December 14, 2019

Students Voice Frustrations with Academic Changes

By Veronica Andreades '20, Managing Editor and Joshua 'James' Litman '21, Staff Reporter and Catherine Pastoor '21, Editor-in-Chief

Illustration by Sion Hur

On October 10, GCSA hosted a town hall meeting in the Wilson Hall lounge, where students shared their difficulties and concerns in the wake of budget cuts and changes in academics with Executive Vice President Dan Tymann and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Sandra Doneski. Communication about the results of budget cuts has been a point of agitation for many students, especially as the reality of Gordon’s streamlined operating budget sets in. 

At the meeting, students shared how they felt the needs of their departments were overlooked, that the administration was keeping their distance from the concerns of students, and that academic decisions about academic changes are not communicated effectively or early enough. The Tartan asked certain individuals to elaborate on the concerns that they brought up at the meeting in order to understand how the recent changes have actually impacted students. Students who did not attend the meeting also shared their personal academic issues through interviews.

Lack of Communication 

Some felt that important changes to the academic offerings were not communicated to them in a timely or effective manner. Nate Quattrochi ‘23, a physics and computer science double major, said, “It seems like the professors and the students are all finding things out at the same time as everyone else.” 

Before Quattrochi started at Gordon this fall, he says the College communicated that there would be no changes to the physics department, and if there were, it would only affect some upper level courses. Upon his first consultation with his advisor, Quattrochi not only discovered that a professor he was looking forward to studying under would be leaving after spring 2020, but that the Physics major was no longer a Bachelor of Science degree, but a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Nate Hillyer ‘21, physics major, feels frustrated with the lack of clarity. “I feel like there’s a lot of ambiguity within everything,” said Hillyer, “I’m in the 3-2 engineering program, so I’m getting, hopefully in five years, a bachelors in physics and a bachelors in engineering. But I’m not even sure if it’s going to be a B.S. in physics or a B.A. in physics…I wish there was more communication. Because obviously, I feel like I should know.”

According to Rick Sweeney, Vice President for Marketing and External Relations, students who were pursuing a B.S. in physics as of last spring will still graduate with a B.S. in physics, and “that applies to any current Physics student at Gordon who is a senior, junior or sophomore,” he says. 

For sociology majors, the frustration is similar. The Gordon College web page “The Next Chapter for Gordon: A New Academic Model” reads “If changes are made to the fall schedule, students will be contacted after June 1, 2019, when the fall schedule will be revised, to make necessary adjustments.” However, according to Elizabeth Rhodes ‘22, a sociology and social work double major, this was not the case. 

“The message coming from Gordon was clear: if changes were made to our fall schedules, we would be individually contacted. Both my advisors changed, as well as one class, from SOC 310 to PSY 256, and I was never told about either of these until I reached out through multiple emails in late August,” Rhodes said. 

Rhodes found out about the class switch mid-August by logging on to Blackboard and discovering a new class had been added that she not signed up for and was not a required course for either of her majors. 

For linguistics majors, the news that they would be merging with English majors to form a superdepartment, with Dr. Chad Stutz as the chair, did not come until they were instructed to attend the English departmental convocation on October 11. 

“That was definitely an oversight,” said linguistics and French double major Sarah Welton-Lair, “But after having spoken about that with Dr. Stutz… I’m actually not worried … because the intent is not to somehow make linguistics more like English or anything like that, it’s just going along with the college’s overall restructuring of trying to encourage cross-disciplinary engagement.”

According to Dr. Bird, Associate Professor of Linguistics, “I suspect students were at that time mostly focused on final exams; hence awareness by students of the changes was fairly limited,” he says “I was surprised when several students first became aware of the changes at the first departmental convocation meeting in early October. I think they deserve to have been informed in a clearer and more direct way quite a bit earlier.”

Loss of Quality

Despite the ambiguity on what type of degree Hillyer will receive at the end of next year, he has chosen to stay at Gordon, unlike some of his fellow physics majors. Quattrochi and other freshmen are not only put off by the change in the degree status, but also in the faculty offerings. After the spring semester, the physics major will have only the chair, David Lee, and one part-time professor to teach courses. But this has left physics students wondering what sort of degree they will be getting.

“That just feels kind of like a joke,” said Quattrochi. “You’d graduate with it feeling just sub-par.”

Before the physics department changed, both Quattrochi and Hillyer said it was nothing short of a great program. The list of graduate programs that alumni continued onto was impressive, not to mention the intimate setting in which students got to learn with advanced instruments. 

“It seemed like you got a lot of perks of the small school thing, but without compromising on teachers or labs or anything like that,” said Quattrochi. But based on the number of physics students angling to transfer, that has changed.

For linguistics students, shifts in faculty and budget cuts has meant not having professors who are trained in the areas they are teaching. Dr. Amanda Swenson, a professor of linguistics, left Gordon after the spring semester of 2019 for reasons unrelated to the budget cuts.

“She was a wonderful mentor, and loved and cared about her students, so not just linguistics and academics, but spiritually and emotionally. That’s something that we lost when we lost her,” says Bird.

According to Welton-Lair, Swenson was an invaluable resource for students that were looking to continue their linguistic studies at the graduate level, “…And now that she’s gone, there is nobody to fill in the gap. And so now it feels like, ‘how do we get there?’” said Welton-Lair, “we don’t have a professor right now who can do the formal linguistics classes. Dr. Bird is wonderful, we love him, he’s a great person, and he’s so supportive of us, but his expertise is in historical linguistics and classical languages… but he is being forced to because there is no one else.”

 In other departments, students have had to simply drop minors because the classes aren’t offered to fulfill them. Gabriella Picariello ‘21, a sociology and social work double major, had to drop her Peace and Conflict minor, like many others, despite promises from the college that students would be able to graduate on time with their majors and minors. 

“I wish they took more time to learn how the departments worked when the cuts were made,” said Picariello. “They could have been accommodating and gave us the education we were promised when we walked into Gordon.” 

Due to J.P. Gerber, Margie DeWeese-Boyd, and Daniel Johnson leaving Gordon College in late summer, Kaye Cook, the new chairwoman of the Social Work and Sociology departments, said she was not given a lot of time to find professors to cover the sociology courses, and had to scramble to find some. Paul Brink, political science professor, approached Cook and offered to slant one of his courses to teach some of the sociology theories.

“I know some people are unhappy with that because it is a political science course rather than listed in sociology, but the way he is doing it, it can be listed as sociology,” said Cook. 

Mark Gedney also approached Cook, offering to teach Contemporary Sociological Theories, which he studied in graduate school. Gedney will be taking over the class in the Spring. 

In late August, Cook contacted sociology and social work majors and minors for a meeting about the future of the programs during the school year. At this meeting, they announced which classes were cut and alternative classes for the affected students to take.

Ivy George, a professor of sociology, suggested that affected students should take classes at Merrimack College in North Andover. Cook advocated for students to take political science classes here at Gordon College as the course at Merrimack combined two sociology courses into one class. Cook elaborated that would mean that sociology students would have to take an elective to meet the 40 credit requirement in their major.

In the chemistry department, loss of faculty members has resulted in foundational chemistry classes being offered online. But not all the changes were due to budget cuts. Anna Kjellson ‘20, chemistry and secondary education double major, described the situation as a “perfect storm,” as one professor went on maternity leave, another retired, and the third departed from Gordon, despite being the last full time professor in the chemistry department.

This semester, General Chemistry 1 & 2 and Organic Chemistry 1 & 2  are taught online, because the only professor left in the chemistry department has a young baby at home. 

To supplement the online classes, Kjellson and another student signed on as TAs. Their duties included the typical holding review sessions, proctoring exams, preparing students for quizzes, and seeing students for an hour once a week. But the magnitude and intensity of that role proved to be more than Kjellson was anticipating. 

General Chemistry is a required course for all kinesiology majors, all chemistry majors, all biology majors, and most physics majors. Which means that Kjellson is grading around 100 exams from five sections at one time. The chemistry department may not be big in numbers, but it serves many other majors, including biology, which is one of Gordon’s most popular majors. 

While Kjellson said that the grade distribution is normal, she’s heard from many students taking the online classes that they feel the distance of not having a professor in person. 

“If you’ve never taken chemistry before…It’s tough because you’re talking about things that are too small to see. You’re speaking basically a language that you don’t use regularly. You’re trying to do science, but it’s also math,” said Kjellson. “For the students who are struggling, a common theme I’ve seen with a lot of them is just not being able to interact with a professor in person.”

Danielle McGibbon ‘20, a teaching assistant for Research Methods I, expressed a concern for students in the course who are completing their majors for sociology, social work, and social welfare. Originally, sociology/social work majors and minors would take a research methods class that was tailored to navigate content relevant to their discipline, but since the professor who taught that class is gone, students from that department must take the same research methods class as psychology majors. 

“it’s very hard for those students to sort of come and mesh into this research methods class, because it’s basically a psych-focused class,” said McGibbon.“That’s a big gap that they are having to bridge.”

In the past, this course was taught by J.P. Gerber, who has since left Gordon. The class was picked up by Bryan Auday, who, along with teaching several other courses, has not taught the class in years and had limited time to prepare. 

“I just think a lot of professors in certain areas are just getting a lot of work,” said McGibbon.

Beloved Professors

For the students, the presence and support of the remaining faculty members has bolstered spirits amid uncertainties. 

“The departments have been very committed to helping us and have been fighting alongside us,” said Picariello. But for others, major leaders in their department have been let go, leaving students mourning the loss of mentors. 

“For me it’s been very emotionally challenging…” said Welton-Lair. “According to the official declared changes, linguistics wasn’t technically affected, in that Dr. Swenson’s position was reconsidered before anything happened, however, now that the school in general has a reduced budget, the hole that was left when she disappeared isn’t able to be filled.”.

“Coming into this semester I could just tell, everybody was so hopeless, and like, depressed,” Welton-Lair said. “Just the energy in linguistics was so weird because everybody was I think grieving the loss of our mentor and advisor, but also just, not knowing what the future for us is going to look like.”

Physics majors are also mourning the future departure of beloved teachers. Hillyer said of one faculty member: “I don’t think Gordon College really understands the fullest extent to how good this professor is, and how much they all care for the students. I just feel like they really really care for the students. You know?… It’s a small school, so they have the ability to care for each one of us, individually. And it just really stinks that they’re getting basically cut.”

At Gordon, many professors were not only teachers, but also mentors. For Kjellson, who is teaching assistant for General Chemistry, the lack of a on-campus professor doesn’t only mean more grading, it means being the support person for underclassmen. 

“I think it ended up being a lot more of an emotional commitment than expected…and a lot more…students asking us what’s going on, students asking us ‘should I be here?’” Said Kjellson. “I’m an education major, but I’m not a college professor. And so [I am] fielding emails about things that aren’t relevant to me, but they get sent to me because I’m the person they know. Like, it’s not my responsibility, but I still feel the weight of that.” 

A number of students have explained that they understand that the budget cuts had to happen, but they feel there was much that was overlooked in the process. “The budget cuts aren’t wrong, but how the cuts have been handled is. The treatment of the department is unjust,” said sociology student Picariello. 

“I just want to be really clear that I know that these budget cuts had to be done, and it was going to affect some people, and if those people have to include me, that’s fine, says Welton-Lair, “We can support each other, however, it would be really, really nice to have support from the school as well.”

Administration Response

In an interview, Dan Tymann remembered the specific issues that had been addressed at the Wilson Town Hall meeting, and acknowledged that some majors were impacted in a way that was more difficult than others. 

“I am so impressed with Gordon students,” said Tymann, “I mean, I’m never surprised, because I’ve almost come to expect the maturity, and the grace, and the intelligence, and the Christlike behavior of students… and there are students that have a right to be really angry, and yet they funnel that anger in very productive ways.”

Tymann points out that to better understand the impetus behind restructuring, one has to understand what the market for the liberal arts education looks like today. Incoming freshmen have more options than they used to, whether it be education through online courses, two year associate degrees, or colleges that have no residential requirement. 

“Christian, residential, liberal arts is critical; that’s who we are,” says Tymann, “…how do you, as an institution that’s 130 years old say, ‘we’re going to be ready for these new areas’?”

To maintain those parts of its identity, Tymann explained, Gordon must adjust to the national decline in college enrollment and carefully shape its academic offerings that will appeal to the largest population of students.

In the midst of recovering from the cuts, “our answers and solutions have not been perfect, but I do think that sincerely, we have tried to find how we can address each situation,” said Tymann. 

Overall, however, Tymann is optimistic about the future of Gordon College: “Like a lot of things in life, you kind of have to take two steps back to go three or four steps forward, and I really think we’re on the right path. Things like the encouragement of the 75 and a half million dollar gift which really speaks to how there really are people out there who really support Gordon and our future,” he said.

The idea of holding town hall meetings between students and members of the administration in residence halls is rather new. However, Tymann said the town hall meeting “is a great form” that could be useful for student-to-college communication in the future, and not just to process the dramatic aftermath of the faculty exodus, but to hear the voices of students regarding other issues as well.

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