November 27, 2002

Premature Retirement of Lecturer Stirs Controversy

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As a result of new College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) policies, Prof. Robert W. Venables, American Indian studies program, will leave Cornell in June of 2004 three years before his scheduled retirement. For the remainder of his tenure at Cornell, Venables will not be allowed to teach the course Introduction to American Indian Studies, AIS 100, a class he has taught since 1969 at Hunter College, the State University of New York at Oswego and Cornell.

Earlier this semester, Venables sought an appointment within the landscape architecture department so that he could continue to teach in the AIS program. New CALS policy requires program lecturers such as Venables to be affiliated with a department.

Jane Mt. Pleasant, director of AIS, explained that she had been unaware Venables would not continue to teach AIS 100 until October 1, when she received a copy of a letter to Venables from Kathryn Gleason, the chair of the department of landscape architecture.

“I had fully expected that Dr. Venables would be teaching with us until 2004,” she said. “We are dismayed that this is happening to Dr. Venables.”

Mt. Pleasant said she believes that the department of landscape architecture’s decision not to allow Venables to continue teaching AIS 100 will provide an opportunity for a member of the tenure track faculty, as opposed to a lecturer, to teach the class. One of the program’s primary concerns is that it does not have enough faculty support.

“Providing simply lecturers was shortchanging the program because right now we have zero tenure-track faculty lines,” Mt. Pleasant said.

Venables’ students are outraged that university administration is not allowing him to continue to teach his class and is terminating his contract three years before his scheduled retirement.

“It is unbelievable to sit in his class, which is all-encompassing in terms of the facets of life that it touches,” said Sarah Cabel ’03, a student currently enrolled in AIS 100.

Noah Pollock ’03 said he also feels strongly about the issues surrounding Venables and AIS 100. Pollock took the course during his sophomore year.

“He is a one-of-a-kind professor who brings incredible passion to the course,” Pollack said. “It is a real shame that we are going to lose this great professor. It is a great disrespect to cut him off three years before retirement age. This is not how to treat a professor that has moved thousands.”

Venables’ students believe the passion and experience he brings to AIS 100 is insurmountable.

“I took this class first semester of my freshman year,” said Moss Templeton ’03. “It is still the most inspiring class that I have ever taken at Cornell.”

The AIS program will continue to offer AIS 100 and is currently interviewing faculty for the position.

Gleason notified Venables that he would no longer be allowed to teach AIS 100 after he was already in discussions with the department of landscape architecture.

“[The decision] surprised me,” said Venables. “I thought I would get into the department and the course would be double-listed as LA and AIS.” Venables was informed by Mt. Pleasant that he would be unable to teach the class.

Susan Henry, dean of CALS, and Senior Associate Dean Bill Fry informed Venables that his contract would not be up for review. According to Venables, this came as a shock as he assumed his contract would be reviewed and he would be reappointed.

According to Venables, when he arrived at Cornell in 1988, CALS Dean David L. Call told him he could not put him on a tenure-track position because the AIS program does not exist as a department.

“Call told me, because my work was highly valued, I would be here forever,” Venables said.

“This is why faculty needs tenure,” he added. “I’ve been here since 1988 and I’ve done my best. I’ve had a real impact on Indian country and will continue to have an impact, and what I have brought to the university should be valued. And it has been valued by previous administrations.”

“I think this is being driven at the deans’ level by the economic crisis,” Venables said. “At other levels there are major philosophical differences between director of AIS Jane Mt. Pleasant and myself.”

Venables will continue to teach courses in the department of landscape architecture, including LA 140, Symbols of New York, a cultural landscape history of New York.

Archived article by Sarah Workman