To hear many of his former students tell it, Scott McPartland was one of the most popular professors at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His courses on the history of science filled quickly and often had a long waiting list. But in August, after teaching an NYU summer-abroad program in England, McPartland resigned without explanation, ending his 12-year run at the school.
Now some of those students are demanding an answer. Believing McPartland was forced out, senior Stevie Kohler has taken the case to a new website, savescottmcpartland.com. She says the school has been axing teachers who buck the system or who back union efforts on campus.
“I’m trying to raise awareness about Scott,” says Kohler. “People don’t realize that there’s a larger possibility that he was forced to resign. I’m also worried about Gallatin being run like this. They can’t continue firing teachers like this without telling students.”
When spring semester begins, on January 20, the dissenters may even set the Web browsers in NYU computer labs to open with this question from the protest site: “Is Gallatin Lying About Scott McPartland’s ‘Resignation?’ ” The introduction calls for students to challenge McPartland’s dismissal: “We are frustrated by NYU’s lack of disclosure about the process of his dismissal and we have been silenced in our repeated pleas in his defense.”
Neither McPartland nor school officials would provide comment for this story. “I’d love to talk about it,” said Gallatin dean Frances White. “But I would never talk about a person’s personal issues.”
The silence has been filled instead by McPartland’s supporters, nine of whom have posted online testimonials. According to them, the trouble began during the England trip, when a few students grew dissatisfied with their instructor.
“There is an obvious smear campaign being created against a brilliant and talented Professor,” writes teaching assistant Ann Ryan Hughes, who took part in the three-week study called “England in Myth and Stone.” The course introduced students to Arthurian myth, astronomy, and archaeology through a tour of cultural sites. Eighteen students traveled by bus, visiting such landmarks as Cornwall and Stonehenge.
Kohler writes that a clique against McPartland formed during an arduous hike through the Cornish moors: “It was ninety degrees that day. He didn’t mention how long the walk might be, and almost no one brought water with them. The hike ended up being around five miles long, and took three hours. The group dynamic was particularly clear halfway through the walk: Many people grinned and beared the discomfort. Others began to complain loudly, egging each other on to the point that some of them simply sat down and refused to walk any longer.”
The clique was reportedly unhappy with the unstructured classes and stopped participating. “They started to panic toward the end of the trip when they realized they had to hand in journals and get started on their papers,” says Hughes. “This is when they began their coup.”
What, exactly, that coup was made ofisn’t clear. McPartland is generally agreed to have made a mildly off-color joke at one point. Hurrying some female students off a trampoline, he borrowed a line from The Man Show. “As much as I like to see girls on trampolines, we’re all waiting for you in the bus,” student Carver Tate remembers him quipping.
Back in the States, say the students, someone complained to a parent, who then contacted the school. The school had an investigator conduct a meeting with the people who’d been on the trip. When the investigator brought up sexual harassment, they say, even the disgruntled students denied that was an issue. “The people who complained emphasized that he shouldn’t be fired,” says Lisa Venbrux, a student. “They just wanted improvements for his teaching.”
The Voice made repeated efforts to reach students critical of McPartland, but they were either unavailable or refused to comment.
Sources say the administration eventually offered McPartland a settlement, and McPartland accepted because he has a family to support. The insiders speculate he was an easy target since he was neither tenured nor an adjunct with union protection.
Angela Dillard, a Gallatin history professor, says Gallatin’s senior faculty advise nontenures to keep their mouths shut and their heads down. McPartland was known to be a maverick who supported adjunct professors unionizing and hoped that teacher-line professors, as his position is known, would eventually be unionized. “Scott wasn’t that popular with my senior colleagues. He got branded as a troublemaker. He was someone who always raised unpopular ideas and sided with other unpopular people. A boat rocker,” says Dillard.
Gallatin insiders say the school is marked by a division between the founding professors, who want to emphasize teaching, and newer hires like McPartland who want to emphasize scholarship as well. In 2001, the administration denied the tenure of another outspoken professor, Mohammed Bamyeh. That catalyzed a year of protests and resulted in the creation of a Student Bill of Rights, an agreement giving students more say on the firing and hiring of their professors. “After the student bill of rights was passed, students generally thought arbitrary dismissals of popular faculty members wouldn’t happen again,” says Kohler’s website. “We were wrong,”
Bamyeh wasn’t surprised by the uproar. “The university is full of secrecy,” he says. “In most places there is a due process but there, you have no recourse. I haven’t seen a system as secretive as NYU. It’s like a medieval trial, where you are charged and you don’t know why you’re sentenced.”
Intrigue and politics are all part of life in a university. But NYU may be an especially tense environment due to the new adjuncts union, created in 2002. “NYU is especially brutal,” says adjunct Martha Bordman, who helped launch the union and then sued the school for trying to fire her over a lack of collegiality. “Even if you’re successful, you’re going to get screwed, so that’s why you have to walk the straight and narrow. I’ve talked to professors who were Teachers of the Year and got fired the next day.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 13, 2004