Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

October 22, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY


IC struggles to find Honors Program director candidates

No candidates have formally applied to be director of the Ithaca College Honors Program, with fewer than two months until the position becomes vacant. The two most recent directors said this underscores structural problems within the Honors Program that have gone unaddressed by the administration.

Danette Johnson, vice provost for educational affairs, said the internal search has spanned five months, with two calls for applications going out to all tenured faculty members, one in June and one in August. However, no candidates have formally applied as the Dec. 1 deadline to fill the position approaches, which Johnson said has not happened before in searches she has participated in.

“I wish this position had been filled six months ago,” Johnson said. “But there is still some time to do — obviously the window is shrinking — a formal transition with Dr. Pfaff.”

Thomas Pfaff is the current Honors Program director and professor in the Department of Mathematics. He announced May 3 in an email to honors students that he would be stepping down from the director position after the fall semester following disagreements over compensation and support from the Office of the Provost. His last day in the position is Dec. 16.

“I think it’s fair to say that the Honors Program is in a bit of a crisis at the moment,” Pfaff said. “We are at a point in the semester where the time left to even bring someone up to speed really isn’t sufficient, and so that’s problematic.”

Johnson said the Honors Program Steering Committee is having informal conversations “with a couple people” who have expressed interest and are deciding whether or not to put in formal applications. But she said she firmly believes the program will identify a new director by Dec. 1 and that the Honors Program will continue to function.

The search is completely internal and limited to full-time faculty at the college. A faculty member would teach classes in their department in addition to serving as director.

Johnson said for this search, there are a number of factors that might be limiting the applicant pool. Primarily, she said the timing of taking on this position conflicts with faculty members who are looking to be promoted to full professors in the next few years, as the duties of being the director prevent applicants from also completing research. She also said the public concerns voiced by Pfaff regarding the lack of compensation and administrative support could be influencing potential candidates.

In a letter of resignation he sent to the Honors Program Steering Committee on April 28, Pfaff said the requirements of his position had expanded as the program grew in size beginning in the 2013–14 academic year. Pfaff said he had been working weekends, facilitating summer programs, going on retreats and publishing the Honors newsletter, among a growing list of other duties, and he said he did not feel the compensation was sufficient.

The Honors Program Steering Committee, composed of Honors Program faculty members, compiled a report at the end of the 2014–15 academic year recommending an increase in Pfaff’s compensation both financially and in recognition of his expanding responsibilities. This included a proposal to make the director of the program a 12-month position, Pfaff said. Currently, he said, the director receives a stipend during the summer but is not compensated fully outside of the academic year.

Despite the proposal, Benjamin Rifkin, professor in the modern languages and literatures department and former provost and vice president for educational affairs, said it was out of his control to increase the budget. Pfaff subsequently stepped down.

Robert Sullivan, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies and former Honors Program director from 2007 to 2013, said the fact that the search has not yielded any applicants is indicative of structural problems that have been present since he was the director of the program. These include the director’s not being compensated as a full-year employee and the program’s not having enough staffing support in the form of an associate director or assistant to keep up with the growing program requirements.

He said the most qualified candidates for the program are aware of these issues, and it could be affecting their decision to apply for the director position.

“One of the problems we have is that people who have that level of commitment and knowledge of the program are particularly well-placed to be a bit worried about what they’re getting into,” Sullivan said.

Pfaff also said that despite the past two directors’ stepping down following frustrations with the administration, nothing is being done to address their concerns, which could be discouraging potential candidates.

“They don’t seem to be putting anything on the table or having any real discussions, so their assumption is somebody is eventually going to step forward,” Pfaff said. “It doesn’t seem like they are worried enough to say, ‘OK, maybe we need to have some real conversations about the structure of the Honors Program and what kind of support it truly needs.’’’

Linda Petrosino, provost and vice president for educational affairs, could not be reached despite multiple requests for comment.

Johnson said there have been conversations about these issues. However, she could not say if there are any plans at this time to address them, citing Petrosino as the source for that information.

She said nothing formal is being done to incentivize applicants to apply for the position.

Sullivan said maintaining the program falls on the shoulders of a single director for the more than 400 honors students.

“The college is going to have to come up with an adequate support system for a program of this size and this importance,” he said.

Some institutions comparable in size and type to the college structure their honors programs differently, with multiple people filling positions structured like Pfaff’s — who is a faculty member and the director.

Elon University in North Carolina has approximately 150 students in its honors program and has a director and an associate director who are both also faculty members, in addition to a program assistant who is a staff member with other responsibilities. Butler University in Indiana has a faculty director and an assistant director who also teach, and a coordinator for its 300 students, Rusty Jones, faculty director of the program, said. At Mercer University in Georgia, each college or school has its own director for the overall honors program, who also teaches in their respective school.

Like Pfaff, Sullivan said he called for increased compensation as well as support in the form of an associate director to help with the workload in two proposals five years ago. He said he never received a response about either proposal, despite informing then-Provost Marisa Kelly that his continuation as director would be contingent upon a discussion about the proposal.

“It was made clear to me that there was not going to be an acknowledgment of a receipt of the proposal,” Sullivan said. “And at that point, I left.”

Junior Ryan Opila was a member of the Honors Program Advisory Board during the 2015–16 school year. He said that while finding someone to fill the role would create a short-term solution, the concerns Pfaff and Sullivan brought up during their times as directors would still remain unaddressed.

“A faculty member stepping up would still perpetuate a situation which both Dr. Pfaff and Dr. Sullivan have both voiced concerns isn’t sustainable,” Opila said.