Terry Tempest Williams’ Resignation Shames The U

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Renowned environmental scholar Terry Tempest Williams announced earlier this month that she’ll be stepping down from her fellowship position in the U’s Environmental Humanities Graduate Program, a program which she founded.

“I can no longer work in an institution or program that privileges compliance over creativity; that values the language of bureaucracy over relationships and respect,” Williams said in a letter to administrators after being flagged by human resources, who told her she was being paid too much for too little.

They offered her a new contract that included a health care plan, but with a catch: Williams would either have to start teaching her capstone environmental humanities course, which has previously been taught in the Southern Utah desert, in an on-campus classroom in Salt Lake City, or not teach it at all. Williams’ treatment by administrators, and her consequent decision to step down from her fellowship, both reflect poorly on the U, and highlight the ways in which bureaucratic administrative processes can undermine creativity and individuality, as well as discourage alternative and unique teaching methods.

What caused tensions between Williams and administrators? Apparently, there was a rift among students, some of whom felt resentful of Williams’ environmental humanities course “Art, Advocacy, and Landscape” because of its demanding travel schedule. Wait a second – when did the absolute approval, appraisal and goodwill of students become a priority (or even a concern) of administrators?

Tuition rates are (surprise!) increasing almost every year. I am sure you could find plenty of students who feel resentful about this. Student opinion is not a flawless method of measurement. It is often subjective, superficial and even inaccurate. If an assigned reading is intensive, some students may find the professor to be too demanding. If a test is difficult, some may find the grading to be unfair. And if a course requires extended travel and departure from daily routine, responsibilities and luxuries, some students may feel resentment towards that class. But just as exhaustive readings and crushing tests are realities of being a university student, extended travel is a reality of studying environmental humanities.

Other than student concerns, administrators took issue with Williams’ workload – she has been teaching one course a semester whereas other fellowship professors have been teaching four or five. Because Williams wasn’t putting in enough hours in the classroom, administrators didn’t see Williams as contributing enough. Uh, are we talking about the same person here? The person who has received honorary doctorates from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Lesley University and the College of the Atlantic, among others? Who was given a conservation award by the National Wildlife Federation and an International Peace Award by the Community of Christ? Who is a household name in multifaceted environmental and philosophical disciplines? Terry Tempest Williams isn’t contributing enough? This is farcical. It is neither hyperbolic nor an exaggeration to describe Williams as an invaluable treasure whose association with the U has brought the institution prestige and status, not to mention revenue. Her limited time spent in the classroom shouldn’t overshadow her tremendous achievements, accomplishments and recognition.

Williams’ minimal teaching load may be seen as unfair special treatment to some. However, contextualizing this treatment as reciprocity for the attention and name recognition Williams has brought to the U makes it seem more justified than unfair. Either way, administrators made it clear that they saw Williams not as a treasure, but as a burden and liability; a faceless faculty member who was gliding off of previous accomplishments and not teaching or pleasing enough students.

It’s a sad day when a scholar feels exploited or under-appreciated by the very institution to which they’ve dedicated their life and career. It’s even sadder when they happen to be one of the most accomplished and acclaimed scholars in their field. As a school, we should worry a little less about HR productivity spreadsheets and homogenized student approval and a little more about education.

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