Students challenge tenure decision

The educational implications of the Committee on Appropriations and Promotion’s (CAP) recent decision to deny tenure to Professor Nathan Sanders are troubling (“CAP approves 12 assistant professors for tenured positions,” Jan. 21, 2009).

Before Professor Sanders’ arrival at Williams, the linguistics program had received minimal attention, with intermittent and inconsistent course offerings. In offering Professor Sanders a full-time, tenure-track position in linguistics, it appeared as though the College had finally committed itself to an educational policy that included linguistics as a regular course of instruction. His appointment demonstrated that Williams was ready to provide students with the sustained support they need to foster a passion for linguistics.

The linguistics program that Professor Sanders has built and maintained almost single-handedly has made it possible for eight students to elect contract majors in linguistics and for hundreds of students to take courses in the field. This fall, he supervised seven students undertaking graduate-level research in phonetics and phonology, while the past two years have seen multiple Williams students accepted to conferences across America to present linguistic research. Several of his students are now pursuing graduate degrees in the field. His classes are consistently overenrolled, and students can currently choose from a wide variety of courses that are commonplace at a larger college or university. By any standard, our linguistics program must be considered a successful and valuable asset to the College, as is Professor Sanders himself.

Without Professor Sanders, the linguistics program will cease to exist in its current form. Even if Williams should decide to hire a replacement for him, the course offerings and structure that he has done so much to build will disappear, and linguistics will be left at square one. In no department can the faculty be replaced with a smooth transition.

The CAP’s decision is clearly more than a question of a professor’s promotion; it is one that impacts educational policy. As a small liberal arts college in the middle of the woods, Williams has a responsibility to its students to provide a broad offering of courses; unlike Amherst, we have no nearby sister institutions to fill gaps in our curriculum. The CAP’s decision sends some troubling messages: that excellence in teaching and devotion to the school may go unrewarded and that linguistics is a discipline that can be dismissed or called into existence on a whim. It will also discourage prospective students who are interested in linguistics from considering Williams, since they can find far more stable programs at many of our peer institutions. Whatever Williams’ future decisions on additional hires in linguistics, the denial of tenure for Professor Sanders deals a critical blow to a small, successful program with a devoted following.

Alex Ratté ’09
Anna Scholtz ’09