Kalí Tal, By All Accounts A Brilliant Scholar, Apparently Was Just Too Uppity For The Ruler Of Arizona International Campus
By Margaret Regan
ALONG ABOUT A year ago, just as the Arizona International Campus of the University of Arizona was about to open its doors to students for the first time, the school's head, Celestino Fernández, took on his critics, and not for the first time.
Fernández had weathered a firestorm of criticism because his tiny new college, for now just a branch campus of the UA, was to be the first in the state university system that would operate without tenure for professors. The subject of a series of tumultuous faculty senate meetings back at the main campus, AIC had been called Fire-at-Will U and worse by local pundits. Fernández himself was skewered for opting to retain his own tenure in the UA sociology department while denying the AIC profs under his wing the protections of tenure.
But Fernández argued the reproaches were misplaced. Tenure wasn't needed in the small teaching college that AIC was meant to be, he maintained. If a professor were a good teacher, the professor could expect continued employment at AIC. End of story.
"The job is very clear," he told Pila Martínez of The Arizona Daily Star. "Do a good job with students in and outside the classroom and you have a position."
But it's not the end of the story. In the college's very first year, Provost Fernández got rid of one of AIC's top-rated teachers, a popular professor some AIC students call the best they've ever had. In a letter dated April 2, Fernández informed Kalí Tal, an interdisciplinary specialist in literary criticism and history, that her one-year contract at AIC would not be renewed. Tal's only recourse was to appeal Fernández's decision to his boss, then-UA President Manuel Pacheco.
On May 9, Pacheco upheld Fernández.
"Only tenured faculty members have a right to expect their appointments to be continued into subsequent years," Pacheco wrote in a letter to Tal. It was an extraordinary assertion for the president to make, when he and Fernández has spent the better part of a year explaining to the public that tenure was not needed at the campus. Now Pacheco was declaring that only professors with tenure have any kind of job security. It turned out that Tal was not the exalted "founding faculty member" that Fernández had called her and the others in numerous flowery speeches. She was just a temp, Pacheco noted in his letter, a one-year contract employee with no rights to continued employment. And never mind her sterling teaching record. She had no right to any explanation for her nonrenewal.
Whatever the merits of Tal's case, faculty leaders at the main campus say the procedures AIC used to judge the performance of all its professors were way out of line. Dave Gnage, the school's director of finance, defends them as "consistent with UA guidelines," but John Schwarz, a UA professor of political science and immediate past chair of the UA Faculty Senate, disagrees. After Tal's appeal was denied, Schwarz issued a short written statement:
"Without respect to the issue of tenure, the procedures of evaluation used at the Arizona International Campus this year were unfortunate," Schwarz wrote. "They are not procedures that should determine the career of professional faculty during their probationary period in an institution of higher education. The procedures must be corrected."
The flap over Tal comes at the end of a school year that might best be described as a baptism by fire. Though students contacted for this article uniformly praised the excellent education they're getting from dedicated professors in the classroom, it's the out-of-classroom issues that have tripped up AIC. Problems that erupted publicly included an enrollment so embarrassingly low--46 students began and 52 finished the school year--that the Legislature threatened to shut the place down if the numbers didn't go up, and soon. The lawmakers eventually relented but refused to increase the school's budget. Gnage says AIC's allotment for the upcoming school year is staying level at $2.2 million, about the same as last year, despite the hoped-for influx of 100 additional students.
Public cynicism has remained high over the school's location on the far eastside, widely seen as a gift to local developers by their allies on the Arizona Board of Regents. A $36,500 marketing campaign launched in recent months had newspaper ads boasting of "small classes taught only by experienced professors," while back in the classifieds of the same papers AIC was running contradictory want ads for part-time faculty. And the ads listed majors at AIC, such as fine arts, that as yet have no professors to teach them.
But there were a host of problems that remained hidden on the distant campus, including a sexual harassment allegation by a young female student against a senior male professor, an affirmative action investigation and charges of sex discrimination in pay scales. Serious questions were raised about whether the school's administrators were safeguarding academic freedom and due process for professors.
And in recent weeks, there was a small exodus following Tal out of AIC. Among the professional staff, Fernández ousted another woman, development officer Quinn Owen, by not renewing her contract. Recruitment director Mike Celaya announced his resignation. Professor Paul Plouffe is taking a one-year leave, bringing the tally of full-time faculty down to a minuscule five for the upcoming fall semester.
IRONICALLY, THE EX-professor whose story helps shed a little light on some of these problems had been one of AIC's star recruits. Last summer, Ed Clausen, head of AIC's academic house and a history professor, had trotted out her scholarly credentials as evidence that, against all expectations, the fledgling college had attracted outstanding faculty. On the school's opening day, Clausen singled Tal out for special praise, telling a reporter that she was a "brilliant" and "innovative" young scholar.
And he's right. At age 37, Tal has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments. After earning her doctorate in American Studies at Yale, she published a book with prestigious Cambridge University Press, Worlds of Hurt, an interdisciplinary study that takes in subjects as far afield as the Holocaust and incest. For nine years she's been editing the critically acclaimed Viet Nam Generation, a scholarly journal she founded while still a grad student. And before that, as an undergrad at the University of California Santa Cruz, she wrote Women in Particular: An Index to American Women, published by Oryx Press. She's also done a stint at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and is a whiz on the web in the new field of academic computing.
But while Clausen boasted about Tal's scholarship, she wasn't expected to do much or any of it at AIC, which the Regents established as a liberal-arts teaching school, an alternative to the more research-oriented UA and Arizona State University. But Tal also came with rave reviews for her teaching at Yale, at George Mason and other universities. Testimonials from student after student at AIC confirm her prowess in the classroom.
"She's an incredible teacher," says student Tatjana James. "I learned more in her class than in any other class."
"She's outstanding, the best teacher I ever had," agrees Dylan Suagee of Benson. "She was the best teacher there."
"I'd give her an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10," says Rachel Rojahn. "I was very shocked and concerned when this happened to Kalí. She's the last person I expected it to happen to."
Enthusiastic students cite Tal's long hours in the computer lab, where she taught many to build web pages; the weekly open houses that she held at her own home, for the entire AIC community, at her own expense; the many hours she spent in her office listening to students. Some wrote letters begging Pacheco and Fernández to renew her contract (Fernández replied with identical form letters), and at least one student is quitting the school because of what happened to Tal.
Naturally, not all the school's 52 students protested Tal's departure. Two who were given paid summer jobs at AIC say they support the school's leaders. Sean McLeod, who never had Tal as a teacher, says he "trusted in the administration" in her case. So did Randy Seligman. Editor of the still-unnamed school newsletter, Seligman expresses on opinion on the Tal affair that's perhaps unexpected in a student journalist:
"Frankly, I don't think it's the students' business," he says. "We have to have enough faith in our administrators that something came up."
Yet even Seligman ranks Tal as a "decent professor," adding, "Her class was a challenge for me. I really had to work for that A."
SO WHAT HAPPENED? The six other full-time professors at AIC aren't talking. Some didn't return a reporter's calls; one's out of the country; Plouffe, a writing teacher, politely declined an interview; and Charles Paulson, a science teacher, said he wouldn't talk to The Weekly because the paper's articles on AIC are "slanted." Fernández was keeping mum too, not answering a single one of a reporter's many calls. In the space of a single afternoon, for instance, he was reported by his staff to be variously at lunch, at a meeting and on vacation.
Nor did Tal herself get any explanation. Fernández first delayed and then canceled their scheduled evaluation meeting. She never got an official evaluation letter from the provost either, though each of the other professors did.
At least one of the regents takes a dim view of the way Fernández handled her case.
"My strong feeling is you don't just say, 'You're not cutting it,' " says Regent Judy Gignac. "You work with the person to improve. My understanding is this did not happen. That's very unfortunate."
Tal moved from Connecticut to Tucson to take the job, and not surprisingly she's embittered by losing a position to which Fernández had asked her to make a five-year commitment. She says she spent the year putting in 60-hour weeks.
"I put in the best year of work I've ever done. The best teaching. Getting fired, without being told what the problem is, is hard."
She believes she lost her job because she's an outspoken woman who regularly raised criticisms about what she saw as AIC's shortcomings.
"I'm a big woman with a loud voice," she says. "I don't back down. Cel has used the word 'belligerent' about me. I'm just strong-minded. I present the most forceful case for what I feel is the best for the institution."
Tal believes Fernández intends her nonrenewal to serve as a warning to other faculty: If they don't muzzle their criticisms, they, too, can kiss their jobs good-bye. The other professors each got new one-year contracts. Next winter they'll have to be evaluated again and hope that Fernández will let them have their jobs for another year. When Tal got her nonrenewal letter from Fernández, she says, "the other professors were terrified. These people moved across the country (for these jobs)."
Tal presents a study in contrasts with the man who has torpedoed her academic career. Where Fernández is all neatly trimmed mustache and tailored suits, she's buzz-cut and tattooed, her ears sporting some five piercings. The pair of them figuratively butted heads as early as the first staff orientation meeting, when, as Tal tells the story, Fernández yelled at her in front of the entire staff. (Tal's recollection of the events was confirmed by another participant in the meeting, which took place in July 1996.)
"Cel opens with a sports metaphor," Tal remembers. "He's saying, 'I learned about teamwork on the basketball court.' I'm listening and I'm thinking, 'This guy's got a chip on his shoulder. He's using all gendered metaphors. Team captains and so on.'
"I look around and see that almost every senior administrator is male, the assistants are female. Every senior faculty is male. Nearly all the team leaders are guys. The presentations go on all day and Cel finally throws open the floor and says, 'Does anyone have any concerns?'
"So I say, 'My concerns are that we not fall into stereotyped gender patterns. We need to be especially careful. These metaphors are real gendered. Maybe we could try some other metaphors, like quiltmaking.' Cel blew his top. He yelled at me. He raised his voice and said, 'I don't see why we need this type of nonconstructive discussion.' "
Fernández continued his tirade, switched to another topic, and then once again began chastising the brand-new prof. Tal swears the outburst had most of the women in the room running for cover in the ladies' room afterward.
Even after that alarming start, Tal continued to raise questions about problematic subjects, including gender equity. She wondered aloud why the male faculty were making more than the women. In the first semester, the men were making an average $55,333 a year, while the women earned on average $38,666. (The figures changed slightly in the second semester.)
AIC makes no official distinction in rankings among its faculty, but pays differently according to their prior experience. So administrators could argue the men were just being compensated for their greater number of years in the field. Still, it was a puzzle why a college professing to depart from the old ways of doing things would fail to hire any mid-career women faculty at all. And, as Tal pointed out, even the most junior male professor, Charles Paulson, whose experience Tal believed to be roughly equivalent to her own, was making $48,000 a year, $8,000 more than Tal herself. The lowest-paid faculty member is a woman, Melissa Lockhart, who came in at $38,000.
(AIC male administrators earned on average $76,522; female administrators earned on average $48,218. The male administrative salaries are somewhat skewed by Fernández's salary of $131,090.)
Early in the spring semester, when a sexual harassment allegation was raised by a young woman against a senior male professor, Tal says she offered a sympathetic ear to the distraught student and helped her get counseling. The aid she gave the student may again have put her at loggerheads with her boss. Fernández and another male employee conferred with the professor in question, Tal says, and the three men together decided that the student had misunderstood the professor's intentions. No public action was taken, and some students felt the complaint had been brushed under the carpet.
"The way they dealt with it was poor," says student Colleen Phelan. "They stuck up for the professor, not for the student."
Helen Mautner, UA assistant director of affirmative action, confirms that Fernández requested an affirmative action investigation of the campus, and that she conducted separate sexual harassment workshops for faculty and students. The results of her inquiry are confidential, she says. But one thing is known: The professor in question had his contract renewed, while the professor who gave comfort to the student did not.
Tal believes she was seen as too much on the students' side in general. One student, Jake Dotson, who boards in Tal's house, says another professor told him Tal had too much influence on him. Tal wasn't shy about questioning whether there were enough hours in the week for the AIC faculty to do everything required of them, from shouldering heavy course loads, to mentoring studying and doing the grind of committee work. She and other professors kept asking for the promised "conditions of faculty service" that would outline their rights and responsibilities. Tal's also an inveterate e-mailer, and some of her e-mailed memos to her colleagues, which she shared with a reporter, would have to be rated less than politic.
SOME WILL READ Tal's story as the case of an independent-minded professor silenced by an administrator who will not tolerate criticism, or as a case of sex discrimination. Others will condemn her as a professor who was so outspoken she disrupted the functioning of the small school. But no matter how her tale is read, it raises questions about the way AIC was structured in the first place.
The Regents voted to create in AIC a school with no tenure, but during the first year no one seems to have done much about a replacement mechanism to protect a professor's right to speak freely without reprisal. Regent Art Chapa scoffs at the idea that Tal's story suggests academic freedom was not protected.
"It doesn't surprise me she's making the allegation if she was not renewed," he says.
But Gignac sees it differently.
"AIC says we want to protect academic freedom," she says. "But we have no procedures in place to protect it."
Pacheco did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but Terence Burke, associate to the President, did. Pressed on the point about academic freedom in AIC's first year, Burke says there was one safeguard in place: "That structure was an appeal to the President." The President is an "individual of integrity," he says, who did a thorough investigation of Tal's case and found her nonrenewal to be justified.
Still, an aide's assurance of one man's integrity is a rather slender thread for academic freedom to hang on. And Pacheco has publicly broken the rules in the past for his friend Fernández. After promoting Fernández over the years to increasingly better-paid administrative posts at the UA, in 1994 Pacheco unilaterally named Fernández head of AIC, without advertising the position or searching for any other candidates. The Regents ratified the appointment over the strenuous objections of UA faculty leaders, who pointed out that simply handing the job to Fernández was a violation of all university procedures. (Ironically, Tal and all her colleagues, unlike their boss, had to undergo the rigors of a national search to get their AIC positions.)
AIC committed other irregularities. Pacheco readily acknowledges in his letter to Tal that during the job interviews AIC recruiters discussed multi-year contracts for professors. But when the official job offers were made, in the spring of 1996, they all came in as one-year offers.
And Fernández told prospective professors that procedures to protect academic freedom were being formulated. In his April 3, 1996, letter offering a job to Tal, for example, he assured her that "the position falls within the Conditions of Faculty Service (presently under development--basically, the document assures academic freedom and due process)." Likewise, last summer, Clausen told a reporter that various procedures to ensure academic freedom and due process were in place as the school year began.
They weren't though. The Regents didn't sign off on the conditions of faculty service until April 1997. That left a whole school year with no official protections for either academic freedom or due process in place. And by that time Professor Tal had already been given the boot.
When the unsuspecting new faculty arrived in Tucson last summer for their new jobs, coming from points all over the country, AIC pulled a switch of contracts. The teachers had already been working on the campus several weeks when they were asked to sign "notices of appointment," and to sign them quickly, so they could start getting paid.
"In July, we had no reason to think we were signing a heavy legal document," Tal says. But they were, as Tal later discovered to her chagrin. The notice mentioned that "Policies 6-201 Conditions of Faculty Service" were being offered, but it didn't tell the teachers that this was a specific UA policy, and not the promised AIC conditions.
Unbeknownst to the professors, that UA policy relegated them to the same status as, say, a one-year sub filling in for a UA professor on sabbatical. Which is to say, they basically had no rights.
Regent Chapa laughs when asked about the contract switch.
"Welcome to the real world," he says.
But Regent Gignac takes it more seriously.
"AIC faculty were hired with the understanding that this was being worked on (conditions of faculty service). It's kind of a Catch-22. They're caught in limbo. We say one thing (when they're hired), but we don't have the protections in place."
And once the faculty were well into the school year, they were evaluated by the procedures that former faculty chair Schwarz denounced. The professors were supposed to help write the policy, but Tal says they were never given that chance. Instead, the administration informed them by memo that each professor could choose three staff members to write letters of evaluation, and that Fernández would pick three others. (The form the evaluators used to rate the professors was the same form used to rate the school's secretaries.) Then Fernández would look at all six letters and make the final decision alone. This system gives him four votes out of seven every time.
As de facto department head and chief school administrator rolled into one, Fernández set himself up as judge, jury and executioner. Even the new conditions of service recently approved by the Regents, while outlining some guidelines for grievances, still reiterate again and again that final decisions will be made by the "chief campus administrator," Celestino Fernández. Incidentally, they also give Fernández the power to shape a faculty very much to his liking: Only after passing through a probationary period of three one-year contracts--awarded by Fernández--will professors be eligible for multi-year contracts.
Schwarz isn't the only one who believes these procedures "must be corrected." Jeff Warburton, a UA professor of theatre arts, says he intends to bring the subject up with the AIC oversight committee he's a part of. And Jerry Hogle, a UA English prof who's the new chair of the faculty, says he plans to investigate the whole matter of academic freedom for temporary professors, both on the main campus and at AIC.
So what does the future hold for Arizona International?
Much depends on whether students continue to take their chances at the new school and whether with its financial woes it can give them the classes and majors it promises. One of its biggest supporters, Pacheco, is packing his bags right now for his big new job as president of the University of Missouri. It remains to be seen what the incoming UA president will make of the little branch campus and its provost, and what he or she will think of the allegations the UA faculty leaders intend to make against it.
Meantime, as Pacheco gleefully moves up the career ladder, he leaves behind in Tucson a young scholar scrambling to figure out where to go from here. Kalí Tal lost her AIC job long after the mid-winter academic job fairs were over and most university teaching positions for next year were already filled. She's just launched a business, New Word Order, building academic web sites. And though she says she no longer has the stomach for an academic career, she admits to regrets.
"Teaching is what I wanted to do more than anything in the world," she sighs. "I'm pretty disillusioned with the academic scene. If they had let me alone and let me teach, I'd be in heaven. That's what AIC was supposed to be."
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