Off-Track

Two UM teachers are denied tenure, so the drama faculty tries to bring down the curtain on the Ring Theatre season

Six years ago theater manager and actor Kent Lantaff and lighting designer Tom Salzman sought a sabbatical from the sometimes cutthroat competition in the professional dramatic community. That's when an advertisement from the University of Miami drama department attracted their attention like the lights on a marquee: Theater-arts teaching jobs offer opportunities for tenure and are essentially lifetime appointments. To achieve tenure, according to UM written guidelines, those hired would have to offer quality instruction and either bolster their teaching with research or produce a distinguished body of creative work.

After accepting the job, Lantaff sold his house in North Carolina and moved with his wife and son to South Florida; Salzman gave up a lucrative career as an independent lighting designer in the Midwest. The university hired them September 26, 1991; their probation was to last six years.

No strangers to long hours and artistic rigor, they pursued their objectives with zeal while also teaching two to four classes every semester. Lantaff directed or acted in four professional productions, wrote five articles for professional journals, published a South Florida theater newsletter, and managed the university's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre as well as designed its publicity brochures. Salzman designed the lighting for more than 30 performances at the Caldwell Theatre -- a nationally recognized company in Boca Raton -- and for seventeen plays at the Ring. Both men taught introductory and advanced courses.

They received luminous yearly evaluations from students and administrators, Lantaff says. For example, in the fall semester of 1996, 85 percent of Lantaff's students gave an overall positive assessment of his classes. On three occasions they each received assurances from administrators that they were meeting performance goals. When the instructors formally sought tenure at the end of their fifth year, Lantaff and Salzman say, they received the endorsement of their peers both within and outside the university, as well as from their department chairman and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Both were prepared to proudly accept their tenured positions this spring, but the university provost rejected their applications. Salzman and Lantaff say they have never been told exactly why; university provost Luis Glaser would not comment on their tenure bids, citing the university's confidentiality rules. But the drama scholars believe that had they published more articles in scholarly journals rather than participating in plays, they may have prevailed.

The decision augured difficulties for their colleagues in the theater arts department who were also climbing the tenure ladder. Faculty members in other departments fretted too. After all, university administrators across the country have debated the merits of the tenure system, which is designed to safeguard academic freedom, and are increasingly employing professors on yearly contracts to minimize the institutions' financial commitments.

Because the provost passed on Lantaff and Salzman, who had seemingly followed all the rules, some other drama department members feared they could be next (many refused to comment for this article or did not return calls requesting comment). Tenure-track instructors are now in a quandary as to whether, in the provost's view, their work on plays and in performances will help them attain tenure. "Basically, the provost is saying, 'If you don't do productions, you'll be fired,'" Lantaff observes bitterly, "'but if you do do productions, you'll be fired.'"

The faculty tenure-review board approved an appeal to the university president, which the professors lost. A majority of their colleagues in the department then took an unprecedented step: They politely postponed -- indefinitely -- the 1997-98 Ring Theatre season scheduled to begin in the fall. "The faculty strongly believes that the recent denial of tenure of two of our members who were heavily involved in the rehearsal, production, and performance ... calls into question the very nature of performance and production as it relates to the promotion and tenure of departmental faculty," they declared in a May 6 memo to the university's interim dean of arts and sciences.

The provost called the entire department into a meeting in his office on Monday, May 12. When ten faculty members arrived at Glaser's book-lined conference room, he and the university's attorney, Robert L. Blake, greeted them with the news that the school could be sued if the shows didn't go on. The faculty was ordered to hold a meeting and continue planning for the season of plays. "We were summarily reprimanded and sent, like schoolboys, back to our rooms to come up with a decision that was more pleasing to the administration," recalls Lantaff.

The professors held no meeting. But the following day they got a memo from their department chairman announcing the results of their nonexistent assembly. The missive reported that the professors had agreed to host a season after all. The chairman had even assigned teachers to specific chores in this memo. Salzman, for example, found out he would design lighting for four of the five plays. "The chairman, who is tenured, had unilaterally decided to announce the season without conferring with the faculty -- without letting the boat get rocked," Lantaff crabs. "He would lash the boat to the university and continue on."

On May 20 five professors answered the chairman's memo with a signed proclamation of their own, reiterating their decision to produce no shows until they learn what they now have to do to gain tenure. "We still feel that there are certain criteria, related to workload and job security," Lantaff explains. "Until those issues are satisfactorily spelled out, we cannot continue to have our faculty so heavily involved in production work that we lose our jobs."

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