Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Faculty, students torn over new hires

“It’s like dating,” said Sharon Alker, assistant professor of English, about the hiring process for new professors. “You date a lot of universities, and you see which one you want to marry.”

Some students, however, have issues with the courting rituals. “The system can be very disappointing,” said one senior who wished to remain anonymous.

With the start of the new school year, nine new professors arrived at Whitman. Each went through a rigorous process to get here.

First, faculty must establish that a position needs to be filled, after which the college embarks on a widespread search. Candidates submit an application, which is reviewed by the department. If chosen, candidates will then be interviewed by tenure-track members of the department, often at an off-campus conference like the annual Modern Language Association Convention where new Professor of English Nadine Knight was interviewed.

“It’s an intense experience,” Knight said. “There are thousands of people in suits looking for jobs.”

If all goes well, the next step is a two-day interview on the Whitman campus, during which a candidate will often give two presentations: a teaching presentation and a research presentation, reflecting two of Whitman’s main priorities.

“We’re looking for excellent teachers and scholars,” said Associate Dean of Faculty Tom Callister.

Students are asked to attend these sessions and give feedback about prospective professors.
“There was such a strong commitment to teaching,” Knight said about what drew her to the college. “And students were invested and interested in the process.”

Sometimes, faculty will arrange for a candidate to go out to lunch with students. “You go in and you’re handed a list of things you can’t ask,” an art student said of a luncheon she attended with a candidate. “But it’s cool once you talk with the professors…it’s a good discussion, even if they aren’t hired.”

After these sessions, the department will submit one name to the Dean of Faculty, who consults with the Committee of Division Chairs. The president must approve the appointment.
Some students are not completely happy with hiring procedure. “I question the standards…it seems to ally with a disappointing trend towards prestige over quality,” said a senior English major, speaking of Whitman’s status as an “up-and-coming liberal arts school.”

Tenure is a source of discontent among some students. Under the current system, tenure-track professors are reviewed every two years. In the sixth year, they go up for tenure and must prove three things: their teaching abilities (demonstrated through student evaluations, peer review and self-assessment), scholarship (demonstrated through published articles or books) and community involvement (demonstrated through participation in college committees).

“I really became aware of the politics of getting tenure,” said an anonymous senior English major, who expressed disappointment at losing visiting professor Andrew Osborn last year. The student wished Osborn could have served this year as a sabbatical replacement for Katrina Roberts in creative writing, but he was not hired.

Visiting professors are often hired for a one-year period, not a long-term tenure-track position that would be more expensive. Others are given staff positions.

Provost and Dean of Faculty Lori Bettison-Varga said that there are renewable contracts for visiting professors but that “sometimes our criteria preclude people who have already been here.”

“People we’re attached to leave, and we don’t find out until they don’t show up. I understand there are other factors, but it is frustrating,” a senior theater major said, who is angry at the departure of several technical theatre instructors.

Alan McEwen, technical director at Harper Joy, said in an e-mail, “Although my position is a tenure line job at many colleges it is not here at Whitman, and is not likely to ever be. Having just added a tenure line to the theatre department, there will not be another line for my wife either. Thus, we will likely search elsewhere.”

His wife, Mary McClung, recently left Whitman after receiving a tenure-track position at West Virginia University. McEwen plans to leave if he is able to find a suitable position elsewhere. “Would we stay if the current situation changed? You bet.”

“If there is no position, then unfortunately there is no job and that is a hard thing for most part time professors to accept. The Division of Theatre and the last Dean were very generous in giving/creating an adjunct position and I greatly appreciated it. I just wanted more,” said McClung in an e-mail.

McEwen agreed. “While the administration has not made my position ‘tenure level’ I do think it important to note they have done quite a lot. I have even enjoyed some support for professional activities depending on the number of requests from full time faculty. My department has also been very supportive.”

Some students still question the priorities of the college. “They get rid of good professors, yet we’re building new facilities,” said a senior art major, who regrets the departure of Matt Kelly, a visiting assistant professor. “It really should be staff over appearance.”

One problem for prospective faculty is employment for spouses of professors, given the limited local job market. The college employs some spouses, but it can be difficult when both partners are academics from similar disciplines. One solution is job-sharing, in which professors share one position between each other.

“Whitman is at the forefront of this,” said Alker. Currently there are eight shared positions across campus.

Whitman’s distance from research centers and relative isolation is another reason for hesitation from potential candidates, but Alker said that the college goes out of its way to support faculty research. “They’ve helped send me to research libraries in Edinburgh and Vancouver,” she said. “Penrose library is outstanding and gets me what I need.”
Despite worry from some students that there has been a shift in emphasis, officials remain adamant that teaching, the core of Whitman’s liberal arts mission, remains the foundation of the hiring process.

“Everyone we hire is an extremely qualified teacher and scholar. The potential for excellence is the most important criterion,” says Bettison-Varga, citing a low resignation rate and examples of professors who have remained at Whitman for decades

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