Letter to the Editor: Need for student input comes to light in Berard tenure denial

You may have seen musicians on the quad, posters taped up in the Katzen Arts Center, white armbands and ribbons, picket signs, music students fuming. Maybe you know this has to do with tenure denial. Maybe you just think the music kids have lost their minds.

But this fight goes beyond personal stories and raw emotions. There are facts to consider.

First off, I’m surprised to hear so many people do not understand the tenure process. Maybe this is because tenure is something our University does not openly discuss with its students. In any case, a professor on the tenure track is evaluated several times during their employment at AU.  If, at the end of a given number of years, the professor is deemed to have performed satisfactorily, he or she is granted tenure. That is, the professor will have greater job security in order to conduct research and will also be eligible to be department chair.

If the professor is not granted tenure, he or she has a year to wrap things up and then must seek employment elsewhere. The individual cannot stay at the university in any position. This is what happened to Professor Jesus Manuel (Manny) Berard — a music professor and AU Symphony Orchestra director.

In Manny’s case, several key positions changed hands during Berard’s tenure process —we have a new provost, a new dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, a new president and others. People not familiar with Berard’s work were left with the task of evaluating his worth at AU. This is not a fair process.

Using the AU portal, students can see teaching evaluations from past semesters.  Manny’s scores are extremely high in his advanced-level courses. The marks are a little lower in the General Education sections, but Berard isn’t one to conduct a sleeper course, which could skew the numbers. What student hasn’t heard complaints about Gen Ed professors that actually assign real work? Plus, these scores have improved over time.

The main fuel in this battle is the support of orchestra students. Our orchestra isn’t limited to music majors. Instead, the group opens its arms to people like me — people who believe in learning music for music’s sake alone. Sometimes, this means players of different proficiencies and musical backgrounds together on one stage. Considering this, our concerts could sound horrible — like a patchwork of amateurs.

Instead, we make real music. The orchestra has improved significantly under Manny’s baton. We have alumni members in our orchestra who still play with us — they tell tales of days when the orchestra sounded much worse than it does now.

Manny is proud of the acclaim the AU Orchestra has garnered over the years (ensemble members are, too). He often receives letters, notes and e-mails congratulating us on our performances. Without fail, he reads us these letters. Given the frequency of these memos, our concerts are an achievement the university should be proud of.

Manny has also done his part in the D.C. music community. He was chosen to lead the D.C. Youth Orchestra, a group that has not only produced professional musicians, but has given AU a handful of freshman music recruits over the past few years.  In a city defined by socioeconomic status, the orchestra is a cultural oasis. The group has performed at the White House and received numerous accolades. AU should honored to be connected to the community in this way.

He also conducts professional groups around the country. He has had his doctoral thesis published in an acclaimed journal.  As a minority, he also helps AU boost its diversity stats — something that is stressed again and again in the University’s Strategic Plan.

In short, the reasons to keep Manny could fill a book. But these reasons don’t seem to resonate much with our administration.

This is my seventh semester as a violinist in the AU Symphony Orchestra. I’m not a music major or minor — I’m not going to have a Carnegie Hall career on my violin. I won’t be churning out albums anytime soon. But I’ve also sat on that stage long enough to pass judgment of Manny’s worth at AU.

I’m not alone in this opinion — nearly 100 letters expressing dismay at the tenure decision were all but ignored by the provost and the CAS dean over the summer. We’ve all played under other conductors before. We’ve all had less-than-stellar experiences in orchestral groups.  By now, we know the difference between mediocrity and talent by this point.  I wonder if the provost has ever been in a symphony? At this point, I’m starting to wonder if the provost has ever even been to an AUSO concert or rehearsal.

If the university big wigs could sit in the first violin section, they might think twice before shutting out such a talented and dedicated instructor.

This is more than a personal issue. It’s bigger than losing a beloved professor. This is about giving the students a say in how their university is run.  In the world of tenure decisions, students’ opinions should matter.  We’ve been denied explanations about what happened. All we’ve gotten is a flippant “it’s too complicated to understand” or “the decision is final, there’s nothing we can do.” AU President Neil Kerwin has refused to meet with us.

Transparency is the basis of trust. This is a private university, granted, but decisions that effect students should not be handed down from above. We are not subjects. If this decision is based on something other than departmental politics, the school should have nothing to hide.

Caitlin Hillyard is a senior in the School of Communication.

edpage@theeagleonline.com

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