Critics Dismissed at Sierra Nevada

Six full-time professors -- including leaders of efforts to question administration -- lose jobs.

July 17, 2017
 
Sierra Nevada College

Sierra Nevada College is among the small liberal arts colleges facing financial and enrollment difficulties this year. It has about 500 undergraduates, and the administration acknowledges that it is running behind targets on the enrollment of new students for the fall. In May, the month when faculty members typically receive contracts for the next year, the college announced that no contracts would be given out until August, leaving many on campus worried about their job security.

Then last week, the college notified six full-time faculty members that their jobs were being eliminated, while several other full-timers were told that their hours were being reduced. For a college with 43 full-time faculty members, that's a serious cut.

But what is drawing particular concern from professors at the college is that those who are losing jobs include the chair and vice chair of the Faculty Council. The chair has been speaking out about the direction of the college, charging that its liberal arts mission is being eroded, and that there are ways for the college to save money without eroding academics. The vice chair has been talking about inviting union officials to visit campus to organize the faculty.

The administration denies that these actions were behind the job cuts, but the decisions followed soon after these professors spoke out in ways that did not go over well with college leaders.

One of those who lost her job was Samantha Bankston, associate professor of humanities, director of the honors college, and chair of the Faculty Council.

In the most recent issue of the student newspaper, Eagle's Eye, she published an essay that has since circulated widely among supporters of the college and been republished elsewhere in Nevada. She said she was immediately criticized by administrators for her views, in which she predicted that the administration's path was to cut into the college's liberal arts mission. The piece specifically challenged a "metrics-driven" focus to cuts (which the administration said Friday was used to decide which faculty members to dismiss).

"SNC’s enforcement of austerity measures is not only dimming our campus culture, but it is unclear that this methodology will prove successful without degrading academic quality," Bankston wrote. "With every cut to academics we become closer to DeVry than, say, Amherst College. Over the past two years, SNC has cut $2.1 million from its budget, with 65 percent of those cuts coming from academics. The value of each professor, each academic program, is universally measured in terms of student enrollment. With greater operating margins associated with higher student-to-faculty ratios, the leadership is evaluating a program’s viability according to this metric, regardless of concerns about what kinds of citizens we help shape, or what kind of world we want to create."

At Sierra Nevada Bankston taught courses in philosophy, French, English, history, political theory and feminist theory. In her essay, she wrote about the importance of a liberal arts college teaching the liberal arts.

"To preserve dynamic, liberated thought, we must nourish the academic programs that identify and challenge dogma, lest SNC lapse into one-dimensional thinking, getting its ethical cues solely from the landscape of market forces," she wrote. "The greatest bulwarks against the totalization of instrumental rationality can be found in the very academic programs and courses that face potentially irreparable budget cuts at Sierra Nevada College. Literature, creative writing, art, philosophy, psychology, foreign language, history and science play an integral role in questioning inveterate ideas and the conditions that give rise to prevailing forms of ideology."

The Faculty Council has suggested other cuts (besides academics) although administrators say no other options are available. Via email, Bankston said that she lost her job in "retaliation" for speaking out, and she said that the same applied to others who were losing their jobs, and who contributed to the college's liberal arts mission.

On a petition organized by defenders of the faculty members who have lost their jobs, many current and former students are posting comments saying that Bankston and others let go were much-loved professors. Many also indicate that they are aware she was a leader of those pushing to preserve the liberal arts at the college.

Via email, Alan G. Walker, president of the college, shared statements that have been distributed at the college. Those statements said that the college selected positions to eliminate based on minimizing the impact on students. Further, he said that the process was "data driven."

The cuts, the statement said, were "important decisions [that] have been made which involve better alignment of the college’s tuition-based revenue with its expense structure and the strategic allocation of resources for fiscal year 2017-18. The budget includes a significant investment in the college’s marketing and its admissions/recruiting operations."

"Higher education in our country is undergoing a seismic shift. We at SNC Tahoe are leaders finding ways to reduce the cost of higher education, improve accessibility and career relevance," Walker said.

Asked about the accusation that faculty members were who were critics were targets for job cuts, Walker said that was "patently false."

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