SMTD alumni express solidarity with lecturers, LEO protest

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 5:32pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Over 50 University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance alumni have sent videos to the SMTD administration, voicing their support for the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and their non-tenure faculty members. This comes after LEO accused the SMTD of unjustifiably cutting course loads from two non-tenure faculty members after the ratification of a new contract between LEO and the University. 

The new contract was ratified in July 2018. It included salary increases, improved health benefits and job security for nearly 1,700 non-tenure track faculty across the University’s three campuses.

Controversy emerged when SMTD administration notified Missy Beck, lecturer of dance, that a course she has taught for nine years would be taken over by a tenured faculty member. In the email, Anita Gonzalez, interim chair of the Department of Dance, told Beck her course load was being cut to avoid paying her the salary increase outlined in her new contract.

“Because of the large increase in LEO salaries the administration would like to move as many LEO courses as possible to tenure track faculty,” Gonzalez wrote.

SMTD has since then denied such claims and stated the course load changes were results of a review of its entire instructional workforce, including all tenured, tenure-track and clinical faculty, lecturers and graduate student instructors.

In an email to The Daily, Gonzalez denied the email existed and said she was “amazed at how many invented facts are circulating.”

Beck expressed that removing her course load based on such reasoning feels unconvincing and unfair to her.

“I have an email (from University administration) that states that the LEO raise is the reason they were taking course load away from me,” Beck said. “And afterward, they have denied that, and they tried to come up with different reasons, yet they won’t backtrack their decision. I have been a full-time lecturer for 15 years; I’ve been part-time before that for three … so, for them to say that I’m not qualified now, after 18 years, to say whatever else they come up with, the reason keeps changing, it is not fair. They shouldn’t be able to do this to me.”

Beck’s former students have filmed videos expressing support for their mentor and many spoke to The Daily about their personal experiences with Beck.

Music, Theatre & Dance alum Fabiola Torralba remembered Beck as one of the most caring and dedicated lecturers she had ever had. Torralba noticed how Beck valued and encouraged diversity, and the extra help from Beck encouraged her to finish school.

“She was always very, very positive,” Torralba said. “She always treated us with respect and offered us a place that valued what each of us had to bring to the classroom setting based on our particular nuanced and culturally diverse backgrounds. I think that she was one of the reasons I stayed in my graduate program. She was supportive outside of the classroom and was always there for me, even when I didn’t necessarily seek her for support.”

Music, Theatre & Dance alum Kathleen Wright agreed that Beck played an important role in her school experience and said Beck is well-qualified to teach, despite her position as a lecturer.

“There was no difference between her and a tenure faculty,” Wright said. “If anything, she went above and beyond. She was everyone’s favorite instructor. She personalized and differentiated instructions for each one of us. She did a lot in SMTD.”

In addition to Beck,  Jean-Claude Biza Biza Sompa, a SMTD lecturer of Congolese dance, had his course load reduced by the administration following the LEO raise. The administration notified Biza, who has taught at the SMTD for 32 years, he will lose two-thirds of his course load and will only be hired back to teach one semester a year. This decision had gone through numerous changes due to the backlash the SMTD faced from Biza’s students. Biza eventually received an erroneous layoff letter, which was corrected after the deadline for layoff notifications, according to LEO’s timeline of the event.

During a previous interview with The Daily, Biza expressed fear about losing his course load, since teaching at the University is his primary source of income.

“This is the only job I have,” Biza said. “I’m a part-time teacher and I don’t get those many hours, so if they cut that, that means I have to look for some other job. I have to look for some other job or do something to support my family.”

Despite the support from alumni in the form of videos and letters, Beck believes the University is unresponsive to the issue. She expressed that this lack of response is the biggest problem faced by LEO protesters.

“They don’t listen to their alum — who are successful — saying, ‘No, this is what we need.’ And that’s worrisome to me,” Beck said. “I’m not here just for me. I’m here for every lecturer on campus, I don’t want another person like me, finding out that they can’t pay their rent, after being here for 18 years with a contract that says you should be here full-time.”

After dismissing the email, the University argued these course load changes are simply a way to cut the budget. Beck said this is unreasonable given the changes to her course load only concern about $10,000, which she said is nothing compared to her contribution to the University. 

“I’m actually in the classroom,” Beck said. “I’m the one who has working alum in the top of the field saying, ‘She taught us this,’ and they’re saying, ‘We don’t have the money to pay you to teach our most successful alum and most visible alum.’ People who have won Oscars, people who have won Tonys have written in, have sent videos, and they’re saying they don’t care what they have to say. What does that mean as a school?”

Torralba said moving course loads to tenured faculty affects not only the livelihood of non-tenure lecturers, but it also means putting more of the stress of teaching on the already over-stressed tenured faculty members.

“I’m not sure about how tenure faculties feel about absorbing the course load,” Torralba said. “But just from being there for those two years, everybody is overcommitted, everybody is working around the clock and super busy. Busy with work load, not just academics, but also the creative demand that comes with being an artist and being a professional at that level.”

In addition to the support letters and videos from alumni, LEO also started a petition in support of Biza and Beck which demands the SMTD at the University’s Ann Arbor campus keep long-serving lecturers at their current appointments. The petition aims to gather 1,000 signatures and has 699 signatures as of May 29.

LEO President Ian Robinson claimed that their efforts in supporting Beck and Biza are important because this issue concerns the right of all lecturers.

“Because the lecturers are primarily focused on teaching — that’s what they’re paid to do; that’s what they’re rewarded for focusing on and being excellent at — we are the ones who tend to get to know our students better, work more closely with them, do more labor-intensive forms of teaching,” Robinson said. “This has been documented by research I and others have done, so I would say that we are a very essential part of the undergraduate experience.”

Claire Hao contributed to the reporting of this article.