Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village cuts 6 faculty members
August 3, 2017
When students return to class at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village later this month, they'll notice that some of their favorite instructors are no longer at the school.
Six of Sierra Nevada College's faculty members were let go on July 13 in a controversial decision that came weeks before the start of the academic year.
School administrators say the layoffs were necessary to deal with decreased enrollment, but some people are questioning those motives since several of the faculty members who were let go had recently voiced concerns with the way the university is being run.
"In higher ed, and I'd say this has been true for years, there's been increasing pressure on smaller, private liberal arts colleges around the country, especially schools like SNC that have smaller endowments and are highly tuition dependent," said Sierra Nevada College President Alan Walker, who holds a doctorate in Higher Education Policy Administration.
"It's a mix of a couple of issues, one is the changing demographic of high schools around the county … The other one is the increased focus that society has, that the government has, on the return on investment of education … particularly as families and students take on more debt," he said.
Walker said that over the last several years, enrollment changes have forced them to adjust their expenses, and they wanted to avoid additional tuition increases.
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"We did a five-year analysis and looked at enrollment in the various majors," Walker said. "It was a data-driven decision, not a political one."
The dismissed faculty members were: Samantha Bankston, faculty council chair and an associate professor who holds a doctorate in philosophy; Dan Aalbers, faculty vice council chair, instructor and psychologist whose work helped influence national security policy; Pierette Kulpa, an instructor who holds a doctorate in art history; Jared Stanley, a published poet and instructor; Daniel Kelly, a visual artist and instructor; and Courtney Berti, a writer and instructor who also produced the college's literary journal, the Sierra Nevada Review.
"I believe I was fired for trying to unionize the faculty," Aalbers said. "I was an instructor, but I was also the vice chair last year … I was going to be faculty council chair, and I was leading the faculty toward collective bargaining. Now they've taken the torn out of their side."
According to documents obtained by the Sierra Sun, laid-off faculty members were offered severance packages on the condition that they "unconditionally release and forever discharge any all claims that he/she has or may have against SNC," and agree not to disparage the university.
Because the layoffs occurred so close to the start of the academic year, there is concern that some of the faculty members may not be able to find new teaching positions since many schools have already filled their open positions for the upcoming year. Some of the laid-off faculty members have few financial options available at this point aside from signing the non-disparagement agreement.
"Everyone let go is someone who has spoken out, taken a public position criticizing the administration," Aalbers said. "Everyone on the list was in favor of increasing the empowerment of the faculty … the administration knew that we wanted to bring in union representatives to speak with faculty, and I think that's the reason that I was removed."
Provost Shannon Beets said that the decision to layoff the faculty members wasn't taken lightly, but that the administration feels it was necessary.
"It was absolutely data driven and we're very sympathetic to the faculty and the students," she said.
Beets also said that the university's honors program, which was led by Bankston, would continue though it's currently undecided who will lead the program.
College faculty members received a written, non-renewal notice by email on May 24. According to school policy, the agreements automatically renew each May unless written notice is provided.
"While it is SNC's intention to award faculty agreements by August 2017, SNC cannot guarantee your employment past your current active agreement date," President Walker wrote in the letter. "No reliance should be made on the above estimated timeline nor should the statement of the intended days create an expectation or guarantee of future employment with SNC."
But uncertainty had been brewing among faculty members and students for months leading up to the non-renewal notices.
Then-Faculty Council Chair and Associate Professor Samantha Bankston penned a harsh critique of the school's financial strategy in an op-ed published May 1 by the school newspaper, Eagle's Eye.
"Over the past two years, SNC has cut $2.1 million from its budget, with 65 percent of those cuts coming from academics. The value of each professor, each academic program, is universally measured in terms of student enrollment. With greater operating margins associated with higher student to faculty ratios, the leadership is evaluating a program's viability according to this metric, regardless of concerns about what kinds of citizens we help shape, or what kind of world we want to create," she wrote.
In the piece, Bankston also stated that the school faced additional budget shortfalls of $500,000, and argued that enrollment should not determine where the next cuts are made.
"If SNC wants to stand out in a climate where nearly all colleges are following the same temporary market trends according to identical metrics, then the College should champion principles that withstand the vagaries of the market. Doing so would restore hope to what has become a downtrodden campus," she wrote.
Aalbers said he believes Bankston was also fired for her vocal opposition to the university's actions since she too had been advocating on behalf of the entire faculty.
"Most of us were instructors that were already taking a very low wage and taking very high class requirements," he said. "People always asked, 'Why I put up with it?' and I'd say, 'To work in Tahoe.'"
He said that the decisions to cut some of the faculty didn't make sense since many were professors who were already making low wages and teaching large classes.
'Don't Cut the Human Out of Humanities'
Students had heard rumors there was a budget deficit and that school administrators were looking for possible ways to cut costs if enrollment didn't increase.
In May, they organized a sit-in to show their opposition to faculty layoffs according to the campus paper, Eagle's Eye. They held signs with statements like, "Don't take the human out of humanities" written on them.
Recent graduate Miranda McFarland participated in the demonstration and said the purpose was to show the administration how much the students value the liberal arts program. She said that three professors joined the demonstration, and they were all professors that later lost their jobs.
"It’s so sad too because a lot of faculty are remaining silent on this … no one's fighting back because they're scared that they're going to lose their jobs," she said.
Multiple students and faculty declined to comment on the record for this article, citing fear of retribution.
"They've got the faculty up against a wall," McFarland said.
"I had kind of been warned about it around the end of the spring semester because I'm close with the teachers and work with the school a lot," said recent graduate Collyn Aubrey.
"The layoffs have been only a natural response to other things going on," recent graduate Collyn Aubrey said. "A lot of other programs have been added recently at SNC and they were hoping that the enrollment would increase because of that. It didn't."
Aubrey said that she believes the enrollment in the liberal arts and humanities would be higher if more financial aid was available.
"Students in art department like myself received scholarships and that fund ran out. We didn't have scholarships for students this past year, so that hurt enrollment for the department," she said.
In an effort to try and preserve the programs, Aubrey said she and her family are working on creating a scholarship fund so that more students can enroll in the future.
"The reason that I'm doing that is to try and help these teachers get their jobs back," she said.
Aubrey said that she believes her successes so far, like winning a $3,000 award during her senior year, are because her experience at the college was "well-rounded."
"I had a really great education," she said. "It wouldn't have been possible without Daniel Kelly."
She said she's hurt by the layoffs, but is focused on trying to help the school maintain a strong liberal arts and humanities program.
"I hope incoming students or people thinking about coming here don't think all of the teachers are getting cut all of a sudden," she said. "It’s not like that, but it does hurt."
Outside the university, concerns about the layoffs are growing. More than 700 supporters had signed an online petition, as of Aug. 2 to, reinstate the faculty positions that were cut. The comments include statements of support for the professors, as well as the importance of liberal arts. One commenter even calls for an independent investigation into how the teachers were fired.
"There are awful teachers at SNC, but I have had Daniel, Pierette, and Samantha and they are NOT any of them. I have learned an incredible amount from all 3 of these teachers and this is not right!!" wrote one commenter.
Another said, "As bastions of critical thinking, liberal arts colleges should not be firing qualified and successful professors for exercising thoughtful criticism."
The online education news website, Inside Higher Ed, has published a couple of articles on the layoffs, and a 2014 article on the site about Upper Iowa University, where a similar situation unfolded during Walker's time as president at that campus.
Despite the controversy, Walker said the decision was purely data-driven, and that he has no issue with teachers unionizing.
"I'm aware that from time to time there has been interest in unionizing, but I'm not aware that the faculty as a whole has endorsed such a movement," he said. "It absolutely did not play into the decision to let them go. I am no stranger to working in a college where there have been unions."
Western Michigan University, where Walker previously worked as the Vice Provost for Extended University Programs, has an unionized faculty.
The American Association of University Professors issued a letter to Walker on July 20 urging the university to reappoint Aalbers and Bankston for the upcoming academic year and to provide all full-time faculty members with timely notice of non-reappointment.
At the time of this story was published, no faculty contracts had been reinstated, though some professors had been offered adjunct positions, where they would continue teaching at the university only on a part-time and as-needed basis.
Amanda Rhoades is a news, environment and business reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2653. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @akrhoades.