Campaign for Nagesh Rao

By Eric Ruder

EWING, N.J.--Students and colleagues of Dr. Nagesh Rao, a professor of English at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), have launched a campaign in response to the rejection of his tenure application by the English department's personnel committee.

At stake in the decision to deny tenure and recommend that Rao not be rehired next year are two critical issues--multiculturalism and academic freedom.

Rao received a PhD. in English from Brown University and, since arriving at TCNJ in 2005, has won praise from students and colleagues alike, published two articles in peer-reviewed journals and edited a book of interviews with the late Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

But on April 15, Rao received the disturbing news that the personnel committee had decided unanimously to deny tenure. "It was totally out of the blue," said Rao. "Even a month and a half earlier, I had received evaluation from peers with praise such as 'I am proud to have him as a colleague' and 'He's the ideal teacher-scholar,' so the denial came as quite a shock."

Given the strength of his positive reviews and the support from many students, the only conceivable explanation for his denial isn't his academic qualifications or skills as a teacher, but rather his outspoken and high-profile defense of the English department's multicultural literature course.

In 2007, a debate emerged among English department faculty about the status of this course, and Rao was elected as the chair of a group of minority faculty who advocated for its continuation. With the dispute still ongoing, it seems that the tenure review process became tainted by the drive of some faculty opposed to the course.

What's more, Rao is one of the few people of color in the department, and the only South Asian, in a state with a large South Asian population.

Academic freedom also plays a significant role in this case. The personnel committee cited recent shifts in the focus of his research as one of the reasons for its denial of Rao's tenure.

But in past reviews, Rao had been asked to shift his research focus from one sub-specialty to another--a "request" that Rao honored even though it was a violation of the basic notion of academic freedom. The use of Rao's willingness to comply as a justification for denying his tenure application only serves to underscore the arbitrariness and bias of the committee's decision.

But Rao remains hopeful. "The outpouring of concern from many of my colleagues and especially from so many students on my campus has been overwhelming," said Rao. "Students have written letters to the dean and chalked walkways near my building saying, 'Save Dr. Rao's job!' These students understand that at heart this is about multiculturalism even if the department itself is not willing to admit that."