Thoughts with Richard Bleil
A couple of days ago I read an opinion piece on a major news source. The piece was written regarding an organic chemistry professor from a major university, with a lot of similarities to my personal case. To be fair, according to the article, he was at a better university than I was, and apparently, he had a much greater notoriety than I have. My understanding from the article is that he, like me, left a tenured full professor position.
One of the major differences is that he is an organic chemistry, whereas I am a thermodynamicist. Neither organic nor thermodynamics are popular subdisciplines in chemistry, but far more students take organic chemistry than thermodynamics because of medical school. Medical schools do require organic chemistry, but not thermodynamics, and organic chemistry is usually taught as a “weed out” course for med schools. That is, it is intentionally difficult, so the better students pass with higher grades. Personally, although I have taught organic chemistry for many years, I never did teach it in a manner to be intentionally difficult. I feel that this defeats the purpose of education, but perhaps that’s why I’m not an organic chemist.
Like me, his students complained. Apparently, about a third of them signed a petition saying that the course is too difficult. I’ve never had students actually sign a petition, but in my last class (a class my own supervisor, the department chair, refused to teach because the class was “difficult”, and he vowed never to teach this class again) the students did take to complaining about me. But that’s not all.
My students, in their complaints, said that they did not want me to lose my job, and apparently went so far as to say that they (or at least some of them) thought that I was the best professor in the department even as they were complaining. In the letter, this professor’s students, according to the article, also said that they didn’t want the professor fired because they, too, thought he was a good professor. Unfortunately, like me, he was also an adjunct professor, and like me, he was dismissed.
The reality is that adjunct professors, regardless of if they’re unknown like me or well known as him, are easy to fire. We are on one-semester contracts, not tenured or tenure track, and don’t carry the respect of tenure-track or regular professors. We’re seen as disposable, easily fired as there are no real protections for us. It’s just easier to let us go than to work with us if there are weaknesses.
But in my case, and from the sounds of the article his, it wasn’t a matter of weaknesses. The complaints against me were ridiculous, and the claims against him were no better. They complained of the course being difficult when organic is a notoriously difficult subject. Both of us had years of experience and were even good enough to gain the top rank at another institution. And yet, we were both quickly dismissed based on the complaints of students.
In my case, to show you how ridiculous the complaints were, they didn’t want to come to my office hours because I held them in a lab. Why that should matter makes no sense to me, but the office I used the year before was taken over by faculty displaced due to construction. My own supervisor, the one who wouldn’t work with the students he had saddled me with, told me to use that lab for my office. The students further complained that I didn’t provide an office phone but gave my personal cell number instead. Of course, when they took my office, they also left me without an office phone, and although I was uncomfortable doing so (who wants students to be able to call at three in the morning?), I provided my personal number to make up for this loss. The students went on to complain that I wanted them to call me so I could capture their phone numbers, but, of course, I already had (and still have) their phone numbers in the class roster. And yet, he and I were both fired without investigation based on student complaints.
Faculty are constantly under surveillance. Student complaints, student evaluations in every course every semester, supervisor visits at least once a year when we’re starting out and every other year when we’re established are all part of our daily lives. What is missing in this equation, however, is administrative reviews.
Administration routinely takes the students’ word as gospel because, as they see it, the students pay the tuition. The problem with this is that it has led to the idea of the student as a customer, but students sometimes have to be unhappy. It’s part of life. It’s taking challenging courses like organic chemistry, and stretching themselves to overcome the hurdles, or fail if they refuse to do so. So, what is the incentive of administration to actually examine the complaints? To tell the students when their complaints are petty and meaningless because he already has their phone numbers? To point out the difficult courses are how they can best expand their abilities?
I actually was at a university where faculty were given the opportunity to evaluate their supervisors. The university stopped the practice because the administration didn’t like the poor reviews. I wish faculty could just stop giving evaluations under the same argument, but while education is supposed to be about improvement, the administration has become more about business. It’s time to hold academic administrations accountable. As dean, I dismissed adjunct faculty, and each time I had highly compelling reasons, I had done the research to justify their dismissal, and where I could even gave the faculty the opportunity to turn it around. I’ve stood up to students who complained about faculty just because they used the Socratic educational approach. Isn’t this what the administration is supposed to do?
Apparently, not anymore.