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."
However, Ronald L. Dougherty, chairman of the mechanical engineering department, pointed to Romkes' funding troubles. "Dr. Romkes is an exceptional faculty member in many ways," Dougherty wrote in his October 18, 2010, review. "However, the independence of his research/scholarly program has not been clearly established."
In December 2010, the School of Engineering's Promotion and Tenure Committee voted unanimously to promote Romkes. Committee chairman Alfred Parr cited Romkes' research and teaching abilities as reasons to grant him tenure. Parr also addressed Romkes' lack of independent funding, writing, "Unfortunately, his field of expertise is computational fluid dynamics where funding is very tight."
The dean of KU's School of Engineering, Stuart Bell, ignored Parr's recommendation.
In a December 20, 2010, letter to the University Committee on Tenure and Promotions, which also had to review Romkes, Bell wrote that Romkes' inability to fund his research was a requirement for tenure outlined in the mechanical engineering department's tenure-evaluation document.
"It [the expectation that researchers find their own funding] is common to most engineering programs at U.S. research universities," Bell wrote. "In this case, the current record of the candidate does not indicate independent sustainability."
In March 2011, the University Committee on Tenure and Promotions voted 7-3 to deny Romkes tenure. KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little didn't have to write anything to justify her decision. She checked the "deny" box on a form dated April 14, 2011.
The rule cited by Bell was passed by mechanical engineering faculty in 2009 for use in the school's tenure evaluations, and states, "Candidates must demonstrate ability to attract external funding for their research, as demonstrated by funded external grants with the candidate as principal investigator."
Romkes' supporters have dubbed Bell's argument the "P-I rule." The use of the P-I rule has ensnared the university in a murky ethical spot because it was never approved by the Faculty Senate Committee on Standards and Procedures for Promotion and Tenure, which must sign off on all promotion and tenure rules. Committee chairman William Keel wrote an April 2011 e-mail to Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a colleague of Romkes' and an associate professor of aerospace engineering, saying the rule had not been approved.
"So, just to be clear, would it be safe to say that the only P&T rules which are applicable at a SoE [School of Engineering] level and within its Departments are those established prior to 2009?" Barrett-Gonzalez replied to clarify.
"From my perspective, yes," Keel answered.
A few days later, Keel e-mailed Barrett-Gonzalez to further explain why the P-I rule's use was improper: "Ron, we have never seen the ME [mechanical engineering] document; we did review a SoE document dated November 2008 — that was reviewed and returned to the school for revisions and we are still waiting for that revised document from the school."
In an e-mail to The Pitch, KU spokeswoman Jill Jess says the Faculty Senate Committee on Standards and Procedures for Promotion and Tenure must approve all tenure guidelines. A universitywide review process is still under way. But the department, she says, correctly applied the rules to Romkes.
"So, yes, the rules do need to be reviewed by the committee as part of the new procedure," Jess said in a statement. "But the tenure guidelines in place were valid during Dr. Romkes' review, and the guidelines under which he was evaluated for promotion and tenure were not materially different from previous guidelines."
Many professors say the move by the chair of Romkes' department and the dean of the School of Engineering to disregard the advice of his colleagues and vote against Romkes' receiving tenure is rare.
Peter TenPas, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department, says he was "astonished, just dumbfounded" when Romkes was denied.
"When you look at the body of his work, he's a more highly qualified teacher; his publishing record is way above everyone else that we've recently tenured in the department," says TenPas, who has worked closely with Romkes for the last five years. "He worked diligently to obtain funding with federal agencies as part of our team."
"In my opinion, that's a hokey rule," Barrett-Gonzalez says. "The reason is essentially twofold. One is that it's never been applied to anyone else in the history of the university. That's just asinine, if you ask me. And the second one is that two years ago, we had another professor go up from associate to full professor in the School of Engineering who was not a P-I on any other projects. So, to me, it seems like a double standard."
Because Bell ignored his colleagues' recommendations and invoked a rule that neither was on the books when Romkes was hired nor approved by the appropriate university committee, many connected with the school wonder if Romkes' personal life was more of a factor than his funding record.
Romkes says he has met with Bell only twice: once during the interview process (he says he didn't out himself to Bell during his interview process, although his colleagues have known since he started at KU that he's gay), and later when Bell told him that he was not supporting his tenure bid. This leads Romkes to believe that Bell was motivated by "something nonprofessional." Romkes says he has been with his partner, civil engineer Matt Murphy, for 10 years, and adds that he has never experienced intolerance; his only complaint is awkward social situations.
"I've gotten used to it because I am the only one that brings their same-sex partner to these functions," Romkes says. "Is that intolerance? No, not really."
Barrett-Gonzalez, who has tenure, is a little more blunt: "I believe that the dean, who was the principal administrator who made the decision, has allowed his own personal inclinations and personal prejudices to cloud his professional judgment."
Several professors and former students have formed a support team called KU Alumni for Romkes, which has sent pamphlets to media outlets titled "KU: A Straight Place to Be."
"It is beyond suspicious that professor Romkes is also the first and only openly gay faculty member ever to have served in KU's School of Engineering," one mailer reads. "There are so many apparent irregularities and violations of rules, that one can only conclude that the checks and balances of KU's promotion, tenure and redress processes are fundamentally broken."
Jess denies that discrimination played any role in Romkes' review: "As is clear from Assistant Professor Romkes' court filings, the department chair, dean, University Promotion & Tenure Committee and provost all recommended against tenure because his research record did not meet the university's standard. There are no allegations of discrimination in Romkes' court filings because the university does not discriminate."
In an e-mailed statement, Bell recited almost verbatim the university's position that Romkes was not discriminated against. Bell also wrote that obtaining funding is as important for faculty members as for students.
"It is worth noting that engineering programs at research universities across the nation place great emphasis on research including the ability of faculty members to secure significant research funding," Bell wrote. "This funding helps ensure that our students are taught the latest concepts and are taught by faculty who are at the leading edge of their respective fields, both now and into the future. It is how we attract and support top graduate students. It is how we drive innovation and discovery, and enable our undergraduate students to learn from and conduct research with leading scholars."
Romkes says proving discrimination based on his sexual orientation "would be impossible." After two years of wrestling with KU's administration, Romkes sounds almost beaten. He says he regrets not telling Bell earlier that he was gay, even if it would have cost him the job.
"In hindsight, I should have mentioned it in the interview because I could have avoided a lot of misery," he says, "If anybody would have had a problem, they wouldn't have hired me, and I would have been better off. I would have done my work anyway, but at a different place. And I wouldn't have to deal with this issue."
Romkes still holds a bit of hope that his position could be spared. He has filed a petition for a judicial review in Douglas County District Court. Judge Robert Fairchild hasn't said when he'll decide if the university followed proper procedures in denying tenure to Romkes. Romkes says he'll consider filing a civil lawsuit if he loses that, too.
Those within the School of Engineering say Romkes' teaching career is almost certainly finished.
"If you don't achieve tenure at Berkeley or Caltech or Stanford or MIT, you have options," says TenPas, who is tenured. "But if you don't achieve tenure at KU's School of Engineering, which is way, way down the list, the doors are basically closed."
Romkes knows that the hole on his résumé where tenure should be is a red flag for potential employers. Even with a fat National Science Foundation grant in his back pocket, Romkes knows it'll be hard to find another faculty job. So he is mentally preparing for a move to the private sector.
"The chances of me finding a faculty position are very slim," he says. "If I were to look at my record myself, I would wonder, 'What the hell is wrong with this guy?' "