Chinese appeal rejected by trustees

After two months of organizing, several public forums and a march to Bentley Hall, Associate Professor of Chinese Xiaoling Shi’s appeal of her termination has been rejected, according to announcements made by Shi and students who supported her. News of the decision was sent via email to Shi on the morning of March 30.

“I’m writing to inform you that your appeal to the Board of the decision to discontinue the Chinese Language Program has been turned down,” Chair of the Board of Trustees Mary “Missy” Feeley, ’78, wrote in the email provided to The Campus by Shi. “After giving due review of your appeal, as well as information relating to the College’s decision to discontinue the Chinese Language Program, the Board has voted to uphold the decision made in February to discontinue the Program.”

The news sent a shockwave through Shi’s supporters, including Peter Alegre, ’23, president of the Association for Asian and Asian-American Awareness and a leader of the students supporting the appeal. 

“(It was) nothing short of heartbreak,” Alegre said. “You know, you put a lot of time and effort into something and inevitably, you get incredibly invested even more so than when you started. It was something that I channeled a lot of my emotion, a lot of my anger into, and to see it end up the way that it did — quite unceremoniously, in an email with no real explanation. I mean, it’s disappointing.”

Despite the outcome of the appeal, Alegre is still proud of the movement that has been built.

“A lot of times when I see a petition on campus, I’m like, ‘what’s the point?'” Alegre said. “This (appeal) is something that really matters … that really had the energy and the emotion and the coalition building behind it to really make something happen and there’s power in what we did. There’s power in marching through Bentley (Hall) and protesting in the (Henderson Campus Center) and (in) all the posts and talks and articles and interviews.”

According to Provost and Dean of the College Ron Cole, ’87, the Chinese language program will still be in place until the academic year 2023-24 for students currently enrolled in the minor to complete their degree.

“I’m working with the Chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures to map out a teach out plan for students that have declared or may still be interested in the Chinese minor,” Cole said. “The preliminary plan is that the teach-out plan will extend for the next three, possibly four semesters.”

Cole added that work on adjusting the curriculum will not be ending with the spring semester.

“The work for changing or revising parts of the curriculum that happened in response to either the staffing plan, or the organization of academic programs, will continue through the fall of 2022,” Cole said. “Because there are teach-out plans, those courses that are delivered for affiliated programs will still be offered. So there’s not an immediacy of having to come up with an answer right now for those affiliated programs.”

While the Chinese language minor will be undergoing a teachout process, the Chinese Studies minor — which focuses more on the politics and history of China than the language minor — is still in flux.

“There’s no decision yet on what the outcome of (the Chinese Studies) minor is going to be,” Cole said. “There is the possibility that faculty connected to that minor could reimagine courses that would constitute the minor. I can imagine the faculty developing a plan for a broader minor in Asian Studies and connecting that with multiple areas of the curriculum. That might ultimately replace the minor in Chinese Studies, or maybe we could have them side by side.”

Among Shi’s supporters is the American Association of University Professors, a non-profit association of college faculty whose mission is to support academic freedom, promote shared governance, define best practices in higher education, and preserve the economic security of faculty and other educators in higher education. 

Associate Professor of Communication Joe Tompkins, who serves as the president of the Allegheny chapter of the AAUP, advises the Provost and the Faculty Council on the association’s recommendations for best practices in creating college policy.

“From the perspective of the AAUP, the process that’s been developing throughout the year does not comport with AAUP recommendations and regulations,” Tompkins said.

Both Allegheny’s Faculty Handbook and the AAUP define two situations in which a tenured professor can be removed from their position: financial exigency and “educational reasons” — essentially a faculty vote to discontinue a program.

Financial exigency is defined in the AAUP’s “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure” as “a severe financial crisis that fundamen­tally compromises the academic integrity of the institution as a whole and that cannot be alleviated by less drastic means.” In order to terminate a tenured professor for financial reasons while following the AAUP’s best practices, Tompkins said the school must declare financial exigency.

The Faculty Council confirmed by email that the school did not declare financial exigency.

“When you declare financial exigency, if you’re following best practices, you also allow the faculty to kind of see the numbers to see all the books and come to their own conclusions and offer their own perspective on this,” Tompkins said. “The AAUP (also) recommends doing whatever you can to find whatever other alternative before you’re going to eliminate a tenured position.”

According to the AAUP, the only other reason a tenured professor may be terminated under best practices is if the faculty votes to do so for “educational reasons,” which Tompkins emphasized also did not happen at Allegheny.

“If the faculty democratically decided that we need to review our curriculum, for whatever reason — (maybe) we don’t think it’s consistent with our academic mission,” Tompkins said. “We could maybe vote to convene a taskforce like that to review the programs. That’s not what happened.”

However, when the Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the Chinese minor in February of this year, they did not do so under any power described in the Faculty Handbook. Instead,  the Board was exercising its authority to “oversee and approve the educational programs of the College, consistent with its mission” — a direct quote from Article 1 of the College’s By-Laws — according to Associate Professor of Mathematics Craig Dodge, who wrote on behalf of Faculty Council.

“It is with this authority that the Board of Trustees has the power to make decisions, including discontinuing departments and programs in a manner that would result in the termination of tenured positions,” Dodge wrote in an email to The Campus. “This authority exists regardless of whether financial exigency is declared or not because the College Bylaws take precedence over the Faculty Handbook.”

Tompkins said that even if the college is struggling financially to the point of needing to cut programs, the AAUP’s stance is that cuts should be initiated by faculty, not the administration.

“Academic governance is fundamentally about democratic participation and the way the process is being played out has not sort of lived up to that principle,” Tompkins said. “It’s part of the corporate model that (making the cuts was) a top-down unilateral decision. The choices that faculty get to make are within the parameters of the major decisions that have already been made … Because they didn’t declare financial exigency, the bottom line is (doing so) allowed them to kind of get around what would be a best practice both as stated on our own faculty handbook and by the AAUP,” Tompkins said.

It is not clear yet what other avenues of appeal are left for Shi, who declined to comment to The Campus on the advice of her legal counsel. Alegre noted that this puts student action on hold as well.

“As it stands right now, we’re just waiting to see what the lawyer and Professor Shi decide as appropriate,” Alegre said.

As there is not another formal appeal process left for Shi — the Faculty Handbook states that the Board of Trustees’ decision on the appeal is final — Tompkins said that faculty activism has been effective at other schools.

“From what I’ve seen, and what the AAUP has reported on other campuses, a crucial feature in changing course has been faculty activism,” Tompkins said. “Unfortunately there hasn’t been much faculty activism at Allegheny in this regard. If something were going to have to change, I think the students have done a fine job stepping up, but faculty have unfortunately sort of dropped the ball, in my opinion.”

Should the decision stand, Tompkins said that it would not bode well for the college’s future.

“I’ve had conversations with colleagues who are worried that this is something that’s going to happen again in maybe five or 10 years,” Tompkins said. “It sets a bad precedent, especially when going around these best practices and policies in order to get rid of a tenured position.”