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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Chris
Chris
3 years ago

Thank you for covering this story. As a former student of Dr. Bankston, I can say that she is beloved by the student body, she has changed many lives (including mine) with her honest and dedicated approach to education. If you value academic freedom, due process, and the labor rights of educators, please sign the petition and make your voice heard. This is a trend we’ve been seeing in higher education for far too long.Report

Ariel Wolsztejn
Ariel Wolsztejn
3 years ago

Prospective students should boycott Sierra Nevada College since it is hostile to serious dissent.Report

Tanner
Tanner
3 years ago

Another former student here,
Dr. Bankston was, by far, the best professor I have ever had. Her intelligence brought educational life to the college’s humanities department and honors program. She was the primary influence behind my pursuit of a theory-based education. The actions of Sierra Nevada College are abhorrent and injudicious. This is clearly a result of the anti-intellectual trend of attacking individuals who threaten the profit of institutions by asserting the significance of academic integrity. This cannot be tolerated by those on the bottom of the hierarchy, nor by the structural higher education network in its entirety.Report

Richard Hudelson
Richard Hudelson
3 years ago

This certainly appears to be yet another attack on the great tradition of higher education and the freedom of expression at the core of genuine research and teaching which is the mission of higher education. Step by step we are losing a cultural asset that took centuries to construct.Report

Greg Gauthier
3 years ago

Interesting. The story says six faculty in total were fired (including Dr. Bankston). It also says that Bankston recommended cuts in the administration.

One could certainly interpret this as a retaliatory move. But what of the other five professors? Were they vendetta firings as well? If it was just her, I might be willing to accept the cynical interpretation. On the other hand, if you’re strapped for cash, and desperate for increased enrolment, what sense does it make to fire instructors who can draw students, rather than trimming administrative bloat?

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle: Bankston is probably correct, that the administration thinks it’s making a self-defensive manoeuvrer by firing faculty instead of members of its own rank and file. But it’s not clear that this is a “retaliatory” firing. Just a really, really stupid one.Report

Nathan Jun
Nathan Jun
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
3 years ago

*facepalm*Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
3 years ago

The other five may also have been chosen via some better criteria while Bankston got moved to the top of the firing list as a retaliatory move.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  nicholesuomi
3 years ago

But that’s just speculation. There’s no evidence in this story (at least) to support the assertion of retaliatory intent. I’m happy to change my mind. Just show me a story in which intent is clearly established.Report

Nichi
Nichi
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
3 years ago

The story here has several substantial reasons to not fire her, making the good reasons to choose her over someone else rather unlikely. There’s also the motivation to fire her for retaliatory reasons. Retaliation is the best explanation based on the evidence here. If some emails get leaked saying the administration used a random number generator to choose, that would change which explanation is best, but until then, I’m not seeing how any other conclusion can be drawn.Report

Nathan Jun
Nathan Jun
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
3 years ago

Okay, how about the fact that Bankston’s classes had consistently higher enrollments than those of other faculty in the same unit? Or that she had better student evaluations? Or that she was a far more productive scholar? Or that she was the only senior faculty member to be terminated? Seriously, what else is this if not retaliation?Report

Moore
Moore
Reply to  Nathan Jun
3 years ago

Nathan seems to establish the plausibility of this abduction. But perhaps Greg’s point is that of the radical skeptic: you have to prove to him that he’s not a brain in a vat before he’ll even begin to buy your inference to the best explanation for Bankston’s termination.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Moore
3 years ago

Ah, and there it is again. Our old friend, sarcasm. Whenever you suffer for a good argument, that always works.Report

Chris Muravez
Chris Muravez
3 years ago

This afternoon Moonshine Ink, an independent newspaper based in Truckee Ca., that serves the North Lake Tahoe/Truckee region, posted an in depth story about the recent events. I have requested that the internal documents that show the numbers behind the decision be made public, yet the provost Shannon Beets has not responded to my request.
That article states “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. Aalbers had the highest active enrollment — 38 students — in the psychology program, a discipline that falls within the humanities department.”
This is only a single set of numbers, yet they appear to be incongruous with public statements made by the college. Aalbers and Bankston both had high enrollment numbers for this upcoming academic year. Aalbers made his salary public, and it is incredibly low, especially for living in the Tahoe area. Aalbers notes “As far as this idea that this is a quantitative decision, this really doesn’t make any sense, because I had classes that were higher, had higher enrollment, than faculty that were retained. At my salary of $37,000, I’m one of the cheapest professors there. So if I had good enrollment and I had a low salary, quantitatively, I should have been retained.”
So far the college’s story isn’t adding up, and I still request that all internal information be made public so that they might back up their claim. Read the story for yourself and decide if you think the school is lying about these terminations. moonshineink.com/news/sierra-nevada-college-terminates-six-faculty-membersReport

Maja Sidzinska
3 years ago

This is reminiscent of many other recent stories. Until we counter the corporatization of academia, events such as this one will continue. This article:
https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2014/05/12/essay-calls-new-model-job-faculty-member-administrator
… shows part of what the problem is: colleges and universities are now places where faculty WORK FOR the administration, rather than the other way around. (And that’s not even to introduce students into that equation.) Anderson’s new book, “Private Government,” also sheds some light.

The idea that institutions are rational decision-makes is a myth. But they must maintain the appearance of being such to justify their existence (and power). Report