Faculty departure highlights Earth and Ocean Sciences’ concerns

Associate Professor Anne Gardulski, chair of the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, poses for a portrait in her office on Sept. 18. Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily

Jacob Benner, a senior lecturer in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS), left Tufts this summer after accepting a position at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, according to EOS Professor Jack Ridge.

Benner’s departure has left Tufts’ relatively small EOS department short-staffed. Benner’s scheduled fall semester course, “Historical Geology and Paleontology,” was canceled, and his spring semester course, titled “Geological Applications of GIS,” will likely be canceled as well, according to Ridge.

In over 16 years of teaching at Tufts, Benner came to hold a significant role in EOS, according to Associate Professor and Department Chair Anne Gardulski.

“He was not only teaching some of our very important courses and helping to teach the intro labs, but he was our tech person, our computer person and our equipment manager,” Gardulski said. “Anytime you needed something, you could ask [Benner] to help you with it. We don’t have that now, and we’re already feeling the effects of that.”

Gardulski said that in addition to her regular courses, she is now teaching abbreviated versions of Benner’s introductory lab sections.

Benner filled critical behind-the-scenes roles, as well. Ridge said that Benner was in charge of coordinating the department’s annual extended field trips, which Ridge hopes will still run this year.

Tufts senior Nicholas Cunetta, who is majoring in geological sciences, met Benner during Cunetta’s first year at Tufts. Cunetta thought Benner was an exceptional teacher who created meaningful lessons in labs and on field trips.

“He had this real knack of bringing in demonstrations and interactive content that made science a little more tangible and a little more relatable to students — especially introductory students who maybe didn’t see themselves as future geologists, but rather students interested in the science,” Cunetta said.

According to Ridge, Benner was not satisfied with his job security at Tufts due to what Ridge indicated was a lack of support for EOS from the university administration.

Gardulski explained that Benner began looking for other jobs after the administration declined to replace former EOS Assistant Professor Molly McCanta in the mineralogy and petrology tenure track in 2016.

EOS petitioned for the university to reinstate the tenure track in both 2017 and 2018, Gardulski noted. The requests were denied, however, and Jennifer Axler was hired as a part-time lecturer. Gardulski stressed that it is difficult to offer a high-quality geology program without that tenure track position, as it is a fundamental part of the science.

“We need to have the scholarly perspective that a full-time, tenure-stream person can provide for the intellectual growth of our students and for interacting with other faculty members in our department and elsewhere in the university,” she said. “And when our request for replacement was denied, [Benner] was concerned about that.”

In an email to the Daily, Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences James Glaser said that the university is unable to fulfill most tenure-stream line requests due to limitations in its budget.

“We are very sorry to lose Dr. Benner,” he said. “He’s an outstanding, dedicated, and popular instructor. The School of Arts & Sciences is working closely with the department to replace him. Unfortunately, there are many more requests for tenure-stream lines from our 25 departments every year than we can accommodate. In most years, we can only authorize one out of every three requests. In this cycle, tenure-stream hiring is even more limited than usual due to budget constraints. We have encouraged the department to continue to make its request to hire a faculty member in petrology/mineralogy.”

According to Gardulski, the university recognized the importance of Benner’s position and has agreed to hire another full-time lecturer as a replacement. The search committee, which consists of four faculty members in EOS, hopes to find a new lecturer to start Sept. 1, 2019, Gardulski noted.

But Benner’s departure is one of multiple issues EOS currently faces, according to interviews with department faculty. EOS professors indicated a general lack of support from the administration for the department, its facilities and its students.

“I think there’s a disconnect between what faculty think they need to succeed and what the administration thinks is important for the school,” Ridge said.

Some of the department’s concerns trace back to Lane Hall, the department’s main building. Ridge explained that the building — and especially Room 001, a lab classroom — is in poor condition and needs immediate attention, noting that Room 001’s state has caused health issues.

“We basically can’t use the lab … because it’s leaking so bad and it smells of mold,” Ridge said. “In ‘Geomorphology,’ there was a student who had an allergy attack from the mold spores. That shouldn’t happen.”

In a follow-up email with the Daily, Ridge added that the student’s allergy attack was not the first time such an incident has occurred, while acknowledging that he was unsure if it was a result of the conditions in Room 001. Ridge also elaborated on the health concerns associated with these conditions. According to Ridge, an air conditioner runs constantly in Room 001 to keep the air clean, but the ceiling leaks so severely during heavy rainstorms that there is a lingering musty smell. In addition, he noted that the floor in the steam utility closet often gets wet with condensation from the steam system. Despite keeping the closet door closed and locked at all times, the smell from the wet floor spreads to the lab. Ridge said that if he works in the lab for too long, his sinuses get congested.

Ridge noted that the infrastructure available to professors directly influences their career, including the research they can do and the grants they can apply for, as well as the opportunities available to them and to students. He said that although an external review of EOS in 2014 revealed a number of ways to help the department, nothing has been accomplished since then and EOS faculty have not been informed of any upcoming changes. According to Ridge, one of the reviewers had a severe allergy attack while in Lane Hall and had to leave. Ridge said that this incident was included in the review and that the administration has been aware of the situation for a while.

“Lane Hall poses challenges, and our facilities department and campus planning group are aware of them,” Glaser said. “Next summer, the art studios, which currently are housed at Lane Hall, are expected to relocate to Barnum [Hall]. Long-term plans for the building are under discussion, but are not yet clear.”

Gardulski said that the lack of financial support for EOS from the administration is discouraging.

“Much of what we have here in the department for our students and, quite frankly, for the faculty to work with is from donations from alumni,” Gardulski said. “We have not tapped into a lot of Arts & Sciences funding for room renovations, for equipment — things like that. And that, I hate to say it, has been frustrating.”

Gardulski believes that better facilities and more faculty members would also help attract students to EOS.

“I know the university is in difficult financial straits, and I don’t mean to minimize that,” Gardulski said. “But I think we have always been good citizens of the university and we’ve served our students, I think, extremely well, so I would like to see a little give-back on that.”

Declan Devine, a senior double majoring in civil engineering and environmental geology, thinks more faculty would improve the department and would like to see EOS offer more classes each semester.

“There are definitely certain classes that I wanted to take, but they didn’t have enough professors to teach them,” Devine said. “So I would say, in that realm, that’s definitely frustrating. But in terms of the attitude of the faculty, I’ve found them very supportive, and … they’re very invested in you as a student and happy to support you in whatever way.”

Despite the setbacks, Ridge remains hopeful for the department’s future.

“We have bright and enthusiastic students and talented faculty, which has driven successful teaching and student-aided research in the past,” he said. “A little help from the administration could allow us to build on this. I’m optimistic that our department can succeed and do very well, but it’s going to take some help.”

Benner declined to comment on the details of his departure.