Blaheta Tenure Controversy / Campus / News / October 15, 2009

Students challenge tenure decision

Much to the surprise of many members of the Knox community, a belated decision denied computer science professor Don Blaheta tenure.

Awarded no later than the beginning of a professor’s seventh year of full-time teaching, tenure is a type of job security, explained Dean Larry Breitborde, vice president of academic affairs.

Tenure guarantees a professor permanent employment and protects the academic freedom of faculty members. Essentially, a tenured professor is ensured a position. The professor cannot be dismissed unless the circumstance is extreme. Such security allows faculty members to express unpopular opinions and pursue controversial research leading to progress, defined Don Blaheta.

The process begins before the seventh year. Typically, according to Breitborde, a faculty member is contracted for two years. After the second, fourth and sixth year, that faculty member is appraised on three key elements. The teaching element examines the professor’s self-assessment of his or her teaching, student course evaluations, syllabi and the department chair’s observation of the considered professor’s performance in the classroom.

Scholarship, which is made up of research or agenda for research, especially in the first four years, is also considered. Research is considered any body of work created by the professor outside the classroom. For instance, while a history professor might work to study a subject and publish an essay, an art professor might create an original exhibition of his or her artistic wares.

The third element considered is community involvement, which consists of a service document and the considered faculty member’s own comments. Community involvement includes participation in organizations and activities at Knox and in Galesburg.

In November of the considered faculty member’s sixth year, he or she submits a packet of information and the tenure trial begins. The information is evaluated by the department chair, the faculty personnel committee (a committee of four elected by the faculty as a whole), the dean and the president separately. Information and research are also sent to at least two outside sources. Anonymous to the considered professor but sometimes recommended by him or her, the outside sources are individuals highly regarded in the considered faculty member’s field.

The faculty personnel committee and the dean each make a recommendation to the president. The three parties meet and ultimately come to a final decision.

“It’s possible that minds change during that process,” said Breitborde, adding that ecessed for the night so that all parties could “sleep on it.”

When a recommendation is agreed upon, the president informs the professor in consideration and then presents the recommendation to the Board of Trustees Education Committee. Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of the trustees.

After the second and fourth year, the process stops at the president and the considered professor receives a summary of the review.

“There is a feedback loop in this thing,” said Breitborde. “The point is that there should be no surprises in the sixth year.”

Yet many students, alumni and professors are surprised.

Blaheta is grateful for the avalanche of support he has received from people on and off campus.

“It’s put me in a better mental state,” said Blaheta.

The computer science professor submitted materials for his sixth year assessment in November of last year, but due to unforeseen conflicts with the outside sources chosen to evaluate his case, the decision was delayed. While most professors know whether or not they will receive tenure by the summer before their seventh year, Blaheta was informed at the end of September. However, the delay was not unexpected. Blaheta was informed of the hindrance and signed documentation acknowledging his acceptance of the contract waiver.

However, the belated decision has impaired Blaheta’s chances of retaining the kind of job that interests him. His contract at Knox will expire at the end of this academic year.

After completing graduate studies at Brown University, Blaheta searched for a job in teaching.

“Knox College in particular was my mental model for the type of school I wanted to work for,” said Blaheta, adding that he had looked at Knox as a high school senior as well.

“Teaching was my priority. I decided I wanted to teach smart college kids computer science,” said Blaheta. “I love the student interaction [at Knox]. It’s not like at big research schools where you have a lighter teaching load.”

Though Blaheta would like to continue teaching college-aged students in the Great Lakes region, he realizes that it may be difficult to find a position this late in the game.

“I would have had to apply yesterday,” said Blaheta. “I have to make some big decisions very fast.”

Blaheta also understands that employment in his field is available outside of teaching, but would prefer to be in the classroom.

After receiving the decision, Blaheta informed a small group of students so as to stifle the rumor mill and set the record straight. As he understands it, the decision came down to the scholarship portion of the evaluation.

“Research has not been my top priority,” said Blaheta. “I could have re-priortized.”

Nonetheless, Blaheta is happy with his experience at Knox.

“I had a blast. I did a lot of things, I enjoyed the students, [and] I enjoyed the teaching” said Blaheta.

Senior Andrea Johnston is not content with the tenure decision. Upon hearing the news, she started a Facebook group titled “Save Don’s Job!” The group currently has over 150 members. Johnston is a creative writing major, but works with Blaheta on the Ballroom Team he coaches. She and others have written letters to President Roger Taylor and the Board of Trustees in an attempt to reverse the decision.

“It seems like [President Taylor] has made his decision,” said Andrea. “The ball is in the Board’s court.”
Senior Christine Morse, also a member of the Ballroom Team, was shocked by the announcement when Blaheta informed the team after a practice.

“When I think about what the Knox teacher is supposed to be, Don is who I think about,” she said, citing the vision of the typical Knox professor as an individual heavily immersed in the student community described in Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives.

“Knox is getting good at financial impregnability, but it’s losing touch with the community,” said Johnston. “There’s a lot of worry that it signals a trend toward ‘publish or perish.’ It’s more and more about a professor looking good on paper.”

Contrarily, Breitborde said, “Even when we talk about scholarship, we’re concerned with how it improves the quality of student learning.”

Both Johnston and Morse were surprised by how little involvement students actually have in the tenure process, noting that the individual written response portion of student course evaluations is not included in the appraisal.

“There isn’t a way for students to get opinions into the tenure process,” said Johnston.

Dean Breitborde disagrees.

“The student voice is really important at a small liberal arts school,” Breitborde said. “But students don’t get to see what the aggregate voice is.”

Breitborde went on to say, “We’re so small and so much of what we do runs on personal relationships. That makes certain things harder.”

Johnston, Morse and many other students and alumni look forward to Homecoming weekend when they plan to discuss the issue directly with the Trustees.

Sarah Colangelo

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