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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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TA Protest Leads to Chair's Dismissal



The Cause

When Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Charles Stinger asked Barbara Bono, then-chair of the English department, to forward an e-mail May 17 to teaching assistants in her department, her refusal to support the e-mail's contents led to her immediate dismissal as chair.

The e-mail Bono refused to send warned the graduate students that any delay in the submission of undergraduate student grades past deadline would result in non-renewal of TA positions for the coming school year. In the e-mail, Stinger called the failure to submit grades a "serious dereliction of academic responsibility" and stated "it is reprehensible that you would consider penalizing undergraduate students in this way."

Bono immediately refused to send the e-mail, and was promptly fired for what Stinger considered too weak a stance against the TAs.

In an effort to protest what they deemed inadequate and unfair stipend levels, nearly 60 percent of the TAs teaching primarily freshmen composition courses intended to withhold the students' grades past the posted deadline for electronic submission.

"I had heard a rumor, actually had heard that a student in one of the English classes had gotten an e-mail from a TA [regarding the grade delays]," said University Registrar Joanne Plunkett. Plunkett checked to see which TAs had submitted their grades the morning they were due, and although the deadline for electronic submission had yet to pass, she deemed the absence of grades suspicious, calling it "a little strange."

Plunkett then informed Sean Sullivan, vice provost for academic information and planning, that nearly 40 TAs had yet to submit grades. Sullivan in turn passed the information on to Provost Elizabeth Capaldi, who contacted Stinger.

"Undergraduates have the right to know their grades will be submitted in a timely fashion regardless of what one thinks of the stipend issue," said Stinger.

"It was inappropriate, unaccountable, intolerable to make undergraduates hostage to their concerns," he said.

Reacting to the information from Capaldi, Stinger sought out Bono in her official position and asked her to send an e-mail to the concerned TAs under her own signature.

"It is, itself, an actionable document. The deadline [hadn't] even passed," said Bono. "A document like this, from a legal point of view, is alarming."

Stinger adamantly disagreed.

"That was a message that should have been sent by the chair. The reason I was so insistent the chair do this is in my view the chair has a responsibility to defend the academic integrity of our responsibility to undergraduates," said Stinger, adding that "[Bono's] unwillingness to act meant, in my view, that she could not continue to act as chair."

Provost Capaldi supported Stinger's actions.

"No administrator has tenure in their administrative position," she said. "Administrators ... serve at the pleasure of their supervisor."

Justification

According to Capaldi, Bono's refusal of a direct order amounted to insubordination, which was sufficient reason for her dismissal as department chair. Capaldi noted that while professors in the academic world are free to disagree with each other, there is a hierarchy in the work structure that does not allow such flexibility.

"I'm not sure Barbara understood her role," said Capaldi.

Bono, meanwhile, said that she fully understood her position as emissary between the administration and the TAs in her department, but objected to the phrasing and implicit threat of the message.

"What if I had sent it out under my signature and it had literally been acted on six hours later? And as a result, close to 60 percent of English department TAs had been fired? What would have been the consequences for the staffing of the department?" she asked.

In addition, said Bono, it was not her place as chair of the department to threaten the students with dismissal, as it is not her office that hires and fires the TAs.

"The money comes from the dean's office and the authority comes from the dean's office," she said.

"Probably, technically that's right," said Stinger. "But she was in the position to indicate that if they had failed to turn in grades they would be subject to serious academic consequences."

"All appointments in the college - faculty, staff, TAs and GAs - formally must be appointed by the dean. In fact, we do not review ... the credentials of all those individuals," he said. "They submit the paperwork and we sign off on it."

Had 60 percent of the English TAs been denied employment in the fall, the department would have faced a shortage of composition instructors nearly impossible to fill, said Bono.

Carrie Bramen, director of graduate admissions and the individual in charge of recruiting graduate students to the TA positions, agreed.

"It would have been impossible to replace 40 TAs in 12 weeks," she said. "Undergraduate teaching would have been affected."

Stinger said that while it would not have been easy, "we would have found a way somehow."

Stinger explained that the primary reason Bono was dismissed from her position was "her unwillingness to act."

"If she was aware of this, she should have acted forcefully on her own volition to discourage this," he said.

While Bono admits to hearing rumors of the intended action by the TAs, she also says that she strongly counseled the TAs not to pursue that route. In an e-mail to a TA on Tuesday, May 1, Bono wrote:

"I remain concerned about the possible boomerang effect of any projected slow-down by graduate students in the submission of their grades this semester. Primarily, I worry about damage to our students and dissipating the good-will of themselves and their constituency."

As one of the three faculty members who deal most extensively with the graduate students (the other two are Bono and Director of Graduate Admissions James Bunn), Jim Swan, associate chair of the English Department, also reported discouraging TAs from their intended grading slow-down, characterizing the plans as "unwise, risky and could be seen as hurting the freshmen."

The Effects

"I was shocked ... just shocked," said Swan of his reaction to the news Bono had been fired, "I've been here for 30 years and it just seemed precipitous. A lot of people are feeling very discouraged."

"It's demoralizing to see an excellent and dedicated administrator removed in such an abrupt and a controversial fashion," said Bramen.

Following Stinger's initial meeting with Bono, the e-mail he had shown her was sent out to several of the graduate students. The following day, a slightly revised version was sent out to all the graduate students who had not submitted grades, warning them that they would face serious penalties if they did not turn in the grades soon, but informing them of a newly extended deadline. All the TAs turned in their grade sheets by the deadline, but a letter noting the incident and warning against further such actions was placed in their records.

"I think the Graduation Association deeply regrets what happened to Barbara," said Lee Kahan, president of the English Graduate Student Association.

According to Capaldi and Dean of the Graduate School Kerry Grant, the cautionary letters were a state-mandated punishment for the actuation of a job action, something technically illegal for the TAs in their positions as civil servants.

"It's a group action - not that one person forgot their grades," said Capaldi.

"I think the campus has been not only thoughtful but generous," said Grant. "We encouraged the state to back away from further sanctions [on the TAs]."

Departmental affairs were disrupted by Bono's dismissal and the appointment of a new chair. At a meeting with English department faculty, Stinger told the group either to choose a new candidate for chair or he would put the department into a state of receivership, in which a dean recruited from outside the university is imposed on a department.

Prior to the meeting, the faculty held a vote of confidence in Bono as department chair. The vote passed with 16 yeses, one no and one abstention, but Stinger declined to reinstate Bono.

Consequently, the faculty elected Joseph Conte, the department's newest full professor, to the position of interim chair for the remaining year of Bono's term.

Bono plans to pursue a grievance she placed with the United University Professors in hopes of regaining her former position as chair of the department. She has also sent documentation of her experience to the Policy Committee of the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the Faculty Senate, both of whom have expressed interest in pursuing the matter.

Both the Buffalo News and the Chronicle of Higher Education featured stories on the incident.




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