Trustees, Faculty Exchange Views at Retreat

Pomona College trustees and faculty professors spent most of their retreat last weekend discussing the education that Pomona students receive, despite some persistent tension between the faculty and the Board of Trustees over the firing of 17 employees who could not prove their work authorization status last semester, professors who attended the retreat said. Some faculty members said that the retreat helped to ease their concerns about how the trustees are responding to last semester’s controversy.      

Pomona’s 35th Trustee-Faculty Retreat, held at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verde, included scheduled discussions about in-classroom teaching, faculty research and the task of preparing students for life after Pomona. Trustees also held an open question-and-answer session Feb. 24, during which they briefly discussed the board’s reaction to the firings.    

Politics Professor David Menefee-Libey, who helped to plan the retreat, said that one topic raised during the question-and-answer session was the process that led to Pomona’s audit of work authorization papers last year.   

“One of the questions was, ‘We’ve heard that there is a lot of back-channel communication between certain members of the faculty and certain members of the board of trustees, and that kind of back-channel communication might have something to do with how this unfolded. Will you investigate that?’ And the trustees said ‘yes,’ which diffused a lot of the tension in the room,” Menefee-Libey said.    

“I think that in general, after that session on Friday night there were a lot of people that were much more comfortable, and there was a lot less antagonism,” he said.    

Philosophy Professor Peter Kung, who moderated the question-and-answer session, said that professors benefited from the open format of the discussion, even though some questions remain.      

“I think that it was good for the faculty to see that the trustees were willing to sit up in front of the faculty and take tough questions and take difficult questions and attempt to answer them,” Kung said. “I don’t think the questions were always answered to the satisfaction of all the faculty—maybe that’s way too high a standard, but I don’t think that happened. To resort to a cliché, it’s an important first step, but it’s only a first step.”    

Anthropology Professor Pardis Mahdavi said that the board’s response to the firings seemed to differ from trustee to trustee, making it difficult to gauge the board’s overall attitude. 

“It’s hard to get a good read,” she said. “Some articulate, ‘We feel terrible. It was a tragedy.’ Others say, ‘Let’s put this behind us,’ while some of us aren’t ready to put it behind us.”

Mahdavi, along with three of her colleagues, spoke on a panel about faculty research at the college. 

“The discourse suggests that faculty are getting too involved in research. But the two are not bifurcated—they’re synergistic. Me being a good researcher makes me a better teacher and me being a good teacher makes me a better researcher,” she said. 

Kung said he thought the panel on research was particularly successful. 

“On the one hand, you want the faculty to be spending all their time on the teaching. On the other hand, I think trustees also recognize that they want all of the benefits that come with having faculty that do research—the increased national profile, the opportunities for students to do hands-on research themselves,” he said. “The role of research has always been recognized in the natural sciences. I think the panelists did a good job talking about how research applies in the social sciences and the humanities and arts as well.”

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