Give us a sign: Pitt students demand answers about ASL teacher’s non-rehire

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On April 15, at 917 Cathedral of Learning, around 30 students and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh gathered in Dean’s office to deliver a message–in sign language–about the non-rehire of a valued American Sign Language adjunct professor, Bobbie Jo Duffy.

At the action, Chelsea Samo-Lipman, a senior who has completed the ASL certificate, taught the group how to sign a few phrases, such as “ where is my professor?” and “give our professors contracts.”

“We want to communicate our message through sign language to show how important these
classes and professors are to us in our education,” another senior ASL student added.

As the group learned the second phrase, Dean Cooper walked out of a meeting into the hallway where class was in session. Sandra Saba, the student who lead the event, approached him, shook his hand, and invited him to join. Cooper stood off to the side and waited for the message to be delivered.

After the group signed the message, Saba stepped in to clarify why everyone was there: Bobbie Jo Duffy informed her students last December that she would not be coming back to teach in the spring. “I thought I must be misunderstanding something when she told us. I just couldn’t believe that such a great professor was being let go,” said Jessica Tumolo, a former student of Duffy’s.

Upon hearing about their professor’s non-rehire, Duffy’s students wrote a petition in an attempt to save her job. The petition asked the Chair of Linguistics, the Head of the Less Commonly Taught Languages program, and the Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences to reevaluate that decision in light of the overwhelming student support to keep Duffy at Pitt. In just two days, 75 of Bobbie Jo’s students signed the petition.

“We presented our petition to her boss, her boss’s boss, and tried to follow it up the chain as far as it went. We asked for a response by the end of the semester, but no one got back to us,” said Saba.

“Members of the administration avoided meeting with us at every turn. Dean Knapp’s secretary even told us that he does not meet with students. A dean at a university who doesn’t meet with students? I was shocked.”

After four months without a hearing a response, the students have decided it was time to get answers.

“We will no longer stand idly by while our professors continue to live in a state of precarious employment,” said Saba. “That’s why we’re organizing–our teachers’ jobs matter.”Saba read aloud a letter asking the administration to provide a rationale for letting Duffy go, to create transparent and democratic processes for hiring and firing adjunct faculty, and to return Duffy to her role as part of Pitt’s ASL faculty. She also read quotes from the petition describing the students’ wonderful experience with Duffy in class.

Cooper responded by saying that there was, in fact, a criteria for hiring and firing faculty, but that he was not yet familiar with this specific case. However, information from other sources shows that there is no such process in place at the University of Pittsburgh, and that teachers are let go without just cause all the time. Cooper said that he would look over it carefully.

The students requested a response to the demands by Friday, April 18th.

“We’re not going away. We’ll continue to ask questions because we deserve to know what’s happening at our university,” said Sarah Beth Belanger, a sophomore in the ASL certificate program.

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