Last month, Professor Lara Nielsen was denied tenure at Macalester College. When Lara announced the news to our Performing Feminisms course in the last class session of the semester, everyone was in disbelief. Her news made us question what we know about decision-making processes on campus, like tenure review, and started a conversation about where Macalester-as-an-institution's values lie. Initial anger and tears turned to an overwhelming need to act, and ignited a community movement both on campus and in the alumni-diaspora to repeal this decision; to speak truth to power; to fight for a professor who has deeply impacted so many student lives.
As a student of Lara's, I could wax on about how wonderful a professor she is; how her curriculum alone rekindled my interest in making art, how her courses inspired me to declare my Critical Theory Concentration, and how she introduced me to the vibrant theatre community that thrives in the Twin Cities.
But, if I engage the eternal optimist that lives at the center of my feminist beliefs, what I have found empowering about this devastating news that she might leave (be fired from) our school, is the surge of student involvement and passion that followed. This is the first time that I have participated in a movement to repeal a decision that the college has made, and it has opened up a space for community that was not previously accessible to me. I am touched and inspired by my peers, who have already mobilized to support Professor Lara Nielsen at all costs. I know that at the very least, she must be proud, because she is the one who instilled in us the feminist values of collaboration, voice, shared experience, and live art movements that seek social change.
Most of the dialogue about this has been happening on Facebook, in the group, We Support Lara Nielsen!. The group currently has 583 members, and dozens of people have posted notes about their anger and love for Lara on the page. Our first mission was to collect as many personal letters as possible, to distribute to the faculty members on the tenure review board (Faculty Personnel Committee) as well as other faculty members connected to Lara, and the president of Macalester College, Brian Rosenberg. We also reached out (via social media) to alumni who had an interest in our project to reverse this decision.
There are a number of broader issues at hand regarding this situation: how is student input and feedback valued by the Faculty Personnel Committe? How does one become a member of this committee? Why are there no students on the committee? Why doesn't the school stress the importance of filling out professor evaluations that are casually emailed to us? What is Macalester's interest in keeping the performance studies and critical theory component of the Theatre and Dance Deparment? What is Macalester's commitment to the arts as an integral part of academia?
This experience has been a learning process for everyone involved. While it deeply troubles me, and I feel immense confusion, anger, and sadness for Lara as a human being, I must keep the hope alive that we can do something. That, at the very least, we can prove that the student body has a voice that can and will challenge that of the college - and that we will not be satisfied with a word-of-mouth rumor that one of our most beloved professors is being cut.
If you have any interest in this student-led movement, or want to learn more, please join the Facebook group listed above, or comment here.
Some more about Professor Lara Nielsen's work:
Professor Nielsen works in Theatre and Dance, is on the steering committee for both the Latin American Studies Program and the Human Rights and Humanitarianism Concentration, is a founding member of the Critical Theory Concentration, and works closely with the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department. She continues to produce progressive and thought-provoking work in academia, most recently with her book Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations (2012). In 2010, she was nominated for the Best Educator award by the Macalester College Student Council. During her time teaching in the Department of Drama at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, Professor Nielsen was honored with the David Payne Carter Award for Excellence in Teaching (2006). Her courses at Macalester focus on critical theory, transnationalism, gender and feminist criticism, oral history, multimedia documentary methodologies and ethnographies, and live art movements.