Media Studies Professor’s Departure Raises Questions About Hiring Process

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Illustration by Sophie Cooper-Ellis

Whitman College has hired Tarik Elseewi as the new tenure-track assistant professor of film and media studies beginning in the fall semester of 2014. The administration’s choice, however, has been met with mixed reactions from students.

Current Visiting Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies Annie Petersen was not hired for the position and will leave after this academic year. The lack of student regard in the hiring process has produced issues between the administration and students. A Facebook group entitled “Advocates for Annie Petersen” has garnered a 133 member following, representing the frustration that the students feel towards the loss of Petersen and also the current format of the hiring process.

“[The Advocates for Annie Petersen group] wants to emphasize that although Tarik is going to be a great professor here and do a lot of really good things for the department, it’s also really hard not to acknowledge the fact that we are losing something really valuable in letting go of Annie,” said sophomore film and media studies major Meg Logue.

Over 100 candidates applied for the position, and three were brought to campus to give presentations. During the application process, the candidates gave two presentations, one as a sample class and one presenting their research, to a public panel consisting of mostly student film and media studies majors. The hiring committee, which is composed of Professor of Film and Media Studies Robert Sickels (program chair), Associate Professor of Philosophy Rebecca Hanrahan (Division II chair), Associate Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain, Assistant Professor of Art Justin Lincoln and Assistant Professor of Art History Matthew Reynolds, reviewed the public’s remarks, but the final decision was ultimately left up to this committee. The Committee of Division Chairs and the president also must approve the hire.

Many of us were on the panels, and we had overwhelmingly voted for her,” said junior film and media studies major Jess Good. “On the hiring committee we have a minimum of student input, but there are certain things that students could contribute [to the hiring process] which no hiring committee could ever see.”

The leaders of the Advocates for Annie Petersen group,  juniors Jess Good, Dana Thompson and Lindsey Holdren, encourage members to write letters which will be sent to the Board of Trustees, the hiring committee and the overseers. The letters include laments over the administration’s decision, a call to form a third tenure position in the film and media studies department and a call to include more student involvement in the hiring process.

“Most of our goal is to advocate for more transparency within the hiring committee and more student involvement even if it’s just a student majority vote or a student on the committee,” said Logue.

The students who participated in the public panel had access to the job description and kept those stipulations in mind when writing their assessments of each presentation. As a formal policy, however, the administration does not announce the hire to the public or give any reasons for their choice.

“They did not make an announcement, which I understand they don’t do, but I think that’s extremely cowardly,” said Good. “It was a blow out of nowhere that no one expected.”

Students know that there were a variety of factors that led to Elseewi’s hire, but they speculate that the administration wanted a candidate who specialized in global studies, and Elseewi’s specialization in electronic media and national identity in the Arab Middle East fits this description.

“I believe that Professor Elseewi will make a wonderful addition to the Whitman faculty,” said Provost and Dean of Faculty Tim Kaufman-Osborn in an email. “In addition to considerable expertise in various forms of mass media, including but not limited to television, he will bring to Whitman a perspective that will significantly enhance our commitment to introduce global perspectives into our curriculum.”

With this stipulation for the position in mind, Logue points out that Elseewi is a good fit for the job. However, Logue wishes the college could have been more transparent with the students in regard to the administration’s desired qualifications for the position.

“One of the things they were looking for was globalization, and that was one of the things Tarik marketed himself really well for, and he would be really qualified in that area. Having that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that they hired him,” said Logue. “But it was definitely very difficult for students going in because [the students giving feedback] weren’t aware that the college was looking for that criteria in specific.”

In regard to tangible change, Good recognizes that advocating for a third tenure position in the small film and media studies department is unlikely for financial reasons. The group’s main focus, then, lies in their wish to include student opinion in the hiring process. According to Good, this would take form in altering the college’s formal hiring process by having more transparency along the lines of what the administration is looking for in a candidate, and also allowing for a student majority opinion to be verbally addressed to the hiring committee.

“We feel like this process was not done the right way, and we want to change the process that gives more weight to student voice,” said Good. “This is the reason why we want to call attention to Annie. If we can’t save this department, then we want to save other departments.”

The hiring and tenure process was under a similarly heated dispute in the spring of 2012 when former Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature Alberto Galindo was denied tenure. The specifics of the denial were also not made public, and this decision brought about a similarly negative outcry from students that called for a reevaluation of the tenure process at Whitman.

The administration holds the belief that their decision to hire Elseewi fills certain academic goals of the college as a whole. Kaufman-Osborn commented on the high quality of Petersen’s teaching ability but also recognizes that there are other factors contributing to the hire.

“I am very much aware of the significant contributions made by Professor Petersen to the Whitman academic program during the time that she has been a member of our faculty, and I am truly grateful for those contributions. That said, I understand why the search committee advanced the recommendation it did on the basis of multiple considerations, including teaching excellence, but also an appreciation of what each of the final candidates might contribute to the overall academic program of Whitman,” he said.

Petersen taught at Whitman for the spring semester in 2010 and then came back in the fall of 2012. Her classes cover topics such as film theory and pop culture with content including post-Katrina media and the TV show “Mad Men.”

“I love Whitman and I love the students, and it’s always been my dream to teach here. It saddens me that that’s no longer possible,” said Petersen.




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Responses


Nathan Lessler Dec 12, 2013 11:32 AM

As a recent graduate of the FMS department, it truly saddens and angers me to hear this news. Professor Petersen was not only one of the best professors I had during my four years at Whitman, but she also revamped and revitalized the FMS department, which was pretty much seen as a joke of a department prior to her arrival. The department has grown x4 since she has been at Whitman.

I’m also deeply disappointed in the hiring process, which in addition to lacking student involvement, seems to be based on the administrations idealistic image of what they want Whitman to be, rather than looking at what the school ACTUALLY excels at. This is evidenced by TKO’s admission that the decision was based on what the professors “might contribute to the overall academic program of Whitman” (MIGHT being the key word here) rather than “teaching excellence.” Whitman likes to see itself as global. It’s not. It’s in freaking Walla Walla. In reality, great teachers are what make great education.

Anyhow, it is such a shame to see Whitman pass on hiring a professor who is clearly 1 in a 100.


A Professor Dec 14, 2013 23:47 PM

The internal candidate may seem like a shoe in for a job, after all, this person has built a rapport with the students and faculty. This rapport also has another effect of exposing weaknesses in a candidate. The unfairness of this can be magnified from a student’s perspective. What we know as students is that someone is teaching us effectively and that we like them as a person. What we don’t know is what their resume looks like, nor do we know how to read it accurately. Student remarks during a recent tenure denial mentioned in this article proved well that students did not know how to read a CV to distinguish peer-reviewed articles from non-peer reviewed, strong venues for publication from weak. As someone who has hired several professors on this campus, BUT had no hand in the Film Studies hire, I can say that seeing the entire file of a candidate offers a very different picture than a classroom impression. When hiring, we are expected to predict not only the success of a candidate in the classroom, but the overall success of a candidate within their field and the likelihood that they will publish enough to make tenure. We have to predict this at the time of hire and examine closely the candidate’s track record to make this prediction. As we know from recent experience, it is no fun when a faculty member is denied tenure. Examining these details closely is how we try to keep this from happening to the best of our ability. In addition, the hiring committee is within its right to hire candidates whom they believe will bring something new to the campus curriculum. In fact, we are looking for that, always, in every committee, every department, regardless of field. Diversifying offerings directly benefits the students. I am sure that Professor Peterson is a fabulous instructor, and I find her work fascinating, but as applicant pools became more competitive due to the high rate of Ph.D.s out there, it is tough to gain tenure track jobs more generally. Tenure track jobs are less than 30% of the available job pool in the US, competition is getting stiff. Visiting professorships are less competitive than tenure track jobs. As for the Pio’s coverage, I am disappointed that “the administration” and Provost/Dean Timothy Kaufman Osborn are being blamed for this hire when it was made by a committee of faculty members. It is rare to never that the decision of hiring committees are overturned by the Dean. This worries me since it appears students are still unaware of the way hires are made yet want even more influence over who gets hired and who gets fired. Already, the opinions of student committees are taken very seriously in our hiring practices, but they are not the final word. There have been occasions in which students have provided useful feedback that factored heavily in searches I have served on; there are also times in which students have offered discriminatory comments about candidates, urging us not to hire minorities and women, in violation of federal law actually. These are times in which faculty discretion is a necessary intervention. Lastly, I wish someone could consider how rude this article is towards newly hired Professor Tareq Elsawy who is joining us not from some academic backwater but from Vassar College! Treating him as some kind of consolation prize, or better said, charity hire, for Global Studies rather than a highly-qualified innovative scholar-teacher overlooks his qualifications for hire. Annoyingly, the article refers to Professor Elsawy, a man of color, on a first name basis, this isn’t a kind welcome from student newspaper and frankly smacks of some “power and privilege,” does it not?


John Coppinger Dec 17, 2013 13:51 PM

As a Junior FMS major who has had the privilege of having Professor Petersen teach several of my classes, I can honestly say that she is the best teacher I have ever had at any level of my education thus far. I have learned more from more in her just this semester than I have learned in any other point in my 2.5 years at Whitman. She has immeasurably helped to enrich my education and provided me with skills that are directly applicable in my chosen career field, one that is rapidly expanding at this time. By failing to retain Professor Petersen, the college is failing to retain someone who has dedicated herself not just to publishing research, but to genuinely enhancing the educational experiences of all her students. I have not yet had another Professor at this school, or ANYWHERE, who visibly dedicated as much time to her students as Annie Petersen. I am sure that the hiring of Professor Elsawy will prove to a be a benefit to college’s stated goals of increasing its academic reputation. I am sure that he is a more that capable educator and I am excited to participate in his classes next year. However, I am distressed by the fact that school continues to care less and less about student needs and opinion. The Administration’s decision not to retain Professor Petersen is, I feel, representative of larger trend at the College whereby the voices of students and their specific education needs are being marginalized. To reiterate, Professor Petersen is the best AND most dedicated teacher I’ve ever had at Whitman, and at this stage in my academic career, will likely ever have.


Student Dec 30, 2013 20:02 PM

A Professor,

A quote refers to him by first name, the article does not. What does the fact that he is a man of color have to do with any of that? If we want to bring discrimination into this lets think about the fact that all the voting members on the hiring panel were men. Additionally most students understand how to read a CV and the process/importance of peer-reviewed publications. I find your tone to be amazingly condescending.


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