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Shooting the Messenger?

June 12, 2009

Ebon Fisher was well-liked by students and colleagues alike at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. A teacher of art and technology, he coauthored his own National Science Foundation-funded research while also teaching upwards of three classes. When two of his students decided to do a senior project on homelessness in the area, he had to hold his tongue to avoid telling them that he was on the verge of homelessness himself.

Fisher made $44,000 plus basic benefits as an "affiliate" faculty member -- the Stevens term for a full-time but contingent teacher, making him ineligible for tenure and stuck at the institute's lowest pay levels. His pay was not high enough to support his partner and son in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, so his family had to move to Chicago, and Fisher began to sleep on friends' couches in order to make ends meet. Fisher sent a letter to the top administrators at Stevens asking them to look into affiliate faculty pay in order to alleviate his situation and that of others stuck off the tenure track. The next day he found himself with a termination notice.

"I sent a letter saying 'Let's work on this,' " Fisher said. "I'm teaching three classes per semester. I am also coaching students when they have their final projects, so I basically call that a class ... In addition to that I'm doing research, and management of the media labs."

"I know that other [affiliate] faculty have also been trying to get salary increases. We feel exploited," he added

The following day, he says that he was hand-delivered a letter of dismissal from the vice president of human resources and the dean of his college with no explanation for why he was fired. He is still waiting for an explanation.

The gap between pay for affiliate and other faculty across the country is large. According to the latest data from the American Association for University Professors, the average salary for a full professor is more than $108,000 and the average for an assistant professor is more than $84,000.

Patrick Berzinski, director of university communications for Stevens, refused to discuss the matter, stating in an e-mail: "Stevens Institute of Technology does not publicly discuss items relating to confidential human resources or other internal personnel matters."

Julie Harrison, program director of art and technology at Stevens, and Fisher's direct supervisor, said she did not know beforehand that Fisher would be fired. Since no one has ever been fired before in her department, which last Thursday included only her and Fisher, there was no precedent regarding whether she should be given advance notice about a department member's dismissal.

"I've asked HR and there are privacy laws. They are legally bound not to tell anybody," she said. "They don't necessarily have to confer with me if it's not an academic issue. Since it's not an 'academic issue' it's not under [my] jurisdiction."

Harrison maintains that Fisher was an outstanding faculty member throughout his three years at Stevens, working well with both students and colleagues. She also confirmed that Fisher was not receiving what she believed to be a wage capable of supporting a family.

"I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but it seems to me that they are scared about a union," Fisher said. "I'm still waiting for them to put in writing [the real reasons]."

Since Fisher's dismissal, a letter written by his friend who is unaffiliated with Stevens, has been circulating among Fisher's friends and colleagues. It was also posted on Mandiberg Blog, added to a Facebook "causes" website, and listed on Digg.

The letter reads: "I believe the real motive here emits from jealousy and academic politics. To his credit, Ebon has been vocal about the scandalously low pay of affiliate professors at Stevens."

Harrison was less sure about the reasons for Fisher's dismissal.

"I'm not as certain that the events described in the e-mails -- that is, Ebon's letter describing issues of pay -- I'm not sure there's a direct connection to his termination," she said. "It's not clear."

Alan Blumberg, chair of the Stevens faculty council, who does not know Fisher personally but often works with faculty on issues of pay, also said he did not think something like Fisher's story could happen at Stevens.

When Fisher met Mark Samolewicz, vice president for human resources, to pick up the items in his office, he claims that he was confronted with hostility. In a letter he wrote to Samolewicz that was obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Fisher claims that he was followed by half a dozen security officers while retrieving his belongings. A student journalist, who wished to remain anonymous because he felt he did not know enough about the case, had been filming the aftermath of Fisher's dismissal. He said he entered Samolewicz's office with the video camera, which he was told to turn off. The student said that Samolewicz "very aggressively" told him that he did not want to comment on the matter of Fisher's dismissal.

Since Fisher left, he has been met with a great deal of support from friends and strangers alike, creating a sort of movement that Fisher hopes may bring attention to what he considers a broader problem in higher education. He says that he has received over 50 letters and calls from concerned students and faculty. Supporters of Ebon have also been calling and sending e-mails to top administrators.

Wynne Lewis, who graduated this past year, was in the art and technology program with Fisher. Earlier in the year, she met with one of the deans to try to persuade them that Fisher deserved to be on the tenure track.

"I have found that a lot of other students are sad that he's going to be gone," she said. "I took quite a few classes with him. He was one of the most dedicated professors, so for me, it's really quite a loss... He really pushed us to learn, not just to take classes, to really learn."

She added: "They are going to have to replace him because he simply taught so many classes, but without him we couldn't have our program."

Jennifer Serchia, an artist who joined the "cause" on Facebook, has no connection to Fisher or SIT. However, she wanted to take a stand against the extent to which non-tenured faculty are "expendable."

"I admittedly don't know the entire background story, but I've been learning of many similar cases in which there is a driven group or individual trying to pursue their interests in an honest, hard-working way but are being denied without valid reason," she said. "I think it's important to highlight these stories so they receive more objective attention and support, which will hopefully prevent others from being unjustly bullied by a larger power."

"Talk to any adjunct and they will know of at least one situation where the treatment of adjuncts was questionable," said Maria Maisto, chair of the organizing committee for New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity. The coalition was launched in February to provide support for faculty in standing up to issues of adjunct discrimination and attempt to shift the way the adjunct system works.

One instance of mistreatment occurred at Weber State University, where adjunct faculty across the country were up in arms in March after President Ann Millner announced that she would cut adjunct salaries at the university by 7 percent.

Maisto stated in an e-mail: "Simply by virtue of their contingent status, no adjunct or contingent faculty member enjoys the formal protection of their academic freedom that tenure was designed to secure, so in a sense we are all potentially as vulnerable as Mr. Fisher."

(This article has been updated from its previous version for further clarification.)

 

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