April 3, 2008
All of Julian Hermida’s classes are filled to capacity with longer waitlists than he can accommodate and he’s had to ask for larger rooms to fit all of his students.
Photo: Rafal Andronowski
Roughly 100 Dalhousie students are calling on
the sociology department to reconsider its decision to close its doors on a
popular professor at the end of the term.
Julian Hermida, who teaches social sciences classes on law and society, says sociology chair Chris Murphy told him in December 2005 that the department wouldn't renew his contract. Murphy is currently on sabbatical and unavailable for comment.
"I wasn't surprised," says Hermida. "They made it clear it was a 10-month contract and nothing [was] guaranteed."
But two of Hermida's students, Samantha Sonshine and Carly Fidler, started circulating a petition to keep the prof at the university.
The petition says the professor is "essential" to Dal, and that the support he lends to students in academic and extracurricular activities far surpasses his responsibilities as a professor.
"We believe that with his departure the study of criminology/sociology of law will decline at Dalhousie," the students wrote. Sociology of law classes are in high demand at Dal and according to the petition, the loss of Hermida would further limit the availability of these classes, hindering students' education.
"Everyone thinks he's great," says Sonshine. "What we're trying to say isn't just that his classes are popular, but necessary."
Fourth-year international development student Anna Negrin says it took her three semesters to get into one of Hermida's classes because they're so popular. All of his classes are filled to capacity with longer waitlists than he can accommodate and he's had to ask for larger rooms to fit all of his students.
"He finds a way to connect with everyone in the class," says Negrin, who signed the petition. "He's fully committed to students. Any problems, academic or not, you can talk to him."
Hermida says that although he hasn't seen the petition, he's flattered by the students' concern.
"I have a passion for students, they have taught me to be a better person," he says.
While he's done a lot of research — he's authored two books and published 30 articles — he says he loves teaching the most.
"To me, it's a privilege," he says. "I wouldn't change anything."
Hermida says the department told him his sessional contract wouldn't be renewed due to a projected decline in student enrolment and a budget deficit.
Sessional contracts at Dal are usually 10-month positions that can be renewed a maximum of four times.
If professors aren't granted tenure after four contract renewals, they can no longer work at the university, under the Dalhousie Faculty Association's regulations.
But Hermida says he doesn't see how a drop in enrolment would affect his classes, which are all currently full.
"I don't think sessionals contribute to decreasing enrolment," he says. "Some sessionals increase enrolment. I would start looking at it in terms of student attraction."
The dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences, Marian Binkley, won't comment on Hermida's case but says students may be unaware of the complexities of the hiring process for professors.
"Individuals are hired for contractually set issues," she says. "Everybody that we hire on a short-term basis cannot be ultimately hired full-time."
Hermida's contract has been renewed twice.
Acting chair of the sociology department, Richard Apostle, says he can't comment on individual cases. But he says students have a big impact on what professors are hired, especially for tenured positions.
"We have a very democratic structure," he says. "These decisions are usually taken by a committee and decisions are made mostly based on consensus."
Apostle says the department will make an effort to continue offering the classes Hermida currently teaches.
University president Tom Traves says that a professor's popularity with students doesn't necessarily mean he/she will be hired back. He says he hadn't heard about the petition to keep Hermida at Dal.
"Students can participate in the process but only up to a point," says Traves. "They have limited expertise and knowledge to contribute to the decision."
Traves says the university hires professors not only as teachers, but also as researchers.
"Most undergraduate students wouldn't have any perceptions of the person's ability in that regard," he says. "It wouldn't be sensible to base your decisions on the basis of fundamentally who is popular."
A petition adds valuable input but students need to realize they don't have a full understanding of other aspects of the hiring process, says Traves.
"All you can do is make your input and hope that somebody pays attention to it in the appropriate fashion," he says. "It is relevant information but it's not sufficient in and of itself."