Students who began a petition against the termination of two engineering instructors are continuing to fight, pulling in other administrators, influential industry professionals and concerned faculty to put additional pressure on the dean, despite a message from administration calling the terminations financially necessary.
Oregon State University School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering Instructors Trevor Carlisle and Natasha Mallette are professional practice engineers as well as instructors, teaching classes and providing students with career advice. After Mallette and Carlisle were told they would not be returning next school year, two months before their contracts are set to end and with little explanation as to why, CBEE students led by fourth-year chemical engineering major Kaylene Lim created an online petition asking College of Engineering administration to reconsider their decision, garnering over 1200 signatures from students and faculty who feel the nonrenewals are unjust and unnecessary, and that the decision was made with too little transparency.
“After we started the petition, it only took 24 hours to get over a thousand signatures and we at that point sent all of the signatures and comments that were left to the CBEE school head and the dean of the College of Engineering and other different OSU-wide administrators,” said Ryan DeCastilhos, a fourth-year chemical engineering major and student organizer for the petition who believes Mallette and Carlisle's employment increases CBEE students' quality of education through their dedication to teaching, by providing key information about working in industry and serving as role models.
Shortly thereafter, DeCastilhos and the team of student organizers received a message back from the Dean of College of Engineering Scott Ashford and Greg Herman, CBEE department head, saying the nonrenewals were due to rising costs forcing the College of Engineering to cut $2.5 million from their budget, a situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that Mallette and Carlisle's terminations are necessary. According to Ashford and Herman, the strategic plan created by the College of Engineering is guiding their budget decisions.
This same message was emailed to The Baro after multiple requests for interviews were made to Ashford and Herman. In this email, Ashford said the college and administrators "must continue to invest in growing programs and efforts that align with our strategic goals."
The email gave the renovation of Merryfield Hall as one example of an investment which must move forward even amid budget cuts, as it will "provide the infrastructure and tools needed to ensure meaningful experiential learning opportunities."
However, according to Erin Martin, the Communication Manager for University Facilities, Infrastructure and Operations, funding for the Merryfield Project was identified prior to the OSU Board of Trustees approval to advance to the construction phase on April 30, 2019. Martin said most of the funding for the project, which is nearing completion, came from the College of Engineering.
Ashford did not respond to a request for comment for clarification regarding his statement about Merryfield's funding before the time of publication.
The student organizers do not believe Ashford and Herman's statement that the nonrenewals were necessary, and think other budget choices could and should have been made. Dylan Swift, a fifth-year chemical engineering major and student organizer, said herself and other student organizers have requested meetings with administration, asked for public records and reached out to industry professionals with influence on the school, hoping to approach the situation from a different angle. Swift said Mallette and Carlisle have positively impacted many students in their time at OSU, and are an important part of the school of CBEE.
Faculty Senate President Dwaine Plaza was among those included in the correspondence between the student organizers and Herman and Ashford. Plaza became aware of the situation approximately two weeks ago. After seeing the responses to the petition, Plaza set up meetings with Provost Ed Feser and Senior Vice Provost Susan Capalbo, in which they explained the reasoning behind the nonrenewals.
“They had come to a decision based on… the decline in revenue, decline in students, increasing the number of faculty they want teaching these courses as opposed to instructors and the long term forecast of the college basically going downwards economically,” Plaza said. “In the world we live in, those are basically the explanations that are given for situations like these.”
Plaza said the unusual timeline of the instructors' notification of their termination is the reason for his involvement, as well as aspects of the situation he felt were “not typical for operations.” He compiled this information into a letter sent to Feser and Capalbo, and also asked them to forward the message to Ashford to consider.
Plaza said the short notice of nonrenewals and lack of communications with faculty and staff in CBEE were among the aspects of the situation that he found unusual. He mentioned that terminating two professors who teach a significant amount of students in the college and have connections with these students already, in order to rehire for the same positions, is what led his arguments to Feser about reassessing the situation.
“There's clearly something else in the workings now,” Plaza said. “The student petition, in my mind, has created a situation where people are asking questions, whereas before the student petition and the student letters and all that, this was just going to happen.”