Sierra Nevada Fires Philosopher In Apparent Retaliation – UPDATED

The administration at Sierra Nevada College (SNC), a private liberal arts college in Nevada, has fired an associate professor of philosophy in what appears to be retaliation for her public criticism of the administration’s handling of the school’s financial problems. [See update at the bottom of the post]

Samantha Bankston was, until recently, associate professor of humanities (philosophy, literature, and French), director of the honors program at SNC, and recent faculty council chair. She had been at the school seven years (while SNC does not tenure any faculty, achieving the rank of associate professor has reportedly functioned as de facto tenuring, at least until now).  Dr. Bankston was dismissed from her job, without advanced notice, due process, or offer of an appeal, this past Thursday, in a meeting with SNC Provost Shannon Beets. Provost Beets said that Dr. Bankston’s position was being eliminated owing to low enrollments, a decline in the popularity of liberal arts courses, and that her termination (in comparison to other means of the college saving money) would have the least student impact.

Sources have raised doubts about these reasons. For one thing, reportedly, Dr. Bankston’s courses were not among those with the lowest enrollments. For another, she has reportedly received excellent teaching evaluations. She is also reportedly among the most active researchers at the school.

Rather, sources believe that Dr. Bankston’s termination was retaliation by the administration and the school’s Board of Trustees for her outspoken and public criticism of their approach to the school’s budgetary issues, and as such represents a serious violation of academic freedom. As faculty council chair, she argued against cuts to faculty, proposed cuts to administrative salaries and perks, and published an op-ed in the school paper (reprinted in the local paper) objecting to the administration’s budgetary moves (which she claimed were negatively affecting campus culture and risking academic quality). Reportedly, members of the Board of Trustees responded to this criticism by chastising Provost Beets for being a poor manager for allowing Dr. Bankston to publish her op-ed.

Reportedly, upon terminating Dr. Bankston, the administration immediately deprived her of access to her work email account. Access to her email was transferred to assistant provost Dan O’Bryan, who will have the ability to read all of the messages therein and decide which, if any, will be forwarded to Dr. Bankston.

Dr. Bankston was one of six faculty fired that day. She was the only ranked faculty member; the others were unranked full-time instructors.

A petition has been launched to protest the firing of Dr. Bankston and the other faculty.

Those with further information about the situation at SNC are encouraged to share it in the comments here or by email.

UPDATE (7/19/17):

This update contains three items: (1) response from Sierra Nevada College (SNC). (2) information regarding the enrollment in Dr. Bankston’s courses. (3) information regarding the work of current SNC President Alan Walker from his time at the Upper Iowa University.

(1) Sierra Nevada College’s marketing director, Jim Scripps, sent a statement from the college to Daily Nous following my publication on July 14th of the original post about Dr. Bankston’s termination and the petition in support of her and the other terminated faculty. The statement complains about “speculation that the college’s decision not to rehire specific faculty members was motivated by politics, to ‘silence’ criticism of the college administration” and says that “this charge is 100 percent untrue and has no basis in fact.” It claims that the petition was circulated, promoting this charge, “without any attempt to confirm the veracity of this claim.” However, this claim appears to be speculative itself, and it seems itself to have been made without any attempt to confirm its veracity. In any event, the full statement from SNC is here.

(2) Several sources, including Chris Muravez in a comment on this post, shared an article published in a local Lake Tahoe newspaper, Moonshine Ink, that raises some doubts about SNC’s official story. For example:

[SNC Provost] Beets said that there was no plan to release the internal metrics used to make employment decisions publicly, but internal documents leaked to Moonshine Ink reflecting fall course enrollment show that Bankston had the third highest number of actively enrolled students in her upcoming courses—66 students in total out of an undergraduate student body of 507. [Psychology instructor] Aalbers [who was vice-chair of the faculty council under Bankston and succeeded her as chair, and who was also among those fired] had the highest active enrollment—38 students—in the psychology program, a discipline that falls within the humanities department.

(3) The current president of SNC is Alan Walker. News reports regarding his departure from a previous position as president of Upper Iowa University (UIU) may raise some questions. He took a mysterious “leave of absence” from his position in Fall 2012 during which he apparently moved out of the president’s residence. Shortly thereafter, ratings agencies downgraded UIU’s debt, and the university made cuts to the faculty, seemingly starting with those who objected to proposed curricular changes.

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