Students rally around fired professor
Wednesday's march is a response to the transgender professor's firing.
May. 05, 2009
After years of researching HIV/AIDS politics in South Africa, the first country to include sexual orientation in its constitution, Sam Bullington, a transgender male, wanted to take his research in a new direction.
"That was just a role that I had grown increasingly uncomfortable with," he said. "I tried to move away from that and start more intense work on transgender studies."
Bullington is now in his third year as an associate professor in the women's and gender studies department. He failed his tenure review and the department subsequently fired him. Since then, there has been a lot of outcry on campus and internationally, he said.
According to the Collected Rules and Regulations of the UM system, reviews are based on performance criteria and expectations discussed at the time of initial appointment.
For his review, Bullington proposed a more focused study on transgender issues, using his own life as an example.
"I was writing about my own experience of my sex change and kind of the fluidity of gender and sexuality that I experienced through that, making some broader points about gender and sexuality categories and how they operate in society," he said. "I think part of the difficulty with the memoir is a lot of it has to do with really messy issues around gender and sexuality that are considered to be in the realm of the personal and in the realm of the taboo."
When junior Caroline Erickson, Bullington's former student, found out about his termination, she said she and some of her classmates were surprised.
"The wind got knocked out of all of us," she said. "His studies are a great asset to the university, and his absence just really leaves a huge hole in the department and in a lot of our lives."
Senior Julie O'Brien, also one of Bullington's students, was taken aback as well.
"The department is so much of a community, that it was surprising that they would fire one of their own members," she said.
Bullington does not believe the committee's decision was related to his transgender status.
"There are a number of things about the process of my third year review that I don't believe were intentional transgender discrimination, but there were aspects of transgender invisibility," he said.
For example, Bullington's department allows extensions to women who are pregnant, but he was not given the same privilege despite the hormonal changes he experienced during his transition.
Despite coming out as transgender in 1994, Bullington did not begin his transition and hormone treatment until three years ago, around the same time he began his teaching career at MU.
Senior Dakota Raynes is enrolled in an independent study course with Bullington, and he believes transgender faculty members deserve the same courtesy as pregnant women and others who seek extensions.
"Seeking out a trans applicant for a tenure track position should include consideration of how transitioning affects one's personal life and professional development" he said.
Bullington said if there were a will for him to succeed, the board would provide options for him, "even if they were concerned about the particular direction of my scholarship, to give me some direction about how better to meet their expectations," he said.
Although he does not know exactly why Bullington was fired, Raynes said he realizes there are criteria of publications and accomplishments that are necessary for tenure track professors.
"I am not sure the decision was solely based on his research trajectory but also the amount of production he has accomplished," Raynes said of Bullington's termination. "However, the difficulties of publishing trans-oriented work needs to be taken into account."
Because of the confidentiality involved with university personnel matters, department chairwoman Jackie Litt declined to comment.
Bullington said before now, MU's environment has been extremely supportive of the transgender community.
"That is part of why I felt really shocked about this," he said. "I felt really welcomed here as a trans person."
He said that welcoming attitude is why students are reacting so strongly to his termination.
"Because just passing the Include Me campaign, like 82 percent of the students voted to be more welcoming of gender diversity on campus," Bullington said. "I think a lot of what the students were reacting to was the rhetoric that is taught in women's and gender studies, about what that field is about, and then kind of what the choices of the department were. It seemed to be in conflict."
In reaction, O'Brien and some other students have written letters to the department and the dean of the College of Arts and Science in support of Bullington.
"We haven't really gotten any feedback on those," she said. "I really don't think they'll have an impact, but we had to say something or we'd just be bystanders."
This Wednesday, Bullington and other students will march around campus in an act of "truth-telling." He said the march will include any people, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, who feel they have been marginalized.
"My sense of what needed to happen and what I wanted to do for myself was to use the publicity and attention that my situation was getting to shine the light on the situation of all sorts of people who have had very similar experiences," he said. "And then to be able to reclaim the campus, to be able to go to the spaces where people have felt marginalized, and instead of having to be in those spaces alone, to really have the backing of a bunch of people with you."
Senior Asher Kolieboi, who is a former student of Bullington's, said he felt like he lost part of his family when Bullington was fired. He said the support of a group would help people give testimonials.
"It's really empowering," he said. "I think it's just a way for people's voices to be heard."
Erickson said the march is a great way for Bullington to turn something negative into something really positive.
Bullington will go before the committee again for an appeal May 20. He is already committed to teach summer courses, and there is a possibility he will teach at MU next year.
"If you fail tenure, if you get fired along the way, then you are offered a year terminal contract," he said. "So I have the option of teaching here next year. I have yet to decide if I want to do that or not."