Faculty and students spoke passionately Monday in support of Ocean County College instructors who they say were unfairly denied tenure.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the boardroom of OCC's administration building to speak on behalf of professor Maria Flynn and three of her colleagues who were denied the employment protections that are granted or denied after their fourth year of employment. Speakers also assailed the tenure review system at OCC, which they judged to be arbitrary and capricious.
"I am shocked not to be recommended for tenure by interim vice president of academic affairs Richard Strada and subsequently (college) president Jon Larson," said Flynn, a four-year sociology professor. Until a meeting with Strada on Nov. 17, Flynn had "never been informed of any deficiencies in my teaching or activities in serving the college, school of social science, student or community," she said.
Instead, Flynn said she successfully satisfied all nine criteria the Board of Trustees applies annually to determine the possibility of tenure, received positive reviews during 11 in-class observations and was otherwise told by Strada that he would support her application for tenure.
"I come here to you today in shock and disappointment," Flynn said. "I respectfully ask you (Board of Trustees) to examine my record of achievement and overturn President Larson's non-recommendation."
Chris Berzinski, an NJEA field representative, said after the meeting that "certainly something's amiss" when well-regarded instructors such as Flynn and her three colleagues (who chose not to comment publicly about their employment) aren't extended tenure.
That feeling was shared by Flynn's colleagues, who spoke on her behalf while also criticizing what they said was a lack of integrity among the college's leadership.
"I have experienced a steady decline in morale and have felt the community of this community college falter," said Kathy Tietge, president of the Faculty Association. "I suspect the problem lie in the climate of evaluation, the fact that faculty are never certain which instruments are being used to evaluate them and the lack of follow-up when faculty are evaluated."
Robert Furstoss, an English instructor, said "the treatment of at least one of our non-tenured colleagues involves a breach of institutional integrity. ... this breach of institutional integrity is not isolated. It is, we must acknowledge, emblematic of a deeper and systemic crisis of institutional integrity and trust."
Larson said after the meeting that he's comfortable with the board's decision but otherwise declined comment, as he and the board are restrained from publicly discussing personnel issues.
'Isn't this a betrayal of trust?'
Flynn said the decision to deny her a fifth year at OCC and tenure protections was not based on classroom performance or service to the college. Instead, the problem lies with her residence: she lives in Mahwah, in northwest Bergen County.
"From what I understand from my conversation with President Larson, my place of residence was problematic because he inferred that once I was granted tenure, I was under no obligation to continue to take part in service to the community, Ocean County or service to the college. ... In my opinion, I am not being recommended for tenure for potential future lack of performance," Flynn said.
She further claimed that she was assured she would have been recommended for tenure if she had moved to Ocean County. As a sociologist, "only by living in the community you were teaching in could you understand the institutions that make up the culture," Larson allegedly told Flynn.
Assembled faculty found this rationale maddening.
"She (Flynn) received excellent reviews and was told that she was the standard by which other faculty would be judged. What are we to think when we discover that she is not being awarded tenure because she does not live in Ocean County? How may of our employees do not live in Ocean County?," Tietge said.
Linda Henderson, a math instructor, said, "How can someone reach this stage of the tenure process and suddenly and inexplicably fall short? ... Isn't this a betrayal of trust?"
Tietge, the head of the Faculty Association, said staff have "professional concerns" about the tenure process and "do not feel valued for the expertise they bring to the college.
"We know that tenure is not a right and that it must be earned," Tietge said. "We expect that our deans and the vice president of academic affairs will tell us where improvement is needed. But how does one do that when one is not certain of the outcomes. How do we promote fellowship if members of our community are not nurtured through this process?"
Several students also spoke in defense of the instructors, with one saying she felt "deeply hurt and saddened and a little ashamed."
Trustees did not respond to the commenters.
Berzinski, the NJEA field representative, said after the meeting that it is too early to decide whether any further action on behalf of the non-tenured instructors will be taken. For now, he hopes the board will consider the commentary of the faculty and staff.
However, he said he's never seen a board overturn a decision on tenure in his career.