Last May, Professor Barbara Bono was fired as chair of the English department by Charles Stinger, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Bono's dismissal was ordered after she refused to sign a letter threatening the removal of several graduate English TAs from their positions.
Stinger, under the advisement of Provost Capaldi, wrote the letter after the administration received word of a plan by the TAs to withhold undergraduate student grades at the end of this past spring semester. The plan was devised by the TAs to protest what they viewed as unacceptably low stipends.
The administration is absolutely correct for cracking down on the TAs. Purposely denying students their grades is a highly objectionable action, and violates their academic rights. Detaining a grade results in an temporary mark of incomplete, placing a check stop on the student's record. Since the protesting TAs taught mostly freshmen level courses, this made new students the helpless victims of a dispute they should never have been involved in.
TAs are supposed to help, not hinder, the undergraduates they teach. As Stinger wrote in the letter, "Failure to submit grades on time is a serious dereliction of academic responsibility and is in violation of the contractual obligations." It is hypocritical for TAs to rally for their own livelihood while potentially damaging the futures of their own students.
For their desire to provide undergraduates with their grades in a timely manner, the administration should be commended. Often they are only criticized for their seemingly dispassionate attitude toward undergraduate service, but this was not the case. Their motivations were correct, and must be recognized as such.
But with that said, the administration made a serious mistake in the removal of Bono, an acclaimed and popular professor. The circumstances surrounding her dismissal allude to a decision influenced by emotion and confusion rather than rational deliberation.
The decision to fire Bono was executed in the course of a single day. Stinger was under the direct order of Capaldi to write the letter in question to the TAs. After failing to meet Bono due to their busy schedules, Stinger's ultimatum for Bono to sign the letter suggests it was an action founded upon frustration, not clear reason.
Bono should not have been forced to hastily affix her signature to a letter she did not compose. The strong, uncompromising language in the letter was perhaps too intense and, as a professor who works with graduate assistants on a regular basis, Bono may have been able to find a more diplomatic means of addressing the situation.
Furthermore, the administration sets a negative tone for future relations with the faculty. Capaldi defends the firing under the justification that Bono was removed for violating a direct order from her superiors, which is itself fair. The injustice comes, however, in the form of her removal from office, an action that solves no problem.
It places a chilling effect over the faculty and silences their input. The administration is already under fire for not assisting the graduate TAs, since their current stipend places them beneath a viable income level and is below national standards.
But actions that remove distinguished faculty members from key positions ultimately hurt the students. Bono is well respected as a colleague in her department - with faculty members voting overwhelmingly in her favor in the vote of confidence following her dismissal - and well liked by her students.
It seems that no matter what happens, undergraduates somehow suffer from the effects of the fight. There are currently no plans to reinstate Bono's position. And the administration has failed to acknowledge the validity of the TAs' complaints - a situation which may come back to haunt them, and students, when the positions become increasingly difficult to fill.
The administration was simply fulfilling its obligations to students by sending the letter and ensuring that grades were reported on time for the benefit of the students. But the decision to dismiss Bono was hasty, unnecessary and unwise.
Rather than fixing the awfully constructed situation, Bono's dismissal merely deprives students and faculty of a highly qualified and dedicated chair - and we all emerge as losers.