Eight Parkland faculty face non-renewal of contracts

Community members are packed into D244 to attend the Parkland Board of Trustees on Nov. 19. / Photo by Matt Moss

Community members are packed into D244 to attend the Parkland Board of Trustees on Nov. 19. / Photo by Matt Moss

Matt Moss

Editor

Just a few hours short of midnight on Nov. 16, the Parkland Board of Trustees made the decision to not renew the contracts of eight full-time, non-tenured faculty members in the hope of helping to relieve the strain placed on Parkland’s funding by the state budget crisis.

The meeting where the decision was reached was open to the public, aside from a half-hour closed-door session when the discussion on whether or not to enact the non-renewal-of-contracts was held; the board said bylaws prevent them from discussing the sort of faculty matters that were addressed then in public.

Some of the speakers at the board of trustees’ meeting argued to postpone the decision until February, an idea that board Chairman Dana Trimble said they would “take into consideration.” Nonetheless, the decision was made later that night.

A 6–1 vote saw the non-renewals approved by the board. Former Congressman Tim Johnson was the only ‘nay’ vote, and Crystal Bates, the board’s student trustee, was required to sit out of the closed-door meeting and abstain from the vote due to a conflict of interest, in that she works for one of the faculty members whose future at Parkland would be decided by the vote.

Trustee Donna Giertz, who voted ‘yea,’ said that she did so “with deep regret.” Earlier in the meeting, she expressed dissatisfaction with that the crux of the matter is Illinois’ inability to pass a budget resolution and get an ample flow of money back to state colleges and universities.

“So, we have to make the tough decisions because of Springfield’s failures?” Giertz said.

The names and positions of said faculty members are as follows: Yelda Aydin-Mullen, mathematics instructor; Emily Buhrenkempe, mathematics instructor; Tracy Dace, developmental reading faculty fellow; Kristina Engberg, music instructor; Jason Keist, sociology and social work instructor; Vance Martin, instructional designer; Daniel Ryan, instructor of first-year experience: and Nathan Stewart, communications faculty fellow.

Come May 19, 2017, seven out of these eight contracts for the current academic year will expire and will not be renewed. Martin’s will expire on Aug. 11, 2017, according to an informational handout provided at the meeting.

Joseph Walwik is the chair of social sciences and human services at Parkland. He expressed disappointment that efforts to offset the ever-decreasing flow of money from Springfield to Parkland in years prior were not enough to prevent the situation.

“It’s hard because we went through this whole process last year and were able to avoid making any personnel cuts, and we had to do a lot of things to make that happen, including some incentive programs for early retirement,” said Walwik. “We cut a lot of things out of the budget.”

Last year’s incentivized retirement program saw 18 faculty members depart via the program. In total, counting voluntary separations, retirements, and the like, 47 positions were left vacant going into the new academic year. Walwik says this saved the institution from having to go about contract terminations last year.

Walwik says, as a department head, he is not part of the decision-making process that saw this non-renewal-of-contracts. He says department heads are faculty positions, not administration, but as the chair of his department was able to offer his voice to the conversation last year, when the circumstances were similar.

He acknowledges the timing of the non-renewals as being crucial to making sure the procedure remains as streamlined as it can be for both Parkland and the faculty members involved.

“Not everything can be cut in the same way at the same time,” he said. “The timing of this was essential because these faculty are coming up for tenure; once they are tenured, it is much more difficult. […] There is a longer and much more difficult process involved there. This is the only time the college could have acted in this way.”

In his view, the timing was also helpful for the terminated faculty members, as now is the time when educational institutions are publicizing job openings. If they would have held off on making the non-renewal decision until February—a decision which Walwik thought was “absolutely expected” regardless—the number of open job postings would likely be significantly reduced.

Vice President of Academic Pam Lau, in addressing the board during the public meeting, said a primary criterion for deciding who to cut was about whether or not their departure would result in the termination of any academic programs. Walwik, who attended the meeting, reiterated that it is not an issue of job performance but simply an administrative decision driven by fiscal necessities.

“It was not about performance, it was not about whether they are good people or not,” he said. “They’re all good people—we just hired them; we like them.”

Walwik’s department lost one instructor: Jason Keist, a sociology instructor, and the social sciences and human services’ only non-tenured, full-time faculty member.

“Ever since I first heard what was going on, I knew they’d vote in favor of it,” Keist said, addressing the board’s decision. “It was a bygone conclusion.”

Keist has felt the direct effects of the state’s budget three times now, first working with the local Boys and Girls Club, which he says suffered from serious money problems that eventually resulted in his departure. He then moved on to Parkland’s adult education program, which he says was “severely gutted” around the time he left the program. Now, with his sociology instructor contract not being renewed, this marks the third time.

“It’s so frustrating to me on a personal and professional level,” he said. “I’m 36-years-old and I’m still finding my niche.”

He says he is looking for instructor positions outside of Illinois, given its financial state. He has sent his applications in for three such positions in America’s southwest-most states.

“I’ve just been pushing forward and looking for jobs,” he said. “Actively, I’ve applied to three…teaching positions for sociology. My plan is to get [my family] the hell out of Dodge. We’ve got to get out of this state.”

Keist says members of Parkland’s administration have been helpful to him in writing recommendation letters and keeping their ears open for and sharing with him job opportunities that he may not have heard about.

Nathan Stewart is an instructor of communications at Parkland and appears to be in the same frame of mind as Walwik and Keist: he saw the board’s decision coming.

“I’m going to say my piece, but I’m not optimistic,” Stewart said regarding his feelings when he arrived at the meeting. “I had a realistic expectation going in.”

Stewarts says the news of the potential non-renewal of his contract was a sudden one, and while he felt “no different” the day after the vote, his feelings were very different from how he felt about a month ago.

“I feel no different today than I did yesterday, but it’s a big difference in how I felt from two weeks ago before this complete one-eighty hit us,” he said. “All indications from many people that we talked to and from the administration seemed that this was not going to be the direction that was needed to go.”

He says he knew the idea had not been “completely taken off the table,” but that choices of wording from the administration about the matter were intentionally kept “vague.” When he began to inquire about the possibly of his contract not being renewed, he said those he spoke to regarded it as unlikely after the incentivized retirement program last year.

“I don’t know where the miscommunication occurred,” he said. “Nobody ever lied to me, but a lot of people indicated that things were going to be okay and a lot of other people legitimately got the same interpretation that I got.”

Stewart spoke to this effect on Nov. 16.

“About three months ago, we sat and listened to Dr. Ramage tell us that…it was the decision for the college was to move it towards being free of state funding,” he said, addressing the board and guests to the meeting; Thomas Ramage, who was also present at the meeting, is Parkland’s president. “The [notion] that a lot of people got was we were going to be able to do that without forcibly removing people from our ranks, and now the opposite is happening and it is happening so quickly.”

Stewart said he would like to see the decision postponed until February so that involved parties can have more time to brainstorm possible alternatives to the non-renewal-of-contracts.

His family owns and runs a farm that’s been under their name for eight generations. With his grandmother aging and him likely having to move out of state and being unable to regularly help out on the farm, he worries for its future.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen now,” he said. “A lot of uncertainty, and definitely some—well, say what it is—fear.”

This uncertainty is somewhat shared by Tracy Dace, an instructor of developmental reading. While he is working out his plans for the future, he says the board’s vote has not yet completely sunk in to his psyche.

“I’m still settling in to the decision, at this point more so just thinking about staying committed to my work and to my students, and not allowing the decision to influence how I interact with them,” Dace said.

Dace says he is hoping to complete his doctorate work while remaining in the Champaign-Urbana area. He says he enjoys the dynamic of the student-instructor relationship at Parkland and hopes to find a similar type of dynamic “working with the community.”

He harbors “no hard feelings” towards the board of trustees or the Parkland administration for the non-renewal of his contract.

“I understand the reason why the decision was made, and I hope the administration will work with faculty to address the needs of all students at Parkland,” Dace said.

Vance Martin, an instructional designer who works with instructors to help formulate their courses and incorporate technology into their teaching, says that he also has a clear understanding of the rationale behind the decision, but that his understanding does not make for much solace.

“It doesn’t feel very good. In my case…I’ve gone to school for 27 years and got my PhD, and the last ten years of what I’ve studied has been to do what I do,” Martin said. “It’s kind of difficult coming into work knowing that…there is no future for me [here].”

His wife teaches in the Champaign-Urbana community, so he says moving out-of-area is not an option on the table for his family. A father of two, he hopes to find a job locally in academia or his industry. He says he may be looking at the University of Illinois for the future.

Like Dace, Martin hopes the administration and board keeps the focus of what they do on the college’s students and furthering the Parkland mission.

However, he says he is worried for the future of Parkland, and as it works to reduce its reliance on Springfield he hopes that its educational environment will not be damaged by these or future faculty size reductions.

Parkland Board of Trustees meetings are open to the public—save for situations when legislation prevents it.

The last scheduled board meeting for 2016 is set at 7 p.m. on Dec. 14 in room U325.