Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Saving Sepulveda

(Jesus Sepulveda, in addition to being a great guy, is a Chilean radical living in Eugene who wrote the book "The Garden of Peculiarities." He has presented at numerous conferences and events, including speaking alongside Derrick Jensen at the Break The Chains prisoner-support conference in August of 2003.)

Oregon Daily Emerald 4-25-07

Saving Sepulveda

Dozens of students have joined together to raise money and push the University to renew the contract of the popular language

By: Allie Grasgreen

When University senior Priscilla Ann Mendoza heard that Spanish Instructor Jesus Sepulveda's contract would not be renewed for the 2007-08 academic year, she was shocked. As a romance languages major, Mendoza took three classes from Sepulveda and found the instructor to be "an enormous asset to the University community."

"He is a professor that's changed my life," she said.

The situation raises questions about the University's commitment to maintaining institutional diversity, a core element it has recently targeted for improvement.

In protest, Mendoza and Spanish major Laura Stull organized the "Save Sepulveda" campaign to communicate the instructor's intellectual and academic contributions to the University community.

"We want to give students a voice," Mendoza said. "It's hard for us to comprehend how they can make a decision like this without input from the students. The campaign was the most constructive way to voice our opinion and mobilize the students."

For Mendoza and Stull, the uniqueness of Sepulveda's talent lies in his international perspective and engaging teaching style. A celebrated Chilean poet, Sepulveda believes one of the most critical components of an intellectual education is a thoughtful learning process.

"When you think you improve yourself; you clarify your ideas and you cultivate your spirit," Sepulveda said. "Without an understanding of the world we as human beings are going to collapse. The only way to understand the world is to have a diverse place."

Stull said that outlook is characteristic of Sepulveda.

"He's got a knowledge base that so many people in the academic community, and the world in general, don't have," she said.

Barbara Altmann, head of the Department of Romance Languages, said the loss of Sepulveda is a result of "chronic underfunding." As of 2005, only 10 percent of University faculty, officers of administration and classified employees were classified as minorities, according to the University. Many people on campus feel that the University should prioritize hiring ethnically diverse employees.

Last year the faculty diversity issue came to the forefront when former history professor Martin Summers left the University to accept a higher-paying faculty position at the University of Texas. Students responded by protesting outside Johnson Hall and submitting a petition calling on the University to make the greatest possible effort to retain Summers.

Vice Provost of Institutional Equity and Diversity Charles Martinez was unavailable for comment on the situation.

As in Sepulveda's case, the University said "limited financial resources" accounted for obstacles in retaining faculty.

But some students do not consider low state financial support a legitimate reason not to renew the contract of a diverse faculty member.

Josué Peña-Juarez, a junior majoring in ethnic studies and history, works on recruitment and retention in the Multicultural Center. He said the University's lack of commitment to create a caring, inviting environment to retain ethnically diverse faculty has resulted in a distrust of administrators by students. He suggested that administrators should foster a dialogue about diversity rather than just saying the campus is welcoming and open to diversity.

"The U of O is very good at putting on a face of diversity and multiculturalism, but it's not very apt to take that on and take accountability," Peña-Juárez said. "It's always very superficial."

Sepulveda was slightly more forgiving, but also observes misgivings in the University.

"(The University) tries, but sometimes I notice there are priorities, like building a football stadium," he said. "Humanities in general are not very well-treated. There's no balance at all."

The campaign's co-creators plan to generate a petition, collect personal testimonies and, most important, encourage student involvement in budgetary issues and administrative decisions. The testimony collection, which will be placed in a permanent file of Sepulveda's, is intended to speak for the instructor's talent should another university consider him as a potential hire.

Those who have had him as an instructor are quick to tout his skills.

University senior Lorraine Dowty said Sepulveda encourages students to think about concepts in deeper ways, provoking compelling discussion and personal exploration. They met at a Tsunami Books poetry reading where Sepulveda not only read, but inspired Dowty to register for his class. Sepulveda also came highly-recommended from two of Dowty's graduated classmates.

Although Mendoza and Stull initiated the campaign in hopes of convincing the University to renew Sepulveda's contract, Mendoza said they have come to grips with the harsh reality that low budgets complicate retaining faculty.

Bill Rankin is a 75-year-old University graduate who sometimes sits in on Sepulveda's classes. He's covering the bases he missed in college.

"I'm here because I was never taught to understand outside my own culture," he said. "This is a serious problem. If we're going to have an important role in the world we have to know what the world is."

Both Rankin and Mendoza, independently of one another, said Sepulveda is an instructor with the ability to open students' eyes to the world.

Nevertheless, that rare talent may not be enough for the University to renew the contract.

Despite Altmann's dismissal of race as a factor in either hiring or firing, Peña-Juárez finds the redundant situation "suspicious and convenient."

"It's hard to believe that it's entirely the budget when the first ones to be cut are professors of color," he said.

Peña-Juárez stressed the importance of forging a relationship between a student and an instructor, and said that's difficult to do when instructors can't stick around long enough to get to know their students. He said the ethnic studies professors he had as a freshman are no longer teaching at the University.

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