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A professor’s sudden absence vexes college but not students

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Mercer professor Dr. Renee Walker appears to have stopped teaching her classes several weeks into the fall semester. Although the online catalog indicates she is teaching a regular course load for Fall 2012, her students say they have not seen her in weeks and that substitutes are now covering her classes.

“She didn’t give us any warning,” said Shannon Kenny, a second year Liberal Arts major, who was enrolled in Dr. Renee Walker’s Sociology 101 class at the start of the semester. “It was the last class before she left when she told us she was leaving.”

Kenny said that the SOC 101 class was without a substitute of any sort for two classes. The next week, an adjunct professor, Prof. Patrick McNicholas stepped in to teach the class. None of the adjunct professors covering Dr. Walker’s classes have made statements with The VOICE on the subject.

Kenny said that Prof. Walker told the class that she was leaving to do “research” for the Obama campaign. A large campaign poster is attached to Walker’s office door in LA 110.

In an interview with The VOICE, Mercer’s president, Dr. Patricia Donohue, said Walker was not on a sanctioned leave by the college.

The VOICE made numerous attempts to contact Dr. Walker for comment over the course of two weeks, but did not receive any response.

Regarding Dr. Walker’s sudden absence, Dr. Craig Coenen, Chair of the Social Sciences department in which Dr. Walker is housed, said “We didn’t have a clue, really, what was going on… we only heard rumors.”

Dr. Coenen explained that when they realized something was wrong, he and the rest of the Social Sciences Departmental Personnel Committee (DPC) sent a letter to Vice President Guy Generals requesting information on Dr. Walker’s teaching status for the semester. Vice President Generals responded that the matter was under review.

Prof. Walker’s tensions with the college have been mounting for some time. In August, 2011, Walker sued the college.

Walker v. Mercer County Community College is an ongoing civil rights case. Dr. Walker filed a complaint against Mercer on August 29, 2011. In Dr. Walker’s original complaint she said, “On or about Tuesday 23 August 2011 the Vice President for Academic Affairs informed me I had been passed over for promotion for which an inferior white female was selected.”

Dr. Walker says in her filings, submitted to Judge Anne E. Thompson of the U.S. District Court for the State of New Jersey, that the college’s failure to promote her was “retaliation for my opposing extant employment practices favoring inferior white female employees.”

When asked about the Walker v. Mercer County Community College case, Dean Schore would only say: “I know it exists.”

When President Donohue was asked if Walker v. Mercer had anything to do with Dr. Walker’s decision to apparently leave campus, Dr. Donohue said, “To my knowledge, it has absolutely nothing to do with this.” Not long after Walker initiated her civil rights case, which has not yet been resolved, other tensions emerged.

A letter about racial tensions on the campus –entitled “Gold Standard Skunks”– was written and on January 27, Mercer’s Vice President, Dr. Guy Generals, emailed the faculty, attaching the letter and requesting to know who wrote it. In his email, which was obtained by The VOICE using an open records request, he indicated that the letter had been submitted to major publications such as The Times of Trenton and The Chronicle of Higher Education that ultimately declined to run it.

On January 29, Dr. Walker responded to Generals’s email, also sending it to the entire faculty, and saying, simply: “signed: L. Renee Walker, Ph.D., African American, American of Black descent.”

In “Gold Standard Skunks,” Dr. Walker condemned the college’s administrators for their racial politics. She wrote: “Privileged minority administrators at Mercer are unwilling to acknowledge the consensus complicity they use to force African and African American faculty to regurgitate Eurocentric ideologies and to mirror the consequent self-loathing behavior that cannot help us overcome the institutionalized female, race, and class biases that characterize this and community colleges all across the country.”

The ongoing tensions seem to be affecting administrators’ willingness to speak on the record about Walker and her teaching status on campus. In a follow-up interview with Dean Schore he would not comment as to whether or not Prof. Walker was expected to return to teach her classes starting in November, after the presidential election is over. He said that was “privileged information.” He also would not comment on what would happen to the adjuncts who are currently teaching her classes if and when she does return.

The VOICE asked President Donohue when the last time was that Dr. Walker was on campus and Dr. Donohue declined to answer, but she did say that Walker’s supervising Dean, Dr. Robin Schore, and her Department Chair, Dr. Coenen, “went into instant mode” on realizing that Dr. Walker was no longer on campus.

Donohue stressed that their main concern was to make sure the students are getting what they need.

When asked if the substitutes were hired through the proper channels, Dean Schore said that they were not. But numerous students in Walker’s classes report that the adjuncts are doing well and are “great.”

According to Dr. Coenen, on Sept. 28, he and Dean Schore began interviewing the substitutes that Dr. Walker appointed to teach her classes.

In an interview with The VOICE on Oct. 3, Dr. Karen Bearce, Professor of Psychology at Mercer told The VOICE that she was concerned for the students. She noted that 82 students are currently enrolled in Walker’s classes according to Mercer’s website, “82 students that are impacted by her teaching status this semester…As an advisor in Liberal Arts I have students wandering around, wondering: is she going to be back?”

Prof. Bearce also explained that Dr. Walker is “the only person who coordinates the Social Work program…October is when we start advising for the spring…[Walker’s students] are in need of advising help.”

Christabel Foster, a Human Services major, is in Dr. Walker’s Human Behavior in the Social Environment II class, SWK 229. Foster said in an interview with The VOICE that she has experienced no problems since Dr. Walker began her “leave of absence.”

Foster said she believes Dr. Walker is in Virginia conducting some research pertaining to voter registration. She continued, “I guess I don’t know what she’s doing exactly. I’m really looking forward to hearing about it, though, because I’m sure it’s something exciting.”

Foster and many other students involved in Walker’s Social Work program had extremely positive things to say about her as a teacher, and said that her absence has not posed any problems for them.

Foster said that since Dr. Walker’s leaving campus, “We haven’t skipped a beat.”

Oct. 15, 2012 – This article contains changes from the original print edition. Dr. Walker was identified incorrectly in the print edition as Dr. Renee Watson in the fifteenth paragraph. Also, the date of Dr. Walker’s court filing was August 2011, not July 2012 as was originally reported in print. 

 

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