Letter to the Editor: From a concerned former professor

Petya Andreeva, Contributor

I write this letter as a former member of the OU community and a deeply concerned university professor who is incredibly frustrated to see my former colleagues and the people I have grown to care for be subjected to a downright horrific set of policies and precedents. I came to OU as a tenure-track Assistant Professor and within a matter of days, I grew to truly and passionately care for the AAH department which coincidentally happens to be one of the strongest at this university. I hope the following sentiments will not be misconstrued as condescending or mere expressions of my frustration because neither would reflect my intentionality.  In a world that was until recently ruled by “alternative facts,” it is, I think, significant to take actual facts as seriously as we can. I hope you will then agree that it is an irrefutable fact that the AAH department, along with many others, has extremely highly-qualified, world-renowned PHD and MFA holders, people whose educational credentials and expertise far exceed those of most professionals in this country and the state of Michigan. That is a simple yet powerful fact. Another interesting fact that seems to have evaded the decision-making process of this administration is that these are not merely professionals — I can personally attest to the fact that AAH faculty consider teaching and research their vocation. While for many a job is a way to make a living, advance one’s social status or push a political agenda, for us being a professor always remains at the heart of our very existence, and is never simply a way to ensure that existence. I learned this, along with many other valuable lessons, during my year at OU, being constantly inspired and driven to do great things by my wonderful, talented, supportive colleagues in AAH and other departments. These colleagues have continued to show me nothing but kindness even as I left to pursue my career elsewhere.

During my time at Oakland, I witnessed a level of dedication to one’s profession and students that truly humbled me. I dare say I learned more in the one year that I stayed there than I did during any other educational or professional experience. I was a very young instructor, fresh out of my PhD program at UPenn, and had never taught an independent class in my life. As a foreigner who, like many others, came to this country with a bucket full of dreams, I moved all the way from the East Coast to Michigan, a state I had never visited before. Needless to say, I was elated but also anxious, at times apprehensive and scared. Colleagues would often stay after work for hours to share their syllabi, show me their methodologies, or simply comfort me and put my mind at ease when I started to drown in self-doubt. From day one, their kind-hearted, welcoming attitude and readiness to share research and teaching materials made all the difference. Thus, what could have easily been the most challenging year of my life became the most rewarding one.

In light of all this, I was not only saddened but also deeply disturbed to discover that some of the most inspiring, dedicated, considerate educators I’ve met in my professional journey have been treated in such a deplorable fashion that in no way should reflect the stance of any higher educatIon institution in the United States. Not only is the decision to cut one’s healthcare heartless and cruel, but it is also truly indicative of this administration’s inability to assess the needs of students and the general trends in the field of higher education. I have since moved to a different tenure track job at a university in NYC. While my decision to leave OU was a professional and largely selfish one driven by a desire to have better access to resources, it was also impacted by what I sensed even back then to be an occasional blatant disregard for faculty’s expertise and a disproportionate, unjust compensation of faculty labor. Please understand that none of this is “normal” or a common practice at other universities. You are setting an example that is not only dangerous and harmful to higher ed, but also stands contrary to the ideals and values of every respectable institution in this country. I also hope that you understand that unlike me, many OU faculty have chosen the selfless path — they stay where they are most needed, in a state that has suffered numerous economic setbacks in the past twenty years, and is in need of qualified young professionals. I am quite certain that many OU professors would be able to find jobs at more well-known universities, bigger cities, or find better paying jobs in other fields where they will receive the respect they deserve. And yet, they stay and fight for a better future for the state of Michigan and its young people, many of whom can’t just pack their bags and enter the privileged world of Ivy leagues (a world that admittedly used to be my own). Perhaps it is time to ask yourselves why it is even necessary to have these tenure-track positions if the university does not have a master plan to support its faculty on their proposed career paths. Is cutting their health benefits during a global pandemic really a way to sustain and grow a community of dedicated intellectuals whose expertise is sought far and wide? While at OU, I found that this was a collective whose primary bonds were kindness, compassion, intellectual curiosity, and a shared passion for knowledge and making a difference. I never imagined that this would be a community ruled by fear, frustration and humiliation. By denying faculty their dignity, you are belittling and quite frankly destroying this great institution at its core. As administrators and trustees, your main job is to serve students and faculty, because a university cannot exist without its professors and student body, but many can in fact flourish with a reduced administrative body.

It is not too late to prevent other talented faculty from leaving the OU community. I left and so will many others unless you truly revisit your priorities, investments and future plans.

I can assure you I am not alone in my frustration. As I am sure you are aware, the proposed cuts at OU have made headlines and have been severely criticized on faculty forums across the country. It deeply hurts me every time I hear the name of OU in the context of social injustice when I know that we should instead be hearing that name in a very different set of headlines — as a hub for intellectuals, innovators and dreamers. Isn’t it time to return to the lofty values and ideals that the university leadership always touts as fundamental in their welcome speeches to new faculty?