Six professors of humanities, social sciences to leave Tufts this year

The office for Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora in Eaton basement is pictured on May 7, 2018. Julia McDowell / The Tufts Daily
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Over the past several months, at least six Tufts faculty and staff members, notably from the humanities departments and from interdisciplinary consortium of studies in race, colonialism and diaspora (RCD) have announced their departures from their academic positions to pursue other opportunities. The RCD, according to its website, serves as an “academic home” to a variety of interdisciplinary programs including Africana, American, Asian American, Colonialism and Latino Studies.

Departing faculty members include Christina Sharpe, an English professor and former director of the American Studies program who teaches courses in Africana Studies and Asian American Studies;  Sabina Vaught, an associate professor of education who is also a faculty member of Latino, Colonialism, American and Africana studies; and Pawan Dhingra, professor and chair of the department of Sociology and director of the Asian American studies program, according to distinguished professor of English and Director of the Center for the Humanities, Lisa Lowe. Orly Clerge, an assistant professor in the sociology department and in Africana studies; Natalie Masuoka, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and a faculty member of Latino, colonialism, Asian American and Africana studies; and Cedric de Leon, an associate professor in the department of sociology, are also leaving, according to Dhingra.

“All of them have made really unique and important contributions to the RCD … so it’s a huge loss and I really wish them all well,” Lowe said.

Lowe also mentioned that the university budget deficit will make it challenging for Tufts to overcome this loss, one that she calls a crisis.

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“It will be very difficult to continue with the same robust pace and many fewer students will be served,” she said. “The programs already are hard-pressed to administer themselves so it will be very challenging in the period ahead.”

James Glaser, the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, explained that a deficit in the school has limited the number of hires. In a typical year, he explained, the school only hires 10-15 full-time faculty, but this summer, the deans will only be authorizing one hire in the school, the second round of a “cluster hire” in data science.

According to Lowe, although each departure has its own particular factors, the structure of Tufts’ academic programs and resource allocation may be a key factor in the departure of many faculty members from the RCD.

“The common thread is that almost all of them are faculty who’ve been central to the teaching and administration and mentoring of the programs in the RCD … so I think that expresses how structurally, their commitment to these programs means that they’re putting in intensive labor that goes beyond their duties and obligations in their home departments,” Lowe said.

Glaser told the Daily in an email that he did not think the departures were a function of how funding is allocated.

“This year, there are six faculty members leaving for positions at other universities and five other faculty members who are retiring (out of roughly 400 full-time faculty),” he explained in an email. “The departures include some outstanding people and some good friends. We’re very sorry to lose them. But we’ve also retained a number of people who had other job offers and we have hired 15 new full-time faculty coming to A&S in the fall. The new faculty hires have anticipated some of the departures.”

According to Adriana Zavala, associate professor of art and art history and director of the RCD, the RCD cannot hire faculty from the tenure stream, as it is an interdisciplinary program and not a department.

Lowe expressed this inability as a structural problem within the Tufts framework.

“[The problem] has to do with the structure of a university that is very department-centered and that doesn’t yet know how to provide for interdisciplinary programming,” she said. “I think everyone in the administration is very excited about the interdisciplinary programs in race, colonialism and diaspora but if we only hire in departments and our duties in departments remain the same while we are also founding and serving and teaching interdisciplinary programs then it means … having twice or three times the workload.”

Lowe mentioned that humanities professors who contribute to interdisciplinary programs have to go “above and beyond” their regular responsibilities, which leads to a very demanding workload and that the departures express this problem not having yet been solved. The workload makes it very difficult to establish and maintain interdisciplinary programs such as the RCD due to the lack of resources, she said.

Glaser expressed support for the RCD on the part of the deans’ office.

“I know it’s been a boon to faculty recruitment and retention, to programming for students, and to research and scholarship in the humanities and social sciences,” he wrote. “We will continue to support it.”

Zavala said that the RCD is supported by the added labor of faculty, especially those of color.

“Faculty of color at this university do a lot of additional labor and the RCD is a labor of love. We try to create a structure in the RCD where we don’t overtax people,” Zavala said. “I think more than anything [the departure of these faculty is] a very unhappy coincidence.”

Lowe also mentioned that the lack of stability in the RCD would be very disappointing for students who have been working with these professors.

Wilson Wong, a junior studying American studies and English, told the Daily that the RCD program was an integral part of his life at Tufts.

“Some of the most important American studies classes I’ve taken at Tufts have been taught by professors I have developed a good rapport with and have continued to build upon outside of academia, but it’s always difficult to see them leave,” Wong told the Daily in an electronic message.

Wong spoke highly of the professors he has met through American studies.

“The faculty members housed under American studies are some of the most intelligent and compassionate people I know, whose work I deeply admire and respect,” Wong said. “I’ve been able to develop strong relationships with them because the professors who remain in this department engage with a kind of care and guidance work that extends beyond the classroom and doesn’t necessarily always get acknowledged.”

According to Wong, the high faculty turnover within departments in RCD is “incredibly frustrating.”

“We know that there is student and faculty support, but the administration still hasn’t taken tangible action steps to change the hiring practices of the RCD program so that they have primary hiring power. We said it 20 years ago, and we’re still saying it today,” he added.

Morgan Leppla, a junior studying American studies and colonialism studies, both within the RCD, expressed her own concerns over the pace of new hires and its impact on the RCD.

“I think that when the intellectual community of a group of professors is strong, both they benefit, and the students benefit. I think that with high turnover and with the hiring freeze, the RCD is really suffering, because they’re getting these qualified, well-liked professors who students want to continue to take classes from,” Leppla said. “First of all, we’re not going to be able to, and second of all, the collaboration that takes place behind the scenes in the RCD gets stopped, and you have to start all over again when new professors arrive.”

Leppla also said that as a result of the slowing of hiring, faculty of color are disproportionately affected, which compromises RCD educations.

“It is faculty of color predominantly who are leaving the RCD, which is ironic, because it’s called the RCD,” Leppla said. “Tufts is choosing to not invest in people. They have their priorities elsewhere.”

Zavala added that for faculty and staff that work around race, colonialism, structures of inequality and violence, the job can be emotionally taxing.

“[It] takes a toll on you, and sometimes people need a break,” Zavala said.

This break might not necessarily be possible due to the fact that faculty volunteer their time to maintain the RCD and that there are not adequate resources, according to Lowe.

“The difficulty of running an innovative interdisciplinary program without adequate support is that the directors and administration of the program shift every year so in many cases were reinventing the wheel each year,” she said. “If there were adequate resources … people would stay.”

Dhingra, a tenured professor here at Tufts, echoed the sentiment about the university’s resources, attributing it to one of the factors that drew him to Amherst College, where he will have a tenured position as a professor of American studies. Amherst College offers a semester sabbatical every three years as opposed to Tufts, which offers it every seven years, according to Dhingra.

“They have a bit more resources than Tufts,” he said. “Every seven years … is good. A lot of places don’t have anything or it’s competitive … [but it’s] twice as often [at Amherst]. That kind of stuff is nice to have over the course of one’s career.”

Dhingra also mentioned that it is “noteworthy” that many staff and faculty, including himself, are leaving this year, but it is nothing different than what he has seen elsewhere.

“I think … the racial elements at Tufts are no different or worse than any other campus I’ve been [at],” he said. “There are reasons why people have different experiences. The deans were very committed to me staying and were really nice to me so I’m not leaving because of that; I’m leaving despite that.”

Zavala shared a similar sentiment, saying there are different reasons for professors choosing to leave Tufts.

“I want students to understand how complex this landscape is and that there are many factors that go into it,” she said.

Zavala also mentioned that professors of color get asked to serve on diversity and equity committees to mitigate the bias that exists in the hiring process.

In regards to the faculty and staff leaving, Zavala hopes the very best.

“I’m going to miss them terribly … but across the board, they’re seeking new opportunities. I trust that they’re making the right decisions for their careers and for their families,” she said.

Melissa Kain, Jenna Fleischer and Liam Knox contributed reporting to this article.

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