This occasional feature follows up on news stories long past their prime. In this edition: the dismissal of long-time Student Support Services Dean Jacqueline Simonis and what caused the faculty uproar over her departure.
On June 22, 2009, Jacqueline Simonis was abruptly dismissed from her job as associate dean and co-director of Student Support Services after 23 years at MIT.
According to a July 9 letter written from six faculty members to former faculty chairs, Simonis was told she was being laid off due to budget cuts and that her job would end immediately.
“She was told that she was expected to be available to coordinate the transfer of her responsibilities while working from home,” the letter stated. “She was not allowed to speak with her colleagues in private, nor to return to work in her office.”
Around the same time, Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo lowered S^3’s reporting rank within the Division of Student Life and moved to initiate an administrative review of S^3’s services.
Neither Colombo nor any other administrator had consulted faculty members about the decision to lay off Simonis, the decision to restructure S^3, or the decision to initiate a review of S^3.
These actions aggravated some faculty members and prompted a flurry of letters and heated discussions. The faculty had three major concerns, which Clay summarized in an article in the September/October issue of the Faculty Newsletter:
¶ first, that such important changes had been made without faculty consultation;
¶ second, that the changes might “degrade” S^3’s quality of service;
¶ and last, that the manner in which Simonis was dismissed was “inconsistent with Institute culture and procedures.”
A July 2 letter addressed to Clay from current and former faculty members of the Committee on Academic Performance lamented the changes to S^3: “The academic careers (and even lives) of innumerable MIT students have been saved … thanks to [Simonis’s] work … These recent actions … have created a tentativeness within the Student Support Office and the overall support system for our students.”
The Committee on Academic Performance decides when to give students academic warnings or require them to withdraw from the Institute. S^3 advises CAP on many students’ cases, and the S^3 deans “often have a much better picture than anyone else of what’s going on,” said Jessica T. McKellar G, who was CAP member for three years as an undergraduate.
“We do not believe that CAP can properly fulfill its duties to the faculty in collaboration with a Student Support Office in such a state,” the CAP letter to Clay went on.
The letter recommended that the Simonis layoff and other interim changes be reversed since they “put the Institute’s core mission at risk.”
In response to these concerns, Faculty Chair Thomas A. Kochan arranged a meeting between concerned faculty, Clay, Vice Chancellor Steven R. Lerman PhD ’80, and Colombo, during which, “All parties … acknowledge[d] the seriousness of the issues and concerns raised by the faculty,” according to an article in the September/October Faculty Newsletter.
At this meeting, faculty and administrators agreed to create a joint faculty-administration-student task force to review S^3.
The committee, which is co-chaired by Professor W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80 and Lerman, will not address the significance or circumstances of Simonis’s layoff or the interim changes planned during the summer, which were rolled back before the 2009 fall term began. The committee was also not specifically asked to address budget cuts that affect S^3.
The task force was originally due to submit its report to Clay on October 30 and has not yet done so, but should “very soon,” Clay wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
Discussion with administrators and the task force’s creation has renewed some faculty members’ faith in the administration and in S^3’s ability to support students. Active discussion about the events that provoked a storm over the summer appears to have ceased.
Still, concerns linger among other faculty who never felt satisfied by the administrative response to their grievances.
Professor and former member of the faculty Committee on Student Life John W. Belcher said he, too, was upset that faculty, including those on the CSL, were not consulted prior to Simonis layoff. Belcher said that in his 38 years at the Institute, “I’ve never quite seen this kind of reaction.”
He said he is “still not happy with the actions” that have been taken to resolve faculty concerns. He sees “the appearance of a conflict of interest” in the membership of the S^3 task force: Since three of its members report to Clay, the group’s work “doesn’t have the appearance of an independent review.”
Several faculty and administrators, including Clay, Kochan, and task force members Professor and CAP Chair David A. Pesetsky, Grimson, and Colombo did not respond to or declined requests to be interviewed for this article stating variously that it would not be appropriate to discuss S^3 while it was undergoing review.
The events that transpired over the summer had, thus far, only been detailed publicly in the September/October issue of the Faculty Newsletter, which is the source of all letters excerpted in this article.
While Simonis’s dismissal from S^3 will not be reversed, her legacy as a dean lives, perhaps most powerfully in the minds of students whose lives she directly impacted.
Grace Kenney ’07, who worked with Simonis both before and after she took time off from MIT, said she was shocked when she found out in an October 25 e-mail on the ec-discuss mailing list that Simonis had been laid off.
Kenney said that Simonis helped through an academic crisis in her sophomore year. “Things were spiraling out of control and I couldn’t figure out how to get back on track,” Kenney said. Simonis “got me to calm down and helped me figure out a plan to get things back together,” she said.
During that time, Kenney met with Simonis every one or two weeks. Later, around the time of her graduation, she stopped by Simonis’s office to thank her for her support earlier on. Kenney is now a PhD student at Northwestern University.
Sari A. Canelake ’10, who also worked with Simonis during a period of academic struggles, learned about Simonis’ dismissal in the same ec-discuss e-mail.
She said Simonis helped her decide not to drop out of MIT, take a year off, and switch courses (from 5 to 6). Later, she reviewed Canelake’s application to be readmitted to MIT.
“I felt like she cared that I was doing poorly and happy that I was doing well,” said Canelake, which was especially valuable since “My parents have never really been involved in my education.”
When she discovered that Simonis had been laid off, “my jaw dropped,” Canelake said. “It was like finding out your close family member left.”
The Division of Student Life’s decision to dismiss Simonis made them seem “out of touch” with the student body, the very group it is their job to serve, said Canelake.
McKellar said that Simonis’s experience made her “a very good advocate for students” and gave her “a good sense of when student could come back and be successful.”