Nisha Grewal ’17
As the first female full time professor in the Physics Department, Professor Christina Othon has broken barriers at Wesleyan. She has been an inspirational teacher, advisor, mentor, and role model. Her contract was up for review, and instead of being placed in a tenure track position, she was told her contract has not been renewed at all. Having personally witnessed her various contributions to this school, I cannot understand why this decision was made. Christina Othon is one of the only professors I have had at Wesleyan who makes the effort to check in with students, and she is responsible for a great deal of student retention within the Physics Department. Despite her responsibilities as an active researcher and busy professor, she is consistently generous in making time to meet with students outside of class.
There are not many female students in the physics major department, and it is incredibly reaffirming to have a female professor whom we can look up to. Among her many academic and research duties, Professor Othon has taken the added responsibility of supporting women in physics. After a year and a half of planning, she led the team to bring the 2016 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics to Wesleyan.
When I started at Wesleyan, I had less physics experience than some of my classmates. I worked hard to learn and master the material, but constantly felt as though I was behind. Professor Othon looked past my lack of experience and instead chose to focus on my work ethic and passion for physics. She encouraged me to continue and happily spent extra time with me going over confusing concepts. After I took her course, Professor Othon saw potential in me, and I was ecstatic when she asked me to TA for her the following year. Professor Othon is the reason I have remained an active physics student, not to mention one confident enough to pursue it as a major.
I want to do everything I can to keep Professor Christina Othon at Wesleyan. In speaking with my peers, I have found a common sentiment of surprise and disappointment with the administration that is letting her go. In an effort to reverse this decision, I have written a petition urging the administration to renew her contract and place her in the tenure track position she deserves. We have gathered over 150 signatures from students who have been in her classes or have been affected by her personally. I will present the petition and signatures to President Roth on Tuesday, and I hope he will support our appeal and encourage the administration to rethink their decision.
Furthermore, I hope this issue will additionally shed light on the inner workings of Wesleyan’s mysterious tenure process. If the administration decides to get rid of an influential professor, we students deserve to know why.
Grewal is a member of the class of 2017.
Mackenzie Schlosser B.A. ’15, M.A. ’16
This is a sad example of how flawed the teaching evaluation and tenure system is. There is more of a focus on data like biased student evaluations than on actual teaching prowess. For example, Professor Othon gave the same quiz at the beginning and end of her course to see how much students improved. She managed to close the learning gap between the original high and low scorers, and also showed overall gains in comprehension. By giving the same quiz to two other classes in the department, she showed that her students improved far more than those taught by other professors. However, when this information was presented to the advisory board, it was ignored.
It is more than problematic that Professor Othon’s performance is affected more by the sexist opinions of a small group of students than by all the valuable things she’s done on campus. Othon has been hugely supportive of women and minorities in STEM fields, especially in her position as one of the only women in the Physics Department. Wesleyan is constantly trying to show how diverse it is, yet so many female and minority professors struggle to maintain positions among their white, male counterparts. Trying to fire Professor Othon clearly demonstrates a pressing problem within the tenure advisory system. President Roth has the power to veto the advisory board decision and renew Professor Othon’s contract. However, Roth’s potential veto will not change the systemic nature of her struggle; these issues will continue to affect untenured professors until bigger changes in the system as a whole are made.
Schlosser (B.A. ’15) is a graduate member of the class of 2016.
Julia Zachary ’17
When I began my education at Wesleyan with the intention of becoming a Physics major, I understood that my chosen path of study would be a challenging one. I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only was my professor incredibly qualified and knowledgeable in her field, but she was also a woman—a minority in the Physics discipline.
Since then, now two-and-a-half years later, Professor Christina Othon has not only become my advisor, but also a friend. To have such a wonderful role model in a very male-dominated department has made me feel more confident in my own abilities as a woman in physics. Her continued support and encouragement as a mentor has given me access to research opportunities both here at Wesleyan and at other universities.
Over the last year and a half, I had the incredible opportunity to work closely with her to organize a division of a nationwide Physics conference—the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics—and I have learned firsthand about her organizational and professional skills. Without Professor Othon, I and other women in physics at Wesleyan would not have been able to attend this conference and meet other female-identifying physics students from nearby universities. Professor Othon truly understands the value of making connections across university lines especially because there are only a handful of female-identifying students in each year in our own Physics Department. Though it is true that the number of women in physics is rising, it is disappointing to note that the percentage of female physics majors in the class of 2017 is a scant 18 percent.
The fact of the matter, in my opinion, is as follows: Professor Othon was, until the wonderful addition of Professor Candice Etson, the only permanent female professor in the Wesleyan Physics Department. She has been widely influential in increasing the number of women in the department and brought attention to physics at Wesleyan by organizing a conference for women in Physics. Although she has close to 30 advisees, she has sought to truly get to know each of us on a familiar, first-name basis. To deny Professor Othon a continuing position in the Physics Department would do a disservice to those of us who look up to her, rely on her for advice, and respect her as an educator and researcher.
Zachary is a member of the class of 2017.
This article has been edited for tone.