The Topic of Tenure at Oxy


Author: Arielle Darr and Victoria Geil

“Oxy is making a big mistake,” wrote Frank Lopez on the wall of the Oxy student-created Facebook group “Save Professor Pillich.” Lopez, like many other Oxy students, alumni and beloved Pillich fans, is outraged by the possibility of Pillich’s absence from school next fall after nine consecutive years of being an adjunct professor in the music department. Last week, news of his denial for tenure and subsequent replacement swarmed around campus. Many students were shocked to learn that Pillich was denied because he had not published an adequate number of articles.

According to Dennis Jerz, Associate Professor of English-New Journalism at Seton Hill University, tenure is a form of job security or “permanent job contract” that professors are granted after a successful probationary period of several years. Professors that are in such a probationary period are known as tenure-track professors. During this time, professors are evaluated on several criteria that can vary by institution, especially depending on their size.

“At most smaller colleges, a faculty member’s eligibility for tenure is determined first by teaching ability, second by publication record (academic or creative, depending on what the candidate was hired to teach), and third by a combination of departmental service (participation in various faculty committees) and student advising,” Jerz wrote on his weblog. On the other hand, larger universities generally use different criteria to grant tenure to their professors. “At larger universities, research is often considered as important as, or even more important than, teaching.”

At the end of the probationary period, professors are either granted tenure or are denied and essentially do not have their contracts renewed. Joseph F. Baugher, a retired physicist, software engineer and author, wrote in a paper entitled “Thoughts on Academic Tenure”, “Tenure is an ‘up-or-out’ process, which means that faculty members denied tenure at the end of the probationary period lose their jobs and are forced to seek other employment.”

While research and publication are important factors in granting tenure to Oxy professors, the decision to deny Professor Pillich not only upsets but confuses those in the Oxy community. “Oxy’s main audience is that of students who want an intimate setting with professors who care, and the different ways of thought are what Oxy advertises and prides itself on. Of all schools, Oxy should know that it’s not the number of papers a professor publishes or awards he wins, but the number of lives he changes and inspires, that actually means something to students,” Lindy Humber, a former Oxy student, wrote on the wall of the group. “I am disappointed that Oxy feels to need to conform to absurd ideas of success, when Occidental itself is an institution built on individuality.”

At the same time, a certain level of scholarship is expected at schools throughout the U.S., which puts pressure on schools including Oxy. “Scholarship is really important. At a liberal arts school like Oxy teaching skill is more important than at a research university, but it’s not the only thing,” Katherine Mills, a current adjunct professor in the Film and Media Department at Oxy, said. Still, students and alumni are left to wonder why professors who perhaps do more research but maybe are less engaging with students are rewarded, while a professor with so much life experience and personally acquired knowledge of his field is punished. This is especially because Oxy’s mission appears to differ from its actions. “It’s professors like Pillich that help Occidental fulfill it’s goal to ‘. . .provide a gifted and diverse group of students with a total educational experience of the highest quality. . . ‘ His enthusiasm helped many people I know and myself open their minds up to music from around the world and their respective cultures which is important ‘. . . in an increasingly complex, interdependent and pluralistic world,'” Scott Ferguson (Alum ’07) wrote on the group’s wall.

In the job posting for a new music professor on the Oxy website, it said “we seek a productive scholar whose research and teaching reflect critical and artistic engagement with world and popular musics.” While there is a clear emphasis placed on research, there is just as much an emphasis on “engagement” not only with students but also with music itself. Pillich is a very talented musician who has experienced what he teaches first hand after playing with music greats such as Chuck Berry, Elvis Costello, Bo Diddley, and even Alice Cooper. His experiences have ranged from having John Lennon take photography of his band, to working with Mike Meyers on the soundtrack of Austin Powers.

Throughout his classes, Pillich slips in stories of his own interactions with music greats, which encourages a better understanding of the artist and their vision. Who would have known that Chuck Berry yelled at a handicapped piano player to get off stage, in effort to cover up his own musical mistake? Or that John Lennon preferred not to sign the prints of Pillich that he took, because John did not want the prints to be a way of making money, but rather just a gift?

These incidents are invaluable to understanding the way that successful musicians work, think, and interact, and therefore the way that legendary music is shaped. While research is clearly important, it appears that Pillich’s experience should be just as significant. Oxy student, Daniel Lawler (junior), struggled with the irony of defining experience in his Facebook post. “Music is an organic art form that is studied rigorously to the point in which it becomes a science and no longer a form of expression. Oxy has spat on music as an art form by letting go a very experienced musician who embodies the actually love of playing and teaching music.”

Oxy is a small, undergraduate liberal arts school, not a large research institution. Most Oxy students would agree that the number of articles professors publish is not the main reason they come to Oxy, but rather the small community feel which allows them to gain knowledge and create close personal bonds with professors like Pillich. “As much as I love my alma mater, I will NOT support Occidental College if this is how they treat great professors who make Occidental the place that it is. I’m sure articles are important but articles did not draw me to Oxy, it was people! People like professor Pillich make Oxy, not the articles that they produce!” wrote Mercedes Givens (Alum ’03).

However, in the world of higher education, scholarship and economic efficiency still trumps other important factors in many cases. Mills discussed her role as an adjunct professor and the tenure system at Occidental. “Tenure is the way it’s been traditionally, but that’s eroding because labor conditions are changing in universities. It used to be that faculty had a say in all universities, not only at Oxy, but in the last 15 years, administrations are getting more powerful and more expensive. . . As a result, higher education is relying more on adjuncts.” Currently non-tenured professors make up 45.5 percent of professors in the U.S according to the Chronicles of Higher Education.

While many professors rightfully receive tenure for their hard work and commitment, cases like Pillich’s demonstrate the flaws in the tenure system. In some cases the Board of Trustees use criteria to grant tenure that does not reflect what is important to Oxy students. As a result, professors that the students truly love are let go. This system does not appear to be beneficial to those affected by professors the most: the students.

Students outraged by the situation have banded together to fight the decision. A committee was created that has spoken with many Oxy officials to discuss the situation. In addition, a Facebook group called “Save Professor Pillich” was created. The description reads, “his forced departure will be a tremendous loss to Occidental College and its students. His vast knowledge and perfectly amiable personality have o
pened the minds and ears of hundreds of students to the wonders of world music and the beauty of different cultures. We want to continue having Professor Pillich teach at Occidental and we want to fight for his well-deserved place in our classrooms.” As of press time there were 699 members of the group made up of students, alumnus and concerned members of the Oxy community.

Pillich’s case is not the first tenure controversy at Oxy. One student recalled a similar incident that occurred in recent years at Oxy. “Interestingly, I believe this same situation occurred to another beloved professor, Stuart Rugg in the Kinesiology Department, for not conducting enough research,” said Mark Hartford (Alum ’06). “From stories I’ve heard, the student body staged a small demonstration pleading for the administration to keep him on board, and eventually got their request. To this day, Stuart remains one of the most popular professors and has inspired countless students to believe in themselves and pursue their passions (including me). I believe the same sort of action can, and should, still be effective for amazing individuals such as Professor Pillich. Let’s not allow technology to be an excuse for inaction, rather let’s use it as a catalyst with which to organize large-scale change. . .”

In fact, tenure as well as the adjunct system in general, has generated controversy at institutions throughout the nation for decades. Still, colleges nationwide continue to use the system and professors still vie for their shot at tenure. Although tenure is hard to obtain and wrought with controversy, it does serve a purpose for the professors protected by it. Tenure allows for a certain level of professionalism and provides professors with job protection, meaning that they cannot be dismissed without just cause. This is significant because it gives professors a significant amount of independence. “Tenure systems in academia are usually justified by the claim that they are necessary to provide academic freedom,” according to Baugher. “Academic freedom is thought by its proponents to be critically important to the mission of a college or university: the discovery of new knowledge, the study and criticism of intellectual or cultural traditions, and the teaching and education of students so that they may become creative and productive citizens in a democracy. Free inquiry and free speech within the academic community are thought to be necessary to achieve these goals. The principle of academic freedom means that no political, intellectual, or religious orthodoxy can be imposed on faculty or students by administrators, by legislators, or by outside political or religious authorities.”

This freedom allows professors to do research on any topic, even if they are controversial. Many believe that the independence given to tenured professors alleviates pressure, enabling them to research and publish on topics that are important to them. This therefore allows them to produce high quality work. In addition, many argue that the perks of tenure allow institutions to attract high caliber candidates. However, this system that gives so much liberty to one group of professors lead to the exploitation of another: the contingent laborers or adjunct professors.

“I don’t think the tenure system is perfect. It started to protect the individual rights of people,” said Mills. “There are two classes of professors. People who have the security, much higher salaries, much lower teacher load, research money, sabbaticals, benefits, which is obviously more expensive to any school. Adjuncts have zero benefits, don’t get time off for research. It’s a matter of simple economics . . . I don’t think that at times the tenure system is a great system, but I sure wish I was tenured because the labor realities of the two-tier system are starkly different.”

There are several other arguments against tenure. While this is not as applicable to Oxy, large research intuitions have been known to overhire tenure track professors. This means that several professors are competing for very few spots. This creates tension in the workplace and can be detrimental to students. Another issue is that since it is difficult to fire a tenured professor, many schools choose to neglect misconduct and wait until a professor retires rather than taking action. This is usually because of the legal response that may be taken against schools for the dismissal of a tenured professor.

In addition, many professors never even have a chance to receive tenure. “Because a university cannot lay off its tenured faculty members during periods of low enrollment, departments need a pool of expendable workers, so that they can add or cancel classes as enrollment fluctuates,” Jerz wrote. “The salaries of these part-time workers are lower than more experienced faculty members, so when budgets are tight, department chairs feel pressure to hire several part-time instructors instead of one tenure-track prof.”

Tough economic times and an influx of too many qualified candidates also make tenure even more unattainable. “We have professional standards and it is a buyers market right now. There are just way too many PhDs out there right now. Too many people who want teaching jobs,” Mills said.There are ways for professors to fight the system. For over ninety years, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has been providing protection and support for professionals in higher education. The AAUP’s website outlines the goal of the organization. “The AAUP’s purpose is to advance academic freedom and shared governance, to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education, and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good.” Each year over one thousand faculty receive advice and assistance from the AAUP. In addition, their website provides many guidelines and articles about issues that occur in higher education, most notably through the Academic Bill of Rights. One article the AAUP website features is “Legal Watch: Publish or Perish: The Ever-Higher Publications Hurdle for Tenure,” which illustrates the significance schools put on research and the effects this can have on professors.

Although granting tenure is left up to the Board of Trustees, the student body can have an influence. The “Save Professor Pillich” committee has rallied for Professor Pillich’s employment at the school, meeting with people from Dean Eric Frank and Dean Irene Griton to the Core Director, Delores Trevizo. The description of the “Save Professor Pillich” group articulates students’ mission and ultimate goal. “This group will function as a means through which concerned students can become involved in resisting the unfounded decision, help an amazing professor stay at our college, and receive updates on the situation. With the support of hundreds of students, alumni, and professors, we hope to give Professor Pillich a permanent place at Oxy.” So far, in the creation of their group, they have gotten the aforementioned 699 Facebook members, 385 student signatures petitioning to keep Pillich, and even have obtained guaranteed classes for Pillich to teach in the fall.

Promoting the discussion about adjunct teaching and tenure is vital, stresses Professor Mills. “I think it’s good for Oxy and students and administration to consider the labor practices here on campus . . . There is blindness to the inequities with the adjuncts on campus and there are more adjuncts than people realize. Students have a sense if you are an adjunct or not, but they are not sure what it means. They do not understand the pressures to publish and how hard it is for adjuncts to publish,” Mills said.

Actions that individuals can take are numerous. By simply signing up for one of Pillich’s classes in the fall guarantees his employment, even though none of his courses are within the music department. The “Save Professor Pillich” group went beyond the music department and spoke with American Studies and the Core Requirement heads and professors, getting Pillich classes in both departments. One member of the
group urged students online, “Flood the administrators with emails, politely expressing your displeasure. I just wrote one. Enough people have shown enough interest in joining this group. If each one of us wrote an email to the admins that’s over 400 emails. It doesn’t have to be long, it just has to express how valuable Prof. Pillich is as a faculty member.” Alumni that were upset about the news of Pillich’s denial of tenure have threatened to cut off their connections to Occidental, even declining their annual commitment to the Alumni Fund, and encouraging other alums to do the same. By continually voicing themselves, the student body will be heard.

Student efforts are beginning to yield results. In fact, one of the deans that met with the “Save Professor Pillich” committee has chosen to join the Facebook group. Trevor Fay, one of heads of the committee informed the group, “we’ve learned that Assistant Dean Irene Girton – current chair of Oxy’s Music department and the person arguably most responsible for the decision not to hire Professor Pillich – ironically has joined our SAVE Professor Pillich group!” This shift marks a change in the way the Oxy administration is dealing with the situation. The progress that students have made through their activism shows the capabilities of the Oxy student body. The students care about the professors and are clearly willing to fight for them to stay at Oxy. The enthusiasm shown from petitions and Facebook groups are a sign that the student body is willing to stand up to the administration. The fight for Pillich stands as a symbol on campus; students have power and influence, and though nothing may change, they are willing to try and use it. In response to the recent activism on campus, Mills said, “I think its great. . . Students have a voice here at Oxy. And people do listen.”

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