Theater professor’s departure claimed unfair

This spring, the St. Olaf community will say goodbye to Assistant Professor of Theater Jeanne Willcoxon. Her departure was finalized after the theater department was reconfigured to include a new tenure position that will ultimately absorb the teaching responsibilities that Willcoxon currently holds.

The theater department is currently made up of two and a half tenured faculty – Professor Bill Sonnega spends half of his time in theater and the other half in media studies – and five non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty. The new tenure position is extremely valuable to the department and is considered a significant investment in both the department and the incoming tenure-track professor. The more tenured faculty in a department, the less freedom the college has to significantly change or eradicate that department.

Willcoxon is currently an NTT faculty member, meaning that her position will not lead to a tenured position, and her employment at St. Olaf has consisted of one, two or three year contracts. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 76 percent of all faculty in American higher education are non-tenure-track. This number is rising – today’s statistic shows a significant increase from 50 percent in 1993.

When the new tenure position was announced, Willcoxon made an argument to the Provost and the Associate Dean for Conversion to convert her current position into a tenure track position. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) advocates for such conversions. In a report about tenure and teaching intensive appointments, the AAUP claimed that “the best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of contingent appointments to appointments eligible for tenure with only minor changes in job description.”

Willcoxon’s argument was denied on the basis that the new tenure position would be different from her current role in the theater department. Shortly afterward, St. Olaf began a search that allowed anyone to apply for the open tenure position. After the denial of her proposal, Willcoxon submitted a letter of resignation to the college but was convinced by her colleagues to withdraw the letter and apply for the tenure position along with the other candidates. “For a brief time … I was very depressed. I thought, ‘Why even apply?’ I think I had a pretty strong argument for con- version and I’ve been very active with the non-tenure-track faculty members, and I sort of felt that [conversion] was the ethical thing to do,” Willcoxon said.

The hiring process, especially for tenure positions, is extensive. After submission of application materials, all applicants must pass a series of interviews – one by phone and, if they are chosen as a finalist, one in person with a panel of faculty members and administrators.

“They had five members on the selection committee and the selection committee went through and did a first cut of telephone interviews. I was interviewed by telephone. They did that with all of the candidates; they have to re- ally maintain that everyone gets the exact same treatment,” Willcoxon said. “And then, when it came down to the three finalists, I was not one of the three finalists. From there they selected someone for the position and that person ac- cepted the position, and that was that.”

Willcoxon decided that it would not be feasible for her to return to St. Olaf next year. Few courses would remain for her to teach with the addition of the new position.

“I could hypothetically teach in American Conversations or Great Conversations, but the problem is I wouldn’t be able to make a living out of it. And I’m a theater per- son. Though I love AmCon and GreatCon, my roots are in theater and … that’s also my forte,” Willcoxon said. “No one has outright said, ‘No, you can’t teach,’ but my contract runs out this year, and I don’t see any reason that it would be renewed.”

Some theater students were upset by Willcoxon’s departure. Jenna McKellips ’16 helped organize a written campaign in support of converting Willcoxon’s position to ten- ure track.

“[Willcoxon] definitely didn’t want us to get involved, because she was kind of like, ‘This is just something that’s going to happen.’ But I talked to her and asked if we could put together a written campaign of students’ work,” McKellips said. “So we had a bunch of students basically write her letters of [recommendation] – like a professor would write – for Jeanne and her staying here at the school, and for how much she means to the community and how much she meant to us personally.”

Students have no say in deciding which candidate will be given the tenure track position.

“Me and two other students ended up going to two of the deans to talk to them and explain how much it would hurt the school if she left and tried to ask if there was anything that we could do to help her in any way,” McKellips said.

“They basically said ‘no.’” With Willcoxon’s departure comes the end of the theater

capstone project. Currently, there are no plans to continue offering the course.

Despite their disappointment with the situation, students are thinking positively about the incoming theater professor.

“The new professor that they are bringing in, people really like her. Of all the people that could have been chosen, people really like her and I think it’s good that she’s coming in,” McKellips said. “A lot of people are trying to mediate their anger so that when that person comes in, she’s not sad and feels alone, because it’s not her fault at all.”

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