Editor’s Column: In the Defense of Excellence

 

 

Mike McMaster

Last semester, a tenure track professor position opened at Colgate and a Colgate professor applied for the job. Having taught at Colgate for the past four years, this person was originally hired by Colgate for a one-year term. He was brought back three years in a row as a result of his excellent performance in the classroom.

When word got out that this professor was applying for a tenure track position, a group of motivated seniors circulated a petition in support of his application. Approximately 70 seniors signed the petition. Additionally, six students took time to write letters of support for this professor. I was one of those students.

This professor, whose name I have chosen to omit from this article because of uncertainty surrounding his employment status, is a person who embodies the liberal arts education that Colgate preaches from the first day students unpack their bags and congregate in the over­crowded chapel. In the past four academic years, this professor has taught classes in three disciplines, including courses in Colgate’s celebrated CORE curriculum. He has taught classes at the 100, 200, 300 and 400 level, and can boast waitlists in each of his disciplines at all lev­els. Since his second semester at Colgate, this professor has had waitlists for all but one of his classes, with the waitlists reaching more than 40 students in two instances, which is far higher than the departmental averages.

From experience, I can attest that those statistics do not indicate that this professor teaches easy classes. While good grades are difficult to come by with this professor, students continue to sign up for this professor’s classes because the quality of his teaching leaves a lasting impact. That said, I thought that the numbers should speak for themselves.

Just to be sure, I joined the group of Colgate students who took the initiative to say thank you and affirm their support for a professor who changed their collegiate experience. I wrote that this professor was the best professor that I have had at Colgate. I wrote that it is rare for a professor’s lessons to stick with you long after college. I wrote that losing this professor would be a profound loss for Colgate.

My letter was never answered and my professor was not even asked to interview for the position.

We found out later that our professor was not considered for this tenure track position be­cause there was no need for another professor in the region of our professor’s expertise: Europe. Somehow, Colgate decided that there was not enough demand for a professor who has rarely taught a class without a waitlist.

Frustrated, but undeterred, this semester I joined two other students who continued their fight for their professor. We wrote letters, met with administrators and spoke with faculty; and, at the end of it all, we had nothing to show for it. Once again, our voices were ignored. I get it. I understand that academia is obsessive about avoiding concentrating too heavily on the “dead, white, European male.” I understand the importance of diversity and the efforts that universities have to make to offer diverse courses to a diverse student body in an increasingly globalized world.

I am confident that the person the faculty chose to hire in lieu of my professor was highly qualified and will do wonderful things for the University. I am troubled, however, that my professor, who enjoyed the unyielding support of his students, was not even offered an interview.

I think Colgate’s pursuit of diversity is admirable, but this incident makes me question Colgate’s priorities. If the voices of Colgate’s students are ignored, why should we fill out set forms? Further, at what point does Colgate make the decision to value diversity over quality? To ignore the significant accomplishments of an experienced professor in favor of a region of study is a dangerous and costly error.

I am not worried about my professor. Wherever he goes, I am sure he will enjoy the same success that he did at Colgate and will continue to enrich students’ lives through his teaching.

Instead, this experience has made me question Colgate’s priorities. I think diversity is im­portant and Colgate should continue to make it a priority. But the primary responsibility of a university is to teach and inspire its students and Colgate should be careful not to lose sight of that.