The decision not to renew a popular lecturer's contract with Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication has faculty members criticizing the administration for for relying on an non-tenure-track instructor to create a successful program -- and then casting him aside after he built it.
Gene Sasso, one of the creators of the school’s online master’s degree program in public relations, said he was last month told -- without explanation -- that his three-year review would not go forward, and that he would not be returning to Kent State for the 2013-14 academic year.
“I keep on using the word flabbergasted,” Sasso said.
After all, why would Kent State get rid of the man who helped create a program that has, over the course of two years, enrolled over 260 students and generated over $6 million in revenue, and that continues to boast stellar student satisfaction and retention rates?
“That’s the $64,000 question -- and no one is telling us,” said Bill Sledzik, an associate professor.
Sasso was hired summer 2010 to complete work on the master’s degree program, leaving a decades-long career in public relations. In its first two years, the program’s all-online, asynchronous structure has resonated among working professionals. After completing two prerequisites, students “jump on a carousel of nine rotating courses,” Sledzik said, before completing a capstone project. Each course lasts seven weeks, meaning the program can be completed in two years.
Several of the program's first graduates, who completed the course requirements last December, opposed the decision not to renew Sasso’s contract in a letter to Kent State administrators.
"From our perspective -- verified by other faculty in the program -- Gene served as the program’s architect and the guardian of the program's vision,” the letter reads. “This team's personal and deep commitment made the program work. And from our perspective, Gene was clearly the team leader.”
Sledzik suggested Kent State chose not to renew Sasso's contract because of its collective bargaining agreement. While lecturers on the tenure track at the institution have to pass annual reviews, lecturers off the tenure track are reviewed every three years. Since passing the first review means collecting additional union employment protection, the administration could have made a strategic decision not to renew Sasso’s contract.
“If they’re going to get rid of a non-tenure-track faculty member, it makes sense to do it before they pass the third-year review,” said a faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That’s the corporate mindset invading higher ed.”
Eric Mansfield, executive director of Kent State University media relations, said the university does not comment on personnel matters.
The faculty of the journalism school, led by Sledzik, passed a resolution to let Sasso’s review proceed. The resolution was declined by the school’s director, Thor Wasbotten. Should the review have proceeded, the administration would have been required to provide a formal reason for not renewing Sasso’s contract. Choosing not renew Sasso's contract before the review means the administration is not legally obliged to do so.
“The administration wants people to think Gene was stepping on people’s toes because it deflects the blame,” one faculty member said. “Gene advocated in a professional way for this program and its students, and instead of being championed for that, he was shown the door.”
Wasbotten erred by not consulting the faculty before choosing not to renew Sasso’s contract, according to Deborah C. Smith, the grievance and arbitration chair for the American Association of University Professors' tenure-track unit at Kent State. “The university could have non-renewed [Sasso] after consulting with the faculty advisory body of the School even if the faculty recommended that he be renewed,” Smith said. “The problem from our standpoint is that they didn’t consult.”
(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version.)