This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
On April 25, Terry Tempest Williams sent a letter to University of Utah administrators explaining why she would not sign the restrictive three-year contract with a required early retirement clause they had offered her. She is the founder of the graduate program in Environmental Humanities at the university and has served for 12 years as the Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in that program. She is a life-changing teacher. She is one of the leading writers of our age. Her affiliation with the university has raised its reputation worldwide. The attempt to control this extraordinary member of the faculty is a flawed and terrible decision.
We cannot know all the details of the newly restraining contract, nor of the reasons behind it. We do know that University of Utah administrators who wrote the objectionable contract will dismiss our arguments by pointing out this fact. They will also argue that we have no standing in the case, as neither of us is a member of the U. of U. faculty. We counter those objections first, by focusing primarily on the process, aspects of which we know intimately through our own decades of experience as university professors and administrators, and second, by noting that expanding administrative overreach is a problem at all of Utah's universities, including our own Utah Valley University.
In her letter of resignation, Williams made several points that echo broad changes in the nature of U.S. universities over recent decades, changes that we have spent much of our careers contesting:
1. Although university policy assigns decisions on hiring, firing, and curriculum to members of the faculty who have the required expertise, administrators increasingly make those decisions themselves.
2. Williams was told she was "paid too much for too little," that she was neither teaching enough classes nor enough students. Administrators knew this because she had been "flagged by human resources." The expanding role of HR offices at U.S. universities diminishes the critical practice of shared governance and transforms universities into corporations. Human resources should not be involved in decisions regarding faculty assignments.
3. Given the number of hours Williams was teaching, she was said to be "not in compliance" with federal regulations regarding employment and health care. Questions were raised about accreditation and safety. "Compliance," "accreditation," and "safety" are words the growing cadre of attorney-administrators uses to make faculty compliant.
4. Williams was told she must teach her classes in the campus classroom rather than in the field. These are classes in environmental humanities. This is Terry Tempest Williams! She is a distinguished fellow because of her work with birds, with landscapes, with wilderness, with nature, with the human heart. However good she is with students in a classroom, she is irreplaceable in her interactions with them in the field.
5. The contract was negotiated by a university attorney rather than between a dean and a faculty member. University administrations are increasingly reliant on legal professionals who systematically undermine faculty roles in shared governance.
In short, the corporation of the University of Utah has found Terry Tempest Williams expendable.
On the most basic level, universities exist to facilitate interaction between faculty and students. Faculty are engaged in research and creative work, and students seek them out as mentors. The practice of teaching clarifies and expands faculty thinking. Mutual learning is the productive result. The only function of administrators should be to make those faculty-student interactions as productive as possible.
Terry Tempest Williams decided not to comply with forces that vitiate the work we do as university faculty and students. We deeply admire her for that choice, as we do for so many other things she has done with her "one wild and precious life" (Mary Oliver). Her refusal to restrict her teaching to the classroom, her resistance to corporate pressures, her risk-taking (stances like these come with substantial personal cost) all these choices inspire us.
Sam Rushforth and Scott Abbott were co-founders of a BYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. With dedicated colleagues, they sought and won an AAUP censure of the BYU administration for grave breaches of academic freedom. More recently, Abbott was director of the program in Integrated Studies and Rushforth the Dean of the College of Science and Health at Utah Valley University.