours into the meeting, the Senate spends seven minutes cutting Romkes' motion from the agenda, likely ending his teaching career in the process.
Romkes is unfazed. What's another loss?
The University of Kansas' decision to block Romkes' bid for tenure baffled his colleagues. His scholarly record was lauded by promotion and tenure committees in both the mechanical engineering department and the larger School of Engineering.
The only knock on his work was his inability to find external funding for research projects in the unflashy field of computational mechanics. (For example, he has studied how submarines' external materials react in real-life underwater conditions.) And that's what KU administrators seized on.
In October 2010, Romkes appeared to be on track for tenure, receiving the approval of the Mechanical Engineering Promotion and Tenure Committee.
"His advising and supervision of graduate students meets the department expectations, both in terms of numbers of students and progress towards Ph.D," the committee wrote. The committee also acknowledged Romkes' difficulties in getting funding. "Despite submission of high-quality proposals he has yet to successfully meet the departmental expectation of obtaining external funding as a [principal investigator]. Over time it is anticipated that external funding will be received to support his future research."