A gap in Gingrich coverage

Newt Gingrich taught history and geography at West Georgia College from 1970 to 1978. He was denied tenure, but it’s unclear why.

The primary season for the 2012 presidential race is less than a month old, and just four candidates remain. It’s been an intriguing contest so far, with Rick Santorum getting a delayed victory in Iowa, Mitt Romney winning in New Hampshire, and Newt Gingrich taking South Carolina.

Gingrich’s triumph in South Carolina may have been propelled by his answer to a question about his extramarital affairs. His candidacy also got a boost from Romney’s indecision on whether to release his tax returns. Romney has now agreed to make those documents public.

Although the media have focused a great deal on Gingrich’s personal life and his career in Congress, they have given scant coverage to other aspects of his professional life — namely, his time in academia in the 1970s.

Gingrich’s experience as a college professor is occasionally mentioned in the press, and he has discussed his expertise as a historian regarding his work with Freddie Mac. Yet, little attention has been paid to one of Gingrich’s professional failings: West Georgia College’s denial of tenure in 1978.

A recent column in the Anniston Star offered a glimpse of Gingrich as an academic. The writer, one of Gingrich’s colleagues at that time, said that Gingrich was a gifted and provocative teacher.

Excellence in teaching alone, however, is not enough for a faculty member to be granted tenure. Professors are expected to create knowledge by conducting research and having the results published in books, journals and other outlets. Faculty members must also perform service such as advising student organizations and doing administrative work.

The Star column hinted that Gingrich spent too much time on politics and not enough on research. But it doesn’t offer details. A story by the Wall Street Journal profiles Gingrich’s days in academia, but doesn’t directly address the tenure decision. What happened exactly?

That’s where the media need to step in now. Gingrich’s time in academia is as relevant to his candidacy as his marriages, if not more so. Tenure decisions may not be as salacious as bitter divorces, but they speak to a person’s capabilities to accept and meet challenges in the workplace. A denial of tenure is a failure of sorts, and it needs to be explained.

Leroy Towns, my former colleague here at UNC-Chapel Hill and a longtime staffer on Capitol Hill, put it this way in a direct message on Twitter: “A candidate’s job history is important information to voters. If a candidate is turned down for tenure, voters need to know why.”

I agree, and I hope that editors and reporters at newspapers, magazines and websites will too.


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