Nine full-time professors at Sierra Nevada University in Incline Village learned last week that they will not be returning to campus when classes start back up this fall. The news quickly found its way onto social media, where faculty, alumni and current students reacted with dismay.
The school is the state’s only accredited, private, four-year institution and is known for its small class sizes and long-time professors who’ve taught there for decades and worked to create programs, launch clubs, found speakers’ series and advise clubs. Some of the professors who were told their contracts will not be renewed are among them.
The school is breaking ties with two business professors, two arts professors, two English professors, a science professor, a math professor and a psychology professor. The elimination of the two English professors leaves that department with only adjunct faculty–part-time, contracted professors.
This Is Reno spoke with several of the professors, all of whom said they were under obligation to keep their comments off the record as a part of the stipulations tied to severance packages they received from the university.
One adjunct professor who resigned from teaching undergraduate English classes at SNU was under no such obligation.
Gayle Brandeis is an author who has taught classes at SNU for seven years. She announced her resignation in the wake of the university’s decision to sever ties with the nine professors, including the two from her department. She will, however, continue teaching in the Master of Fine Arts program.
“They were beloved, beloved professors,” Brandeis said. They were the only two full-time English professors, so, essentially, the English department was killed. And it sounds like they are planning to rely on adjunct professors to teach. … I’ve loved teaching at SNU. I’ve loved it so much, but I could not give them the cheap labor that they’re looking for when these professors were fired.”
Brandeis is also concerned that the specific faculty whose contracts are not being renewed may be an indication of administrators’ and the university board’s future plans for SNU.
“It feels like there’s been a movement of late to have SNU be less of a liberal arts college and more of a business college, which feels contrary to its founding,” Brandeis said.
According to an SNU board member, she’s correct.
Janet Lowe is vice chair of the board of trustees at SNU. She said the board has a “very heavy heart” concerning the decision to not renew the professors’ contracts but stressed that she wouldn’t label it as a firing of the employees.
“Their contract terms are annual, and there are some people who are not getting their contracts renewed—but the word firing is technically incorrect. I mean, that’s just a technicality. It doesn’t make them feel any better,” she said.
“This is particularly difficult. I can tell you there were tears on both sides.”
Lowe said the school’s total enrollment has dropped to less than half of what it was seven years ago but that the school just hadn’t kept up on necessary faculty reductions to adjust its faculty-to-student ratio until now.
Six professors, several of whom were vocal critics of SNU’s administration and a perceived erosion of the school’s liberal arts roots, were let go in July of 2017.
“The other thing you probably should hear for us is that the market for specific programs that we specialized in has changed,” she added. “There are more students wanting sort of job-ready degrees for things like business and sciences, which was what we were moving toward. This has hastened us moving toward it.”
Lowe said the decision will help the school stick to the three themes of its mission, “entrepreneurship, sustainability and creative intelligence,” but that SNU’s administration will continue to believe in the values of a liberal arts college.
She’s not surprised that the news of the nine professors made the rounds on social media among people displeased by it, but she stressed that she hopes people understand the decision was not made lightly.
“It’s very typical for this sort of thing to flare up on social media, and faculty are such a heart of the organization,” Lowe said. “So, this is particularly difficult. I can tell you there were tears on both sides.”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.