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Tenure Trouble : Whittier Students Rally for Teacher Who May Lose Job

April 30, 1989|MICHELE FUETSCH | Times Staff Writer

Students at Whittier College are rallying to the defense of a popular assistant biology professor who has been told that she will not have a teaching job after next year because she has not "grown professionally."

A total of 116 students, about 12% of the student body, signed a letter to the college newspaper, the Quaker Campus, saying Katherine Sapiro, 35, is a "model" of the ideal Whittier professor. Students described her as a stimulating educator who is so dedicated that she organized an advanced class on a subject not included in the college catalogue.

"Just by going to class with her, you just love the lady," said Kristi Davis, the senior biology major who drafted the letter and helped gather the signatures. "She's awesome."

President's Approval Needed

Linda Bone, a junior premed major who signed the letter, said she was at a loss to explain why the college is not keeping Sapiro. "I honestly can't tell you where the problem lies. I've never heard anything negative about her," said Bone, who called Sapiro a "really stimulating teacher."

Sapiro was evaluated by a personnel committee, which recommended that she not be retained after the next school year. The college president must approve the committee's decision before she receives official notification known as a "one-year termination contract."

College officials declined to comment on the Sapiro case, saying that personnel matters are private and that the personnel committee followed all the proper procedures.

She can appeal to the committee for reconsideration but says she has not decided whether she will. The students, Davis said, are asking the personnel committee to reconsider its decision. But college officials say there is no process for students to appeal.

One student, who asked not to be named, said Sapiro "knows her stuff. If you don't know her well she comes off very intimidating. She intimidated me at first. But that's just the way she is. She'll say, 'No, this is right, this is wrong.' "

Davis said she has never had a teacher who demanded as much as Sapiro. Instead of just handing back student papers with grades, Davis said, Sapiro would evaluate every aspect of the paper, even the writing, and return it to a student, two, three or four times, to rewrite before giving a grade.

Peter Weidenfeld, who has been admitted to medical school at Tufts University in Boston next year, told how Sapiro, as a favor to the students who are going to medical school, set up a class on cadavers on her own time. "She's just given countless hours to the students over and above (what is expected). She's come in at 10 and 11 at night to help me when I was having trouble with my lab," Weidenfeld said.

Steve Peasley, who is bound for medical school at Georgetown University next year, said Sapiro sometimes wears blue jeans to class and has a style that's different from the department's four other professors.

'At the Top'

"She's a great teacher," he said, "and they didn't grant her tenure and we thought she deserved better than that." Peasley calls Sapiro "probably one of the best (instructors) out of the whole science faculty. She's right up there at the top."

Sapiro, who has been teaching five years at the college, said she "senses" there may be a personality conflict with some other department members.

The department, Sapiro says, began recommending after her third year that she not be retained. In 1986, the college's personnel committee reprimanded the department for using sexist language in criticizing Sapiro's work, she says.

The department had complained that she was aggressive, "bullied" other members and "denigrated" opinions of some members, she said. She denied the allegations.

"It's very difficult to say what someone's motives are," Sapiro said. "What I would say is it's clear that the problems with some members of the department go beyond simply my professional activities."

She said the personnel committee, echoing the department's complaints, had raised the issue of professional growth in previous evaluations, "but they've never been specific about what would constitute sufficient professional growth."

"The committee has never said that I had no professional growth; the question is how much is enough. I think that the only reason it's an issue is because some members of the (biology) department have another agenda and this is the only criterion which they are allowed to use to support their recommendation for nonretention."

According to the faculty handbook, professional growth is measured by such factors as "scholarly publication, the adoption of materials prepared for classroom use by others in the profession, presentation of papers at professional meetings . . . participation in professional societies and professional consultation."

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