Students rally around fired faculty members

Requiring lecturers to have the highest academic degree in their field may seem like a noble goal, but the idea has met opposition after the firing of four Northeastern faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Susan Picillo and Tom Downard, both full-time lecturers in the communication studies department, received e-mails from the chair of the department less than a week before a planned meeting April 5.

The instructors said they knew what to expect from the meeting – they were told their contracts would not be renewed for the upcoming school year.

“I met with [the chairman of the department, David Marshall] and he passed my letter of termination across the table,” Picillo said. Her contract ends May 5.

Downard said he was not given many details at the meeting, but was told his contract would not be renewed. Because he is scheduled to teach courses in the summer and fall, Downard will teach through the summer semester.

Two faculty members from the math department will also not have their contracts renewed. Their names were not released by the university.

President Joseph Aoun wants to see people in classrooms who have a doctorate degree or who are currently enrolled in a doctorate program, Picillo said.

Every year the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Jim Stellar meets with the chair of each department to evaluate the faculty. The dean will then meet with the Provost and present recommendations, Provost Ahmed Abdelal said. This process happens at every college.

“The colleges are interested in having the best faculty that can do the best job in the classrooms and guide and mentor students,” Abdelal said.

This is part of Aoun’s hiring initiative, which aims to bring in more faculty at the professor and associate professor level.

“Our goal is to recruit the greatest and strongest available faculty,” Abdelal said.

Picillo said the one-month notice she was given was unfair.

She said she would have liked to know earlier so she could decide if she wanted to enroll in a doctorate program while at Northeastern.

“There was no consideration on a case-by-case basis. It seems as if the college was not grateful of what I have done,” Picillo said. “My college does not value me or even know me.”

Picillo, who has taught at Northeastern for about 10 years, said she was shocked the administration could do this, but knew she had to stay collected because she had a semester to finish.

Ryan Clauson, a sophomore theatre major, has taken Public Speaking with Picillo and calls her a “transformational lecturer.”

“She transforms students to better and smarter people,” Clauson said. “I understand the administration’s policy in wanting to keep professors with Ph.Ds; it’s not the policy I am arguing, but they should make an exception with a professor who is a mentor for her students.”

Picillo teaches three courses each semester, including Public Speaking and Voice and Articulation. According to the Registrar’s class listings, she was scheduled to teach the three courses again in the fall.

Picillo has been nominated twice for the Excellence in Teaching Award in the past three years. When she announced her termination to her students last week there was an immediate reaction.

A group of students created a petition, hoping to keep Picillo at Northeastern. There were 485 signatures on the petition as of press time, some of which are alumni.

“The administration has a policy, but students also have a voice,” Clauson said. “This is a great opportunity for the administration to work with the students and come to a great solution.”

A group of about 25 students gathered Friday afternoon in 335 Shillman Hall for a meeting with Stellar.

Students, like former Student Government Association President Bill Durkin, spoke to those who gathered.

“Someone like her reaches people. In public communications she is valuable in all fields,” said Durkin, a senior political science and economics major. “To fire the best instructor in that field seems counter to what we’re trying to achieve.”

Stellar told the crowd of students to give him a couple days to meet with Abdelal. He said he would try to reach a decision by today, but if not, he urged the students to meet with the Provost.

“My fear is that time is running out and that students are going to leave and the administration knows that. We need to see results. We need you to fight for us,” Clauson said to Stellar.

Stellar praised the students for gathering and voicing their opinions.

“It’s inspiring to hear how some people handle treasure,” Stellar said. “Some give it away and some pick it up. And if you pick it up, you deserve to be praised as well.

Picillo said the students’ support is “the greatest gift.”

“I am literally overwhelmed by the caring concern of my students,” Picillo said. “When I saw the petition I cried. It made me feel great. I know I have made an impact on students, and that is what’s most important for me.”


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