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The Power of the Student

On Campus

The Power of the Student

Radix Admin

  By Danielle Brown '18 

  During March 2015, I experienced an incident in my first year that put a mark on my college career. I was angry about it, so I wrote a piece on it released six months later at the start of my sophomore year. The resulting article gained a lot of traction much faster than I ever expected. Sonia Mohammadzadah, a friend also present during that moment, and I received much (positive) feedback from professors, staff and students. It was encouraging to feel validated and like we weren’t overreacting. Many people, alums and current students, reached out with stories of negative experiences that occurred under tenured professors. We collected a few of these and attempted to forward them on to the Dean of Students and the Dean of Faculty but not much came of them, because we were told that each could not be acknowledged unless they were filed as separate grievance reports. This was understandable but we hoped that in some way they would be placed “on the record.”

  And of course, anonymously, people reached out with negative feedback. This was expected, but I had hoped that those who disagreed would e-mail Sonia and I directly with coherent thoughts rather than attacking us maliciously online or in apps that allowed them to remain undetected. Rather than being upset at the comments, I was more insulted that we had put ourselves and our stories out there for public consumption and we weren’t respected for that. I’m used to people questioning my validity and my motives but it was disappointing nonetheless.

  As for the outcome of the case itself, the timeline overlaps and the results are a bit muddied so I’ll do my best to stay in order.

 Before the article was released in late September of my sophomore year, Professor Eugene Hill was still there, teaching the exact same course for a new set of students. This angered me because some of us from the last class felt that another incident was bound to happen again, and it did.

  A friend who had graduated the year before texted me saying that one of her closest friends had recently been placed into this exact class. This student, named Dana Gillson, was then a junior who had signed up for a few too many 300-level courses and decided to drop one for a lower level. This course was one of the few with openings that hadn’t turned her away by the add/drop period, so she joined it. She reached out to me after a week in his class because that recent alum had told her about my intent to publish my own story soon and the student noticed that his behavior was disconcerting. Dana alerted me to a few things. The professor was still being aggressive and disrespectful, specifically targeting students of color and those with different abilities, nationalities and educational backgrounds than his own. She went on to explain that he was dismissive of class participation from students who fell under those categories and would make it difficult for students to receive the homework. This wasn’t shocking to me but it prompted me to ask questions in a public platform so that administrators couldn’t hide from them. We shared this information with the Dean of Students, who encouraged Dana to report her findings. Due to previous experience, I knew that nothing would come of it unless she went through the same process as I did. We both worried that it would seem like I put her up to joining the class and finding mistakes but at this point I knew the only result I was looking for was to free other students from his odd and damaging superiority complex. So she followed the steps and we waited.

  After the article was released, students were confused and concerned. Sonya Stephens, Dean of Faculty at the time and our current interim president, sent me an e-mail after the release. She expressed how I shouldn’t read into the forwarding of Hill’s skimpy response letter as representation of her own character. I understood that she couldn’t force his hand but I was so angry over the fact that nothing seemed to have occurred since my class’ investigation. She later released two other e-mails to the entire campus which only served to cause more confusion due to how much she seemed legally allowed to share, and how much context was lacking from the e-mails.

  Backed by many at Mount Holyoke, we organized a meeting under the Student Government Association’s weekly senate. I reached out to the student chair of senate and she organized a panel regarding tenure consisting of then Dean Stephens, Dean Hall (serving as Dean of Students) and professors Amy Martin and Amina Steinfels. The meeting was messy and students asked multiple pointed questions under which we received limited answers. The meeting was more focused on the incident and the fact that the professor was still leading a course under similar conditions, rather than the actual meaning of tenure. Senate was open to faculty to participate at will. However, I felt awful that Professor Steinfels invited herself only to discover this fact because she was there to defend tenure itself and not the actions of this one professor. She sat back during most of the meeting but did explain why she felt job security and academic freedom was important.

  The rest of the panel members attempted to answer students, and in the end we discovered a few things: 1) the professor in question was given a “second” chance despite his record of being horrendous to faculty, staff and students, 2) none of the students in his new course were alerted to last semester’s case prior to my article, and 3) he had remained in his position until something else occurred to deem him problematic. The senate meeting minutes have since been removed from the SGA web page, which is normal due to the timeframe, but I’m under the impression that they could be requested for viewing if any student wishes.

  Prior to the senate meeting, however, Dana’s report went through and a second class was investigated as mine was. Some students in the class did not note the same behavior, but many did. The most notable was a student who is blind, named Melissa Carney. Sonia, my co-writer and Melissa’s friend, reached out to her after learning that she was also enrolled in the course. She reported feeling targeted in his class for multiple reasons. With Melissa’s permission, I quote what she shared with me for the purpose of this article.

Not only did Hill single me out for my disability, but he made it obvious that he was not willing to respect my accommodations. On several occasions, he placed printed handouts in front of me, and said, "Well, here's the handout we'll be reading from today. I assume you'll take care of it, and turn it into an accessible format so you're prepared for class."

I have a couple issues with this: 1) He gave me a printed version of the handout, which obviously I can't read. 2) By law, it is the college's, and professor's, responsibility to make sure that all of their materials are accessible to people with disabilities. 3) Since the materials were thrown at me last minute, there was no way I could be prepared. This would have hurt my participation grade in the long run. Hill also said that he never used Moodle, e-mail, or any other technology to communicate with the class. This is a huge issue for people with all types of disabilities because many of us heavily rely on technology.

As a side note, Hill specifically targeted international students and students of color. Many of these incidences were subtle, which is why a lot of students probably didn't notice but I'm extremely sensitive to discrimination, so I picked up on it right away.

That experience shook me a little, especially because it was my first semester of freshman year. Hill was the first English professor I met, and he almost turned me off to the major.

This was a very clear violation of a discrimination policy whereas the ones regarding race, nationality and class were apparently fuzzy in perspective. It was also an eerie replication of my own story during my first year. Both of us were prospective English majors who had horrible experiences serve as our introduction to the department. Both of us had identities out of our control targeted by the professor. Neither of us would have spoken up without the support of friends and our student community backing us.

  This new report from his class triggered a number of things to happen after that and the senate meeting.

 The professor was removed from the faculty body. This was told to me by multiple deans on the night of the senate meeting. This is why the meeting was pointed and uncomfortable. The student body never received an explicit (written or informal) explanation of what happened to the professor or of the context. I was told that he had legal protections so the school itself wasn’t allowed to publicly share what exactly happened to him. But he was gone, so I should be happy. And I was, but not fully. News from other faculty members let me know that he was let go but with severance. He was allegedly paid what he would’ve been for the rest of his tenure at the College. This doesn’t sit right with me because he was never actually reprimanded. I guess I should be satisfied but he never actually felt the kickback of his actions; if anything, he was rewarded with early retirement. This made me feel, once again, that these actions were swept under the rug rather than handled.

  The students in his course were moved to a new professor, thus setting off a second chain of maneuvering which they and the new instructor had to pay for. Once again, too much action was being made on behalf the professor’s terrible behavior while he did little to nothing to pay for it.

  The case hasn’t been referenced by the College since his official departure this past summer.

  So from then on out, I decided to stick to my endeavors. Now in the first semester of my junior year, I’ve recently been working on a policy change idea I have regarding tenure. This policy can be found here, on page six (6) of this 10 Ideas Education journal published by the Roosevelt Institute. Though it is published in this journal series, I did not write the idea solely for that outcome but rather to organize thoughts that I had surrounding what change is needed in the world of academia. I’ve also recently met with a faculty committee dedicated to faculty legislation in the hopes that they’ll understand why this change needs to be made. At that meeting, I was asked why I went for tenure rather than the skewed grievance policy that leads to such a difficult roundabout for students, staff and faculty in need of immediate solace. I hesitated but I remembered why. It was because every step of the way in my report I was told not to expect much because of the fact that this professor was tenured. I now know that, along with a reformation of the weak policy, it is imperative that tenure is reevaluated and respect is valued just as much as “academic freedom.”

  This summer, during the aftermath of the letter released by a dean at the University of Chicago, a student there had this response:

If you want a university with people who have experienced "real life", then you need to create places where they can heal or eliminate the culture that harms them in the first place.

If, on the other hand, you only want the same boring mayo perspective from non-diverse [and] privileged (yeah, I said it) folks, then keep doing what you have been doing since your inception. Keep pandering to [the] privileged if you want, but don't expect us to be quiet.

Being diverse isn't easy and our diversity [ain't] free. Accessibility is key to a truly intellectually stimulating campus.

Get with the program or give us our money back.

Nothing could explain my experience at this College more. I love Mount Holyoke, and I truly don’t believe I would’ve had a stronger, life-changing set of friends, colleagues and courses anywhere else. To many administrators this seems unbelievable, and I’ve had people question why I haven’t transferred during the sophomore-junior window that many students take advantage of. It’s because I will never stop trying to pave a path for students like myself to join this student body, with comfort, in the future. I owe it to them and to myself. And the colleges that wish to place our diverse bodies on their pamphlets, and in panels to encourage other students to join us in paradise, should create spaces where we can thrive just as much as our comfortable peers. I’m not here to teach others about my life through my pain. I’m here to learn and exchange experiences with people who treat me as their equal.

  So I’m pushing this policy into the hands of our faculty, hoping that those who do their jobs with zeal will see the reasoning behind it. Fantastic students who I look up to on the daily -- including Melissa, Dana, Sonia, the Radix staff and the others who jumped up in support immediately -- give me so much hope for the College’s future despite how much its community actually does seem to fear change. I’m right alongside those demanding better and more opportunities on behalf of my low-income and first generation peers. I’m watching brave people fight for respect regarding queer and trans students, and students of color, and those of us who meet in the middle. Accessibility is being seen as a necessity and not an option, thanks to those who care

  There is so much work to do, and I’m tired -- very much so. But I’ll never stop pushing myself and those around me to be a force to be reckoned with. We deserve more than what many are willing to settle for. It’s our education and everyone should be able to receive it safely, and with respect. No questions asked. I plan to see that come to fruition in my lifetime.