“Unhappy with recent tenure decisions? Come join our Week of Actions in the lobby of the Fine Arts Commons. Speak up and let your voice be heard!”
Those words hang from a banner displayed above Café Mac and are one of many new installations across campus erected in support of Professor Lara Nielsen, who is appealing her tenure denial. A coalition of students, faculty, and alumni have assembled in support of Nielsen, and have been staging Week of Action events throughout the week to bring awareness to the issue and rally support for her.
Nielsen, an associate professor in Theatre and Dance, was denied tenure last year. She plans to appeal the decision, and that appeal will officially be submitted at the beginning of March.
In addition to teaching classes out of the Theatre and Dance department, Nielsen co-founded the Critical Theory concentration, and has taught classes in Latin American Studies, Art History, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
“Many of us feel like we are somewhat voiceless.”
The Week of Action began on Monday with the unveiling of an installation in support of Nielsen, prominently displayed in the Fine Arts Commons. To display these exhibitions, the campaign needed the clearance of the Fine Arts Department chairs.
The installation, under a large banner that reads “Support Lara Nielsen!,” is intended to both educate unfamiliar students about Nielsen and the tenure process and allow supporters to share messages of support for Nielsen.
“[The display] represents different components of what we’ve been trying to do in terms of actions for her,” said Alana Horton ’14. “There’s definitely people on this campus who don’t know much about the tenure process. My hope is to just give more of a sense of the issue.”
Some sides of the display feature a Q&A about the tenure process, a reflection of the campaign’s broader goal of educating and enlightening the school about the usually private tenure process.
“Student voices don’t really have a place in [the tenure] process, especially after tenure decisions go through,” said Horton. “I think there is a sense that many of us feel like we are somewhat voiceless. This Week of Action is an attempt, at least as far as I see it, to make our voices more present on campus.”
“Through moments of like this, moments of contention, it is important for students to care because it does speak to the larger issue and can reach a wider audience, because people can empathize,” said Kelsey Woida ’14.
The display also provided background on Nielsen herself, as well as letters that the campaign collected from supportive alumni and students, and comments that have been left on the change.org petition to grant Nielsen tenure. As of press time the petition had 414 signatures.
Last week, Horton and other campaign members tabled in the basement of the Campus Center, taking photographs of supportive students holding a whiteboard that displayed their reasons for supporting Nielsen. Those photographs were also on view in the Fine Arts Commons.
On Wednesday, a soundscape made up of audio recordings collected the day before was unveiled. Forty-five minutes of audio were collected, which consisted of students reading from the petition and various letters of support. The recording also gave students an opportunity to come up and simply speak their mind about the situation.
The soundscape began playing in the Fine Arts Commons around lunchtime Wednesday, and will likely continue for the duration of the display.
A loud presence
Typically, the Fine Arts Commons is a fairly quiet environment. The soundscape was intentionally played at a fairly high volume, according to Zoe Michael ’13, to make a “loud presence” and symbolize the broadcasting of voices and perspectives which aren’t typically heard by the school.
“There’s a weird catch-22 where we can’t actually talk,” said Michael, referring to her perception of the tenure process. “We wanted to disrupt [the space and] broadcast voices which aren’t being heard.”
One of the letters described Nielsen as “the weaver of my intellectual heartstrings.” Inspired by that quote, supporters are writing words of support on strips of fabric which will eventually be turned into a large blanket to be hung in the Commons.
Heartstrings, according to Michael, is not intended to protest against the school’s decision so much as unite supporters in solidarity with Nielsen.
“It’s a chance to more communally celebrate and grieve—not a loud, clear, in-your-face statement,” said Michael.
A Performance Action was planned for yesterday, and a Open Mic is scheduled in the Fine Arts Commons for today at 12:30.
Alumni weigh in to the Annual Fund
The campaign has extended beyond just the immediate Macalester community. Some alumni have cancelled their donations to the Annual Fund, the school’s fundraising arm, citing the circumstances surrounding Nielsen as their reason for withholding donations.
According to Danielle Nelson ’05, the Director of the Annual Fund, two alumni called the Annual Fund to cancel their donations because Nielsen was denied tenure. Soon after, a few alumni contacted by the Annual Fund refused to donate for the same reason.
Alumni calling in to cancel their donations is not uncommon, said Nelson, and the number that cancelled because of Nielsen is fairly small, when compared to the number that call in and cancel for other reasons, such as financial constraints or frustration at tuition increases.
“There are lots of reasons why people choose to give or not give to the college that we hear on the phone,” said Nelson. “It’s not really anything out of the ordinary.”
Even though that number may be small, it was significant enough for the Annual Fund to prepare a response to any other potential alumni calling in.
Woida works for the Annual Fund and assists the Save Lara Nielsen campaign. She prepared a protocol for Annual Fund callers to use, directing them to tell alumni about Nielsen’s intention to appeal the decision and the student movement in support of her.
“Often time, alumni feel [the Annual Fund] is their only connection to the school still, as a donor. It’s kind of their only channel of power to the school,” said Woida.
Callers would then go on to tell alumni that withholding donations would not be the most effective medium to send a message to the administration. They would put them in contact with Hannah Quinn Rivenburgh ’10, who has been involved in collecting letters of support for the campaign.
“If alumni are talking about this … [we] should really urge them to voice that opinion, but it’s not going to be the most beneficial to voice that through not donating money. It might be most effective to write a letter and send them to [Rivenburgh],” said Woida.
That protocol has not yet been put into place, and since its conception no more alumni have called in or brought up Nielsen, according to Chuck Demler, the Assistant Director to the Annual Fund.
Students appeal to faculty and staff
A professor who plans to appeal their tenure denial must declare their intention to appeal to the chair of the Educational Policy and Governance Committee Chair, who assembles the Faculty Appeals Committee (FAC). The FAC weighs the decision, and issues a recommendation, which President Brian Rosenberg can choose to accept or decline.
“The goal of the committee is to work with the professor on his/her case,” said Professor Sonita Sarker, the EPAG Chair, in an email.
Originally, students from the campaign planned to meet with the FAC in order to express student support for Nielsen. However, because appeal proceedings are confidential, they will not be able to meet with the committee.
Instead, Horton plans to reach out to the entire faculty through the creation of a website. The site, according to Horton, will be a “coordinated archive of what we’ve been doing,” and will be distributed to faculty on campus, indirectly including those on the FAC. It would likely include the recorded soundbites and letters written in support of Nielsen, in addition to other materials collected over the course of the campaign.
Members of the campaign also plan on meeting with Rosenberg and Provost Kathy Murray in the coming weeks.
“We’re trying to get the message out that there is a lot of support for her,” said Horton, who said the meeting will be an opportunity to “present [their] accumulated efforts and show quantitative support [for Nielsen].”
The presentation will remain on display in the Fine Arts Commons through the end of next week, and the final decision on Nielsen’s tenure appeal will likely be announced in May.