Students take action, push administration to overturn termination of two engineering instructors

Natasha Mallette is a professional practice engineer and instructor in Oregon State University’s School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. 

Following the termination of two engineering instructors’ contracts, dismayed students have created a petition currently signed by over 1,100 people and delivered it to administration, imploring them to reconsider the decision and allow the two to keep their positions. 

The Oregon State University students, staff and community members who have taken action say the instructors who were let go, Trevor Carlisle, Ph.D and Natasha Mallette, Ph.D, are a valuable part of the Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering department, and criticize the contract terminations as having been done too abruptly and with little transparency. CBEE administrators have not yet responded to these concerns. 

Last Tuesday, April 21, Carlisle and Mallette were notified that their yearly contracts would be terminated, and that their last days at OSU would be June 15, the end of the academic schoolyear. Last Friday, all faculty in CBEE were notified of the terminations during a weekly staff meeting. 

Both instructors have been teaching since 2016, teaching a variety of CBEE courses and some chemical engineering-specific courses. Both instructors are professional practice engineers, meaning they are amongst the only faculty in CBEE who have worked in the engineering field prior to teaching at OSU.

Carlisle and Mallette say one of them was told they were let go due to budget limitations and teaching flexbility, but the reasoning and justification behind the decision was not explained to them. 

“At this point, we do not have a complete and clear understanding of the reasons behind the termination,” said Carlisle and Mallette in a joint statement given over email. “One of us was informed the decision was connected to budget constraints and teaching flexibility, but no details were provided on either issue.”

Neither Kearney Dean of Engineering Scott Ashford, Ph.D nor Greg Herman, Ph.D, the CBEE department head, responded to multiple requests for comment. 

The decision to terminate the contracts of Carlisle and Mallette was made within the College of CBEE’s leadership, without non-administrative faculty input, according to Skip Rochefort, Ph.D, a CBEE professor. 

“In addition to the fact that we’re losing some good friends and colleagues, these decisions are being made without faculty input,” Rochefort said. “Nobody even asked us, nobody said, ‘Hey this is what’s coming on the horizon and we’re going to have to make some spending cuts, do you have any suggestions?’”

It is currently unclear whether or not Carlisle and Mallette’s positions will be filled by new instructors, given that both instructors were told the termination was not due to performance or anything related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There’s going to be a big loss for students, and not only in the technical sense,” Rochefort said. “There was a requirement when Trevor and Natasha were hired that they must have industry experience, which was supposed to bring the students professionalism and prepare them to be ‘work ready,’ and that’s very hard to replace with our current faculty.”

Almost immediately after the notification amongst faculty in CBEE, students within the college became aware of the news and started to fight against the decision. Many worry about how Mallette and Carlisle will fare in the middle of a global pandemic after their sudden termination, and whether or not this sets a precedent.

Kaylene Lim, a fourth-year Chemical Engineering major, created a petition to overturn the administration’s decision, amassing over 1100 signatures from students, faculty, and alumni since its publication Monday evening. 

“Immediately I felt frustrated, because I know these professors contribute a lot to the curriculum and that they work really hard, so to have them let go in such short notice and in the midst of a pandemic seemed really unjust and unreasonable,” said Lim. “The least that I want the students to do was to start a petition and show that students do care about the professors and that we’re not going to just sit quiet while they’re being let go.”

Lim is a learning assistant for Carlisle in his transport lab class, which is co-taught by Rochefort, who sent out an email notifying all learning assistants in the program that Carlisle and Mallette’s contracts were being terminated at the end of the school year. 

The petition has over 70 comments from signers, many detailing how Mallette and Carlisle gave them crucial life and career advice, inspired them and made them feel cared about.

While this decision has been made within the CBEE college exclusively, OSU President Ed Ray was notified of the student outcry during a regularly-scheduled check-in meeting with Associated Students of Oregon State University Vice President Kylie Boensich, a fourth-year environmental engineering major, although she said she is voicing her concerns about the situation purely as an engineering student, and not in her official capacity as vice president. Boenisch speaks highly of Mallette and Carlisle, and said she thinks there should have been more transparency in the process. 

“The CBEE situation was something I was personally invested in, and fresh on my mind, so I brought it up in our check-in meeting to inform him of what was going on, to get his opinion, and to ask what avenues exist for dealing with this type of situation,” Boenisch said in an email. 

According to Boenisch, Ray recommended asking Ashford and Herman directly for the reasoning and process behind the decision. 

“It will take time to fully process what all of this means for each of us and our families, (but) one thing we can share with certainty however is that it has been an honor to serve CBEE, COE, and OSU these past years,” Carlisle and Mallette said in their email statement. “We are so proud of the many students we have gotten to know and we wish them all the very best in their future lives and careers.”

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