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Terry Tempest Williams leaving U.; critics say school prioritized paperwork over what she taught a generation of students in Utah's wild landscapes

First Published      Last Updated May 05 2016 03:31 pm

Terry Tempest Williams is leaving her University of Utah teaching post and walking away from the Environmental Humanities program she founded rather than agree to administrators' demands she move her teaching from the state's desert landscapes onto campus.

"For reasons I will never know or understand, the University of Utah wanted me gone — and in the end, what was most threatening was my teaching. Why? Because each of you and our current students are challenging the status quo, each in your own way with the gifts that are yours," the acclaimed author wrote in an email last week to about 80 current and past students of the U.'s Environmental Humanities graduate program.

Known as Utah's most eloquent homegrown voice for conservation, Williams helped launch what has become one of the U.'s premier educational experiences, connecting highly motivated students with the nation's most adventurous writers and artists. Now some are accusing university administrators of being more concerned with procedural bureaucracy than with ensuring Williams continued her leadership.

Williams' departure came as a shock to students, colleagues, program supporters, and at least one foundation, whose executive director said it would not renew a $50,000 grant awarded last year for Williams' "Reading the Book Cliffs" project.

"We saw this course as a national model on how to engage people in new ways for critical issues, such as climate change," said Ellen Friedman of the Compton Foundation, which had premised its support on Williams' field teaching. "We are extremely disappointed."

Williams' supporters are heaping criticism on U. administration for failing to find a way to keep her on faculty, and some suspect her environmental activism may have prompted the move to shackle her coursework to campus.

Former student Alisha Anderson — who loved Williams' field course Art, Advocacy and Landscapes so much she took it twice, serving as a teaching assistant both times — said she was troubled by Williams' exit and what it portends for the program's future direction.

"She has been a huge blessing in my life," said Anderson, who now works for Torrey House Press on community outreach. "Terry and the way she teaches was transformative. At universities there is inertia to change, and Terry was pushing the boundaries. How can we not integrate the land in how we learn?"

Utah Film Center founder Geralyn Dreyfous and Karen Shepherd, a former congresswoman who represented Salt Lake City, resigned their seats on the College of Humanities advisory board in protest this week.

Williams said she decided to leave after six weeks of "humiliating" contract negotiations in which new Humanities Dean Dianne Harris and Amy Wildermuth, associate vice president for faculty, pressured her to accept a phased retirement and pay concessions. Administrators made it clear her contributions were no longer valued, telling her she "was paid too much for too little," she said.

Her compensation package, including health benefits, is worth $95,700, according to public salary database Utah's Right to Know.

After a deal was reached and Williams agreed to sign a new contract, administrators added one more demand April 16. Her practice of taking students into the deserts of southern Utah and the Wyoming's Tetons did not comply with university guidelines, exposing the school to liability and "engendering resentment" from students who might not want to travel.

"It was at that point, I realized what the university fears most is empowered students, students tutored by the land itself, especially in Utah's erosional landscape of red rocks and rivers, and a bitten horizon that redefines time," Williams said in an email to the Tribune.

"I can no longer work in an institution or program that privileges compliance over creativity, that values the language of bureaucracy over relationships and respect, and that is more concerned over issues of insurance than the assurance of emancipatory curriculum that benefits our students," she wrote in an April 25 letter to Wildermuth. "My fear is that universities, now under increased pressure to raise money, are being led by corporate managers rather than innovative educators."

Wildermuth denied the university insisted on early retirement for Williams, who is 60.

"We really tried hard to come up with terms that were within university requirements and have Terry remain part of our program. We still want her to be part of it. We haven't closed any of our offers," said Wildermuth. "It is truly unfortunate. We are so grateful for what she has done. We will miss her. She is a tremendous asset to our university."

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