Samantha Reed ’00 was surprised and disappointed to learn that Visiting Assistant Professor Gregory Buchanan was not hired for a tenure track position in the Psychology Department. She felt the decision “showed a flagrant lack of regard for the opinion of the student body.”
311 students agreed with Reed and channeled their voices through a petition. Reed began the petition “to strongly protest the Department of Psychology’s decision not to rehire” Professor Buchanan, and to “demand his reinstatement if at all feasible.”
Buchanan called the petition “immensely flattering,” but has no plans to remain at Williams. As far as plans for next year Buchanan said that he has accepted a tenure-track position at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin.
Even in light of the petition, the Psychology Department and the College stand behind the decision. “All of the student opinion was weighed very carefully,” said Al Goethals, chair of the Psychology Department. The Department was aware of Buchanan’s popularity, and took student input seriously. “It’s self-evident that students have a tremendous amount of influence [in hiring decisions], but it’s not the case that they will be happy with every appointment,” Goethals said.
“I am certain that there has been forthright communication and fair judgement in the Psychology Department’s hiring process,” said David L. Smith, Dean of the Faculty.
Although the petition responds to an individual hiring decision, it articulates a common feeling among students that student opinion has little sway in hiring and tenuring decisions. Although considerable student input informs academic departments of student opinion, the student body still feels brushed aside.
Part of the problem lies in the air of mystery surrounding hiring and tenuring decisions. “The lack of information that is out there about how the tenure system works is a problem. No one really knows how tenure decisions are made,” said Ami Parekh ’01.
This information gap creates a feeling of inefficacy among students, who do not know what avenues are open to their opinion, or are not confident that those resources take them seriously. Jessica Ewing ’01 cited only one outlet, “the papers we fill out at the end of classes, but I don’t know how much difference they make.”
Departments gauge student input through course evaluation sheets, interviews with students, alumni letters, student liaison committees, and opinions expressed directly to the department. The course evaluation sheets “give the most thorough sampling [of student opinion]” said Goethals, and weigh heavily in hiring and tenuring decisions.
Student liaison committees participate more directly in the process, attending candidate interviews and submitting written evaluations of candidates. “All departments have student advisory committees that help in the hiring process,” said Smith. “The input from these committees tends to be of very high quality, and departments take student perceptions very seriously.”
According to Goethals the two main areas of consideration for hiring and tenure decisions are scholarship and teaching quality. Student opinion enters the decision as a gauge of teaching quality. Members of the departments also observe classes and appraise their colleagues.
“In most cases, faculty and student impressions are correlated” said Goethals, but not always. Departments “try to assess teaching thoroughly,” at intro, 200, and 300 levels, independent studies and theses.
Departments measure teaching quality by “how much professors stimulate student interest and attention, and how much they stimulate students to find things out on their own,” Goethals said.
College Council (CC) has examined the tenuring process, and might address it next year. CC is responding to student disappointment in tenuring decisions, according to Parekh, CC Secretary. “Looking at the tenure decisions that have been made over the past two years, students in general seem to have been extremely disappointed,” said Parekh.