Lafayette College professor Juan Rojo found a rather unconventional way of protesting the denial of tenure at the small college this month. When College President Alison Byerly rejected a department recommendation for tenure, he announced that he was going on a hunger strike to force action from the college board. On August 30th, he swore that he would not take anything other than water and sports drinks until the board yielded. However, he announced a few days later that he had decided to break the fast with some tacos at a favorite restaurant. It was all a rather curious response for any academic but it seems to make sense to Rojo. He even brought Donald Trump into the mix of comments.
Rojo was born in Mexico and has taught Spanish language and literature at the college since 2008. I generally favor faculty governance in such cases and look at denials by presidents with a fair degree of skepticism. In this case, there appeared to be ample support for Rojo’s tenure among his colleagues. However, many presidents insist that they only way to improve their schools is to force higher standards through tenure decisions.
In fairness to Rojo, he had solid publications and what was described as a promising field of research into “sex tourism.” He admitted that he had a rough start on teaching and it was the teaching that was cited by the President in her rejection of the tenure recommendation.
Rojo’s statements after the hunger strike were equally odd. He wrote on Facebook that “I wanted to make sure people understood that stopping was a decision consciously made rather than me simply giving up. Deciding to stop the hunger strike was an agonizing decision, more so than the decision to start. I still feel good, physically. Emotionally, I feel completely spent, particularly after we made the decision. I hope the attention the larger issue is getting can spark a discussion beyond Lafayette.”
The Board has not acted but did send a letter of concern to Rojo over his actions. In the meantime, Rojo said that he will be heading to his favorite local taqueria. He added:
“In honor of Donald Trump and those who took time to write me telling me I should be deported, and in the absence of any taco trucks in the area, my wife and some friends are meeting in my office at 10:00 and heading out to La Plaza for a taco de lengua. Just one for me but I am very much looking forward to it.”
By the way, tacos de lengua are beef tongue tacos. Taco trucks, tongues, tenure and Trump — not your everyday fare for academic disputes.
As for the short-lived hunger strike, Rojo insisted that “Emotionally, I am spent. The decision to suspend the hunger strike was agonizing. Even now, I am not convinced that it was not a mistake but I wanted to make a show of good faith.”
I am not sure that it was a good decision even if made in good faith. Many academics move on from bad tenure decisions to seek academic positions elsewhere. Moreover, it is not unheard of for such decisions to be reversed. However, going on hunger strikes over a difference over academic merit is not likely to improve one’s case. The best argument is to stand on your academic abilities rather than your fasting abilities to change minds on a tenure question.