Professors in the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program, or WGSS, as well as the African American studies program, or AAS, were recently notified they would maintain their positions after uncertainty from within their departments.
WGSS professors Kim Little and Patty Stokes and AAS professor Dan Moak were all initially told within their departments their contracts would not be renewed but later received notice their contracts would be renewed.
“The University has been very clear that no final decisions were made regarding faculty positions until shortly before the position eliminations were announced on May 15,” Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, said in an email. “Prior to that date, we understand that conversations with department chairs may have led these individuals to believe their positions would not be renewed, but no official notice was ever given to them by the University.”
Stokes also said there was talk about cutting instructors before the COVID-19 pandemic affected the university.
“When we went in to having to change all our classes to online or remote … I did that with this terrible feeling of dread that my job was going to be gone,” Stokes said.
Stokes said she felt a weight had been lifted off her shoulders when OU President Duane Nellis originally announced budget reductions would be paused during the pandemic.
“I still didn't breathe out totally though because I thought, ‘This is a pause. This is not a fundamental rethinking,’” Stokes said.
Stokes said when she was notified by her director that her contract would not be renewed, she “spent the day in shock and tears.”
“I felt so betrayed and so disappointed,” she said. “I’ve taught here since 2002.”
Stokes said she later received a call May 15 notifying her that her contract would be renewed after all.
“What that means for me, practically speaking, if leadership does come for my job next year, then that still could be curtains, but I've got — from now on out — at least two years,” she said. “And that gives me a little time to think about … what else could I do in a more clear-headed frame because I was really so stressed that it was impossible to concentrate.”
The WGSS program has been asked to make cuts in the past, Stokes said, and she believes the program would have been in a stronger position had it been approved to become a department around 2010 when an application was submitted.
“That was a turning point where we could have become more secure,” she said.
The program also tried making changes about three to four years ago. Stokes said the program was looking to hire another full-time faculty member during that timeframe in order to reduce long time reliance on adjunct professors. Because it is not a department, WGSS cannot have professors with a “tenure home” in the program, Stokes said.
“It’s exploitative,” she said. “Let’s put it this way: people who have taught as adjuncts here, who’ve had families, who have had to go on food stamps. And so those who are trying to hang on to tenure have very good reasons for wanting to maintain that, but I don’t think it would have weakened tenure to extend it for teaching faculty — for people who are full-time, who’ve been here for five years, who’ve gotten promoted.”
Stokes said she will be taking a 3.8% salary cut as well.
“I would gladly take a 10% instead of 3.8% cut. I’d take a 15% cut out of my own little salary, if it meant that other people could keep their jobs,” she said.
Stokes also said by targeting languages as a place to make cuts, along with WGSS and AAS, the university is not upholding its stated commitment to diversity.
After it became known to students that departments such as WGSS and AAS were facing possible cuts, various groups and individuals spoke up on social media to promote advocacy for these programs. Stokes said she is grateful for the advocacy the community provided.
“I can’t say with any certainty what impact advocacy had on decision-making because I truly don’t know what tipped the balance,” she said in an email. “I am so very grateful for the outpouring of support from our students, alumni, and even some Bobcat parents. They made the case for WGSS and AAS being an essential part of the curriculum, and for keeping the instructors whose labor keeps those programs vibrant.”
Moak said it was important seeing people speak up about the value of these programs.
“One of the things that was most heartening throughout that difficult time was seeing all the support from students, colleagues and some of the broader community that reaffirm the value of these areas of study,” Moak said. “That was something that was very nice to have during an otherwise fairly excruciating time period.”
Moak said he was notified May 1 about the non-renewal of his contract and was surprised by the outcome. Later that day, an announcement came out informing Moak that no official decision had been made.
“It was just a very confusing next couple of weeks, and I genuinely did not know if I had a job,” he said. “(I) actually expected that I did not because that was the last thing I had been told.”
Moak said it was “mixed emotions” when he did get notice his contract would be renewed because he was still devastated to hear 53 other professors did not get the same news.
“It’s difficult to know what the impact of that will be moving forward, and I think one of the things that I have been concerned about and other faculty have as well, ‘was this the only alternative?’” he said. “It certainly appears like there are other options that could have been taken, rather than taking the fairly drastic step of laying up 53 faculty, not to mention the hundreds of people that are cut from the custodial work force and from the classified staff.”
Moak also said he worries about the campus opening in the fall amid coronavirus concerns with a reduced custodial staff.
“I certainly think that, moving forward, something that really protects the academic mission of the university should be first and foremost,” he said. “And that includes things like protecting custodial staff.”
Correction appended: The article has been updated to reflect a more accurate timeline of Stokes’ job renewal, as well a more accurate timeline of when the WGSS program attempted to make changes.