Tenure Trouble : Whittier Students Rally for Teacher Who May Lose Job

Times Staff Writer

Students at Whittier College are rallying to the defense of a popular assistant biology professor who has been told that she will not have a teaching job after next year because she has not "grown professionally."

A total of 116 students, about 12% of the student body, signed a letter to the college newspaper, the Quaker Campus, saying Katherine Sapiro, 35, is a "model" of the ideal Whittier professor. Students described her as a stimulating educator who is so dedicated that she organized an advanced class on a subject not included in the college catalogue.

"Just by going to class with her, you just love the lady," said Kristi Davis, the senior biology major who drafted the letter and helped gather the signatures. "She's awesome."

President's Approval Needed

Linda Bone, a junior premed major who signed the letter, said she was at a loss to explain why the college is not keeping Sapiro. "I honestly can't tell you where the problem lies. I've never heard anything negative about her," said Bone, who called Sapiro a "really stimulating teacher."

Sapiro was evaluated by a personnel committee, which recommended that she not be retained after the next school year. The college president must approve the committee's decision before she receives official notification known as a "one-year termination contract."

College officials declined to comment on the Sapiro case, saying that personnel matters are private and that the personnel committee followed all the proper procedures.

She can appeal to the committee for reconsideration but says she has not decided whether she will. The students, Davis said, are asking the personnel committee to reconsider its decision. But college officials say there is no process for students to appeal.

One student, who asked not to be named, said Sapiro "knows her stuff. If you don't know her well she comes off very intimidating. She intimidated me at first. But that's just the way she is. She'll say, 'No, this is right, this is wrong.' "

Davis said she has never had a teacher who demanded as much as Sapiro. Instead of just handing back student papers with grades, Davis said, Sapiro would evaluate every aspect of the paper, even the writing, and return it to a student, two, three or four times, to rewrite before giving a grade.

Peter Weidenfeld, who has been admitted to medical school at Tufts University in Boston next year, told how Sapiro, as a favor to the students who are going to medical school, set up a class on cadavers on her own time. "She's just given countless hours to the students over and above (what is expected). She's come in at 10 and 11 at night to help me when I was having trouble with my lab," Weidenfeld said.

Steve Peasley, who is bound for medical school at Georgetown University next year, said Sapiro sometimes wears blue jeans to class and has a style that's different from the department's four other professors.

'At the Top'

"She's a great teacher," he said, "and they didn't grant her tenure and we thought she deserved better than that." Peasley calls Sapiro "probably one of the best (instructors) out of the whole science faculty. She's right up there at the top."

Sapiro, who has been teaching five years at the college, said she "senses" there may be a personality conflict with some other department members.

The department, Sapiro says, began recommending after her third year that she not be retained. In 1986, the college's personnel committee reprimanded the department for using sexist language in criticizing Sapiro's work, she says.

The department had complained that she was aggressive, "bullied" other members and "denigrated" opinions of some members, she said. She denied the allegations.

"It's very difficult to say what someone's motives are," Sapiro said. "What I would say is it's clear that the problems with some members of the department go beyond simply my professional activities."

She said the personnel committee, echoing the department's complaints, had raised the issue of professional growth in previous evaluations, "but they've never been specific about what would constitute sufficient professional growth."

"The committee has never said that I had no professional growth; the question is how much is enough. I think that the only reason it's an issue is because some members of the (biology) department have another agenda and this is the only criterion which they are allowed to use to support their recommendation for nonretention."

According to the faculty handbook, professional growth is measured by such factors as "scholarly publication, the adoption of materials prepared for classroom use by others in the profession, presentation of papers at professional meetings . . . participation in professional societies and professional consultation."

Sapiro insists her research output is just as great as that of at least two other professors in the five-member department. She presented a paper, she said, on her embryonic research at a joint meeting this year of the American Society of Cell Biology and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and an abridged version was later printed in a scientific journal.

The handbook also says that a "significant indication" of professional growth is the respect a faculty member enjoys from peers.

Davis, the senior biology major, suggested that Sapiro's failure to get tenure may be linked to "personality problems in the biology department." Some other members of the department, Davis said, "feel challenged" by her outspoken manner and by her popularity among the students.

Warren Hanson, acting chairman of the biology department, declined to comment specifically on the Sapiro case. He insisted, however, that the college's process for evaluating faculty members for retention and for tenure involves a great deal of time and a number of people, and that he has "not seen any situation where anyone has been treated unfairly."

In addition to professional growth, faculty members are evaluated on teaching skills, advising students and involvement in campus activities, said Robert Marks, the college's academic dean. Teaching skills are considered the most important criterion, said Marks, who declined to comment specifically about the Sapiro decision.

Emphasis on Teaching

The college, Sapiro and the students point out, prides itself on eschewing the publish-or-perish mentality of higher education in favor of an emphasis on teaching. The strong relationship she has developed with students, she says, proves that she accomplished what she set out to do, emphasize the teaching aspect of academic life.

"I moved my whole family to take this job because that's what I wanted." said Sapiro, who came to Whittier from New York City. Her husband has since become a faculty member in the biology department at Cal State Fullerton. They have three children, ages 6, 4 and almost 1. Sapiro received her undergraduate degree from Smith College and a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Marks pointed out that all faculty members are on probation during their first years at the college, and must be annually evaluated by the personnel committee to receive a new teaching contract. Under the guidelines of the American Union of University Professors, to which Whittier and most colleges and universities adhere, the college must let Sapiro go if it is not going to give her tenure during the seven years.

According to college officials, 12 faculty members over the past 10 years have been considered for tenure and nine were granted tenure.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World