Thursday, July 1, 2010

It Is, Sir, As I Have Said, A Small College...

The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the trustees of Dartmouth College in a breach of contact dispute brought by a tenured faculty member in the theater department. The department had been placed in "receivership" because of the "contentious atmosphere within the department." A confidential letter suggested that the professor was a "corrosive influence." The professor was offered an early retirement package and a change in teaching assignment. She then filed an EEOC complaint, which was dismissed.

Here, the court agreed with the trial court that the professor's reassignment in duties was not a "major change" in employment and not a disciplinary action that triggered procedural rights. The professor had been neither terminated nor placed on involuntary leave. Rather, she had been assigned to teach writing courses.

The First Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the EEOC claim.

Here's a post on the dispute from the Dartmouth Review. Their take on the situation in January 2006:

Perhaps most stunning, however, is the disdain that both Prof. Sabinson and the administration share for the First-Year Writing Program. Sabinson, who herself is the first to admit that “I am not an expository writer and cannot competently teach the First-Year Writing Seminars,” was forced in 2005 to accept a course-load of three writing seminars for this academic year. Sabinson regards the writing seminars as “harassment” that were designed to “humiliate” her—hardly the way one would expect a member of the faculty to approach one of Dartmouth’s most important tasks, that of teaching undergraduates basic writing skills. Moreover, she is by no means the only one with such an opinion. More grave, though, is the fact that writing seminar assignments are fobbed off on professors who adamantly maintain that they are not capable of teaching them. The administration’s action towards Mara Sabinson shows nothing less than a callous disregard for the writing program, furthering the already-existing impression among many faculty members: that writing classes are a pain to teach and detrimental to professional advancement.

And at the same time that Parkhurst is playing politics with First-Year Writing seminars, the Departmental Editing Program has fallen by the wayside. Created by the always-querulous Joe Asch ’79 in 2002, the DEP provided a common-sense solution to Dartmouth’s writing program: hiring professionals (mainly former high school English teachers) for each department who have knowledge of its unique needs and writing style and are solely dedicated to improving student prose. Asch himself funded the editors as a pilot program for four years, to rave reviews from students and faculty alike. But now the administration has told him thanks, but no thanks—they have no desire to fund the editors themselves; they’ve got the Student Center for Research Writing, and Information Technology (RWiT) already. Never mind that RWiT’s method of student writing tutors suffered a “scathing” outside review by professors from other Ivy League professors in 2002. The administration’s writing program policy thus boils down to forcing professors who don’t know writing to teach it, while turning away talented editors who do want to teach writing. And they wonder why student prose is so tortuous?

The root problem of much of the Sabinson case, as it is for so many other problems at the College (chief among them the recent budget imbroglios), is the administration’s culture of secrecy. A certain amount of secrecy obviously needs to be preserved in the administration’s decisions—tenure decisions, for instance, are best kept under wraps. But simple matters like student complaints about professors, dissatisfaction with teaching styles, and the determination of how writing at the College will be taught can and should be made in the open. If administrators spent a little more time explaining their decision-making processes to the public, they might save themselves a lot of future embarrassment and lawsuits.

(Mike Frisch)

Teaching & Curriculum | Permalink

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