Kolb Letter to Senate
Thank you for the permission to speak. Now that Dr. Marshall has given you the facts of our case, I'd like to share a more personal perspective on this university as I came to know it during my years on the faculty, and as I now fear for its future. I came here in 1999 as a Yankee who fell in love with Louisiana and was thrilled to be taken up warmly in the "Southeastern family," as the three presidents I've known have liked to call it. I came to love Southeastern and my wonderful colleagues and department—which was thriving, contrary to what you may have been led to think, especially the French program. (With half the faculty of Spanish we had almost as many majors as they did last spring—one fewer, and we were growing fast.)
During my eleven years on the faculty, I saw this university rise to genuine distinction, far greater than our provincial name let on. People outside Louisiana tend to laugh when I say our name; and until last summer my only real quarrel with Dr. Crain was that he so doggedly opposed changing it when we had a chance, to something a bit less obscure, more dignified. But I sympathize with sentimental loyalty, and I could live with the name, even take a kind of affectionate pride in it. What I couldn't live with was dismissal—or a drastic demotion. Last summer I was a full professor; I'd just finished a term as endowed professor; I'd even been given the President's Award for Research; and miracle of miracles, I'd just received a year's sabbatical, thanks to a stroke of luck in winning an ATLAS grant, the only loophole left, it seemed, for sabbaticals on this campus. (I must confess I thought Dr. Crain's decision about sabbaticals misguided, too. A healthy faculty needs sabbaticals.) Anyway, after riding high I suddenly found myself plummeting to a possible instructorship, at lower pay, to teach the same courses as before, only more of them.
As soon as I learned what was coming, around the first of last June, I filed for retirement. My pension is quite small but my husband, who died nine months before this all happened, left me a little something, so I manage. I wasn't quick enough for the incentive offer last May—that was cut off just before. At the time of that offer I thought I was going on sabbatical. Then Dr. Bourg called to say the sabbatical was off. There were budget cuts in the offing, she said, and it wouldn't do give sabbaticals to some when others might have to be laid off. Others? No one ever thinks, of course, that it will be them. But I soon learned what she was really trying to say: "We can't give you a sabbatical because we're about to fire you."
Dr. Marshall, Dr. Bornier and I are here to warn you that what happened to us could happen to you—indeed, it already affects you. If even one tenured contract can be terminated in this way, then tenure at Southeastern has effectively vanished. That's far more serious than the reshuffling or even the termination of individual programs, no matter how much I could say about the critical importance of French. It's more serious because it undermines the integrity of the entire university—its foundations and its future. It isn't hard to predict which universities across the country will survive the current upheavals, and ultimately grow and thrive again. They're the ones that keep tenure intact. That's the bottom line. Why? Quite simply because it's the tenured and tenure-track faculty who overwhelmingly put institutions on the map through research and outreach, innovate in teaching and program development, maintain coherence and continuity, guide and sustain the academic mission. Without tenure, we truly fall to the level of a provincial institution, not in a good sense of the word.
I speak of tenure with hard-won authority, more so than I would like. Before I came to Southeastern, I taught for over twenty years as an instructor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. As far as I can tell, I was the same person in Minnesota as I am here—no less energetic, no less competent. So the University of Minnesota got a bargain—or they thought they did. In fact, they were cheating and weakening not just me but themselves as an institution (as they were starting to realize around the time I left). That's because what I could accomplish as an instructor was a fraction of what I could do as a tenured faculty member. It's not just who you are, it's how you're treated—the conditions of employment, the support, recognition, possibilities for advancement, not to mention the bedrock of academic freedom—that make it possible to flourish and excel. Somewhat to my own surprise, I published twice as much in half the time down here, even doing a great deal of service work, and teaching more classes. Southeastern got its money's worth out of me. Minnesota did not.
I devoutly hope that no other faculty member on this campus ever suffers the indignity of actual dismissal and demotion without cause, as happened to the three of us in French. But when you turn around and fire someone you've just honored; when you fire someone else who is performing brilliantly at mid-career and has her best years to give to the university; worst of all, when you fire someone who has given herself heart and soul to students for 37 years, who has made a stellar name for herself and for the university (it would more than double my time to tell all that Dr. Marshall has done for Louisiana and how well-known she is in the country and abroad), and you cut her off just three years before full retirement benefits—when you do all that, then you have to admit you've tarnished the friendly image of the Southeastern family beyond recognition. You're left instead with a self-destructive, dysfunctional, oppressive sort of family, one that subverts the ideals that a university, in the United States of America, is supposed to foster and represent.