December 3, 2002

Venables Reacts After Forced Retirement

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Late last summer the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) informed Prof. Robert W. Venables, American Indian studies, that his appointment with the American Indian Studies Program (AIP) would not be renewed, forcing him to retire three years early in June 2004.

Later in the semester, Venables learned that he would not be able to teach his popular course, AIS 100: Introduction to American Indian Studies, for his remaining time at Cornell. These two events have stirred controversy among dedicated students and caused many to wonder about the University’s underlying motives.

“It would seem there’s a connection [between the events] but I can’t document that,” Venables said. “I think that what’s happened is that someone in the University has decided that I’m no longer of value to the University and someone has also decided that AIS 100 is also not of value to the University as I teach it.”

Venables was informed last summer by William Fry, senior associate dean of CALS, that his appointment with AIP would not be renewed. As a result, Venables, who until recently taught only within AIP, became affiliated with the landscape architecture department on Oct. 1 to remain at Cornell. Venables therefore expected to teach AIS 100 from the department, cross-listing it with AIS.

The department is jointly sponsored by CALS and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

A new CALS policy dictates that program lecturers must also be affiliated with a department. Venables believed that his new appointment with landscape architecture would allow him to continue teaching AIS 100. However, he learned in an Oct. 1 letter from Kathryn Gleason, chair of the landscape architecture department, that CALS would not allow him to teach the course after this semester.

Venables had a verbal agreement with CALS former dean David L. Call that his contract with AIP would always be renewed.

In 2000, when his contract was last renewed for another five years, “there was no indication that the University was dissatisfied with my work,” he said. “It came as a big surprise to me that I wasn’t going to be given an opportunity to present my case. I find that quite offensive.”

Last week, Jane Mt. Pleasant, director of AIP, said that the landscape architecture department made the decision not to allow Venables to continue teaching AIS 100. Gleason denied that she had any involvement with the decision.

“I had fully expected that [Venables] would be teaching with us until 2004,” Mt. Pleasant said in an article in The Sun last Wednesday. “We are dismayed that this is happening to [him].”

Mt. Pleasant declined to comment beyond her statements last week.

Venables cited budget cuts and ideological differences as two possible reasons for his contract not being renewed.

“I felt that the dean’s office has primarily focused on economics and budget cuts [which could be] either a justification or a major reason,” he said.

Additionally, he said, “I have philosophical differences with [Mt. Pleasant].”

He would not elaborate on the differences, but said they “could be as severe as Palestinians and Israelis … we’re not talking about superficial issues here.”

Venables is also concerned with the fact that if he cannot stay at the landscape architecture department past June 2004, he will retire “three months short of my 63rd birthday,” not allowing him full Social Security benefits.

“What the University is doing is knocking me in the kneecaps,” he said. “Even if they didn’t agree with my politics, my research, the Indians I work with, there is a moral issue, an ethical issue of firing someone when they’re almost hitting 63 — I’m certainly going to pursue.”

Venables was hesitant to speculate further on the reasons for his treatment by the University and CALS.

However, he added, “I don’t want to be paranoid but last time I checked, Cornell was on Cayuga [American Indian] land.”

He emphasized that this is the latest in a series of difficulties within AIP.

“There’s been a battle in the [AIP] for close to a decade. It involves stands that we take with the external world and philosophies in regard to education,” he said.

Venables has taught AIS 100 since 1969 in various forms, beginning as a small seminar at Hunter College then moving to the State University of New York at Oswego and finally to Cornell in 1988. The course is typically large, with 848 students enrolled last year. Although the course was capped at 550 students that year, a computer error allowed twice as many to enroll. The course was then cross-listed with rural sociology, which allowed students left out to enroll with that department when AIS 100 became full.

Venables eventually decided to keep the oversized class.

This year, however, the course was reduced in size and budget. Approximately 240 students are now in the class, Venables said. He traces these reductions to a change in the formula Cornell uses to calculate the profits from each course. Also, he said, the large size of the course created problems with teaching assistant (TA) lines, among others.

In addition, the meeting time was changed from Wednesday nights to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons this year, a change Venables stated was also detrimental.

“It makes a huge difference,” he said. “I am not able to talk about as many subjects as with a three-hour block.” He added, “It’s really astounding to me that you get less information in a Tuesday/Thursday class than in a Wednesday-night class.”

The course will continue to be taught at Cornell by another professor yet to be hired. A search is currently underway in AIP to find a replacement for Venables. He said that AIS 100 will become a social sciences-oriented course as opposed to the humanities course he has taught for decades.

Venables will teach LA 140: Symbols of New York in the spring and a new course on cultural and Native American landscapes next fall in the landscape architecture department. He will continue to teach in the department for his remainder of time at Cornell.

“We’re delighted to have [Venables] in our department. He’s a good colleague,” Gleason said.

Many current and former students of Venables have expressed concern over his premature retirement and his inability to teach AIS 100.

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

Susan Henry, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS, was not available for comment.

Archived article by Andy Guess