Piano Professor’s Departure Upsets Music Students

In the past three years, the Whitman music department has undergone monumental shifts in its faculty, both tenure-track and temporary. After a recent decision to not rehire highly esteemed piano specialist Melissa Loehnig, some music students are questioning the policies of the administration and the nature of the tenure track at Whitman.

“In the music department, we have five tenure-track positions. Four of those people left within a two-year time period. We have three full-time non-tenure-track positions, and one of them left, while another took a maternity leave for a year in the same time frame,” said Susan Pickett, the chair of the music department. “This is a huge amount of turnover.”

Whitman’s Hall of Music. Photos by Faith Bernstein.

Three years ago, multiple tenured professors retired, giving the music department little time to find temporary replacements. From 2009 to 2011, the department lost Dr. Robert Bode, a tenured choral director; Lee Thompson in piano; David Glenn in jazz; Edward Dixon in cello and music history; and Pete Crawford, the director of the Wind Ensemble.

Faced with the dilemma of hiring new faculty in a short amount of time, the department hired non-tenured faculty in the form of visiting assistant professors and lecturers. Among these hires was Dr. Loehnig, a current piano instructor and teacher in the department.

Highly regarded  by her students, Dr. Loehnig was recently informed that she would not be rehired for her current position in the coming year, though it is becoming tenure tracked.

Several of her students were surprised and upset by the news.

“The news was shocking. I was confused and sad for Dr. Loehnig,” said sophomore Cheney Doane, a piano performance major. “I recently declared to be a piano major, and a change in teacher is a big deal. She was one of the reasons I declared.”

Though Loehnig is a visiting professor, the position she currently holds has been tenure tracked in the past.

“When a professor retires from a tenure-track position, it is not assumed that the tenure track will be retained by the department. You go through a vetting process, in the meantime hiring temporary faculty while the various administrative bodies sort out [whether] the department will retain the tenure-track positions,” said Pickett.

Loehnig was one of these hires. After the college granted the tenure-tracked position back to the department, a hiring process began in which Loehnig was considered equally among the dozens of applicants.

“The hiring process began in August, when we advertised on the most prominent listservs for collegiate jobs,” said Pickett. “We are going through those applicants and will bring a pool to campus in December to interview and make final decisions.”

Loehnig was not chosen to be in this final pool. A committee comprised of music faculty and other faculty members made the final decisions in selecting the small group of finalists.

Doane is a member of the small student committee also playing a role in the process.

“I’m really pleased to see what the process is like,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m happy, but I definitely want to have a voice. If I have an opinion, I won’t be afraid to let Dr. Pickett and the committee know.”

Still, students are upset that Loehnig is not being considered more seriously to retain the position she now holds. Many expect that her lack of experience was the primary factor, as she is competing with over 50 applicants from around the world, according to Pickett.

“There’s no stability in the department right now,” said junior Kristi Von Handorf, a previous student of Loehnig’s. “Students are definitely upset right now.”

According to some music students, the situation with Loehnig isn’t unprecedented.

“The exact same thing happened with Dr. [Jeremy] Mims last year,” said Von Handorf.

Though Mims is teaching this year, he was not chosen to be rehired for the following year, much like Loehnig. Last year students raised concerns over Mims’ case as an example of the perceived lack of student input into tenure and hiring decisions and the overall direction of the music department.

Though the past few weeks have yielded some unexpected developments in the music department, Loehnig said she understands the hiring process to be fair.

“I would expect nothing more than to be treated as any other candidate for this position. I don’t know the details, but I do know that I was given equal consideration. It just turned out that they were looking for something I didn’t have or couldn’t offer,” she said in an email. “While there are a lot of changes happening right now, I think once the dust settles, the students will adapt. It just seems overwhelming to them because all of these changes are happening at one time.”

Though some of Loehnig’s students are deeply upset by the music department’s recent decisions, they know they had a wonderful experience with Loehnig, albeit shorter than many wanted it to be.

“She is fabulous and so dedicated to her students,” said Von Handorf. “She really cared about us.”

Loehnig’s students said her encouragement enabled them to grasp their full potential.

“She really inspired me,” said Doane. “She still makes it fun to practice two hours a day.”




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