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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Students organize for extension of visiting professor's contract

Student organizers are fighting for the renewal of Visiting Assistant Professor of English and American Literatures (ENAM) Stacie Cassarino’s contract as she currently faces job insecurity after six years and four individual winter terms of teaching at Middlebury.

Cassarino was originally hired in 2004 to teach a variety of courses in creative writing before joining the Humanities & Media Studies Department at Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn for three years and the English Department at UCLA for four years in 2008. In 2018, she was rehired at Middlebury to teach a first-year seminar on a yearly contractual basis, and the school has continued to extend her contract by one year every year since then. 

Professors can be invited to teach at Middlebury as tenure-track professors, with the option to be reviewed for a tenured position after several years, or as visiting professors whose contracts are typically renewed annually or every few years. 

Last summer, when the college extended her contract, Cassarino was notified that while she could continue to teach at the college, her benefits from the institution would be discontinued. Given that her contract renewal process happens so late, Cassarino is unsure she will be offered any classes to teach at the college next year. 

Cassarino currently teaches both a sophomore and first-year seminar and is the advisor to 34 students, but she is unsure whether she will continue to have a position with Middlebury next semester. As a professor living in college-provided housing, this wait does not only impact her professional career but her family as well. 

Jaden Hill ’22, a former student of Cassarino’s, and Bella Cady ’22.5, a current advisee, launched a campaign to keep Cassarino employed by the college as a visiting professor and ensure she has greater job security in the future. On March 17, they sent an email to past and current students and colleagues of Cassarino requesting testimonials to speak to ways “she has touched their lives and is essential to the Middlebury Community.” 

“Losing professors such as Professor Cassarino, who are committed to centering intersectionality in curricula and classroom conversations and creating safe spaces for students of marginalized identities, brings into question Middlebury’s commitment to solidarity and community on campus,” Cady and Hill wrote in the email to students and faculty. 

Thus far, the student organizers have received over 70 responses from students and colleagues in support of extending Cassarino’s contract. The testimonials speak to a wide variety of Cassarino’s strengths as a professor. 

“Her ability to facilitate authentic and rich discussions, and especially to encourage listening, contemplation, and silence when necessary in those discussions, is unmatched,” one testimonial reads.

In her testimonial, Casandra Dormeus ’25 wrote, “Her generosity does not go unnoticed and her ability to make space for BIPOC students in her class and have an inclusive curriculum is commendable."

Many others say in their testimonials that their time spent in Cassarino’s classes is why they think of themselves as writers today. They mention the quality of her mentorship both in and outside of the classroom. 

Arthur Martins ’22.5 is a joint major in ENAM and Gender, Sexuality and Feminisit Studies. Martins met Cassarino in his first-year seminar course, Literary Borders. He enrolled in Introduction to Creative Writing with Cassarino in Spring 2020 as well as an independent study, in which they produced a poetry booklet. 

“Keeping Professor Cassarino at Middlebury is imperative if the college is truly committed to having diverse, well-accomplished faculty who care about students beyond their grades and their professional successes,” Martins said. 

After receiving the testimonials, Cady and Hill decided to take student voices directly to the administration and the ENAM department. On April 11, they heard from the Educational Affairs Committee (EAC), the faculty committee on campus that reviews all academic staffing requests on campus. They wrote to Hill and Cady via email that the testimonials were moving and inspirational. 

“Our committee would give all due attention to a proposal from the English department or related departments on behalf of Professor Cassarino,” the EAC wrote in their email.

On Tuesday, April 12 Cady and Hill met with ENAM faculty to speak on behalf of Professor Cassarino. Students read their testimonials with the hope of demonstrating the diverse and meaningful impact Cassarino has had on a large number of the student population. Following the ENAM faculty meeting, Cady and Hill met with Dean of Faculty Sujata Moorti and Provost Jeff Cason on April 15 to convey their hope to extend Cassarino’s contract.

In the meeting, Moorti and Cason outlined the process of faculty hires through the EAC as well as discussed formal structures for students to participate in department conversations, such as the Student Advisory Council, according to a statement Moorti sent to The Campus. Since these meetings, Hill and Cady have received no further communication from senior ENAM faculty, the Dean of Faculty or the Provost. Professor Cassarino still has no certainty about her standing in the department moving forward. 

Brett Millier, chair of the ENAM Department, explained there are certain departmental barriers that might inhibit Cassarino’s employment at the college.

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“The ENAM, soon to be English Department, has a large number of non-tenure track faculty, who teach almost full time on three or five year contracts,” Millier said. “There is little desire in the department to add another position that is not full-time and tenure track.”

“In addition, the department has a serious commitment to diversifying the faculty and the curriculum and would feel obligated to search first for a person of color to fill any position we were granted,” Millier said.

Millier notes that she is still working hard to find courses for Cassarino to teach at the college next year so that she can remain at the college until there is an open tenure track position in the department that she can apply for. She reiterated that the students' strong support is helping to make that possible, even though budgets for staffing courses are currently tight.

Hill and Cady continue to seek follow up meetings with Moorti and Cason. They also set up a website where people can read the student and staff testimonials as well as all of Cassarino’s current professional accomplishments and contributions to the college. They remain persistent in their efforts to secure Cassarino a position at the college moving forward. 

“By making this website, we hope to amplify student voices in a way that can’t be ignored by going more public, so we compiled the testimonials with the hopes to make them more widespread,” Hill said.