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Former Saint Mary’s President Jan Cervelli discusses future as tenured professor and four upcoming spring semester courses

| Monday, November 11, 2019

Former Saint Mary’s President Jan Cervelli will teach four classes in the upcoming spring semester. This most recent development in Cervelli’s involvement at the College follows her abrupt resignation from her position as President on Oct. 5, 2018, and the filing of a civil lawsuit against Saint Mary’s claiming members of the Saint Mary’s Board of Trustees had pressured her to resign and had not honored settlement agreements.

Cervelli, who has filled professorial and administrative positions at previous institutions, said she is especially looking forward to re-entering the classroom and teaching at Saint Mary’s.

“I really, really couldn’t be more excited,” Cervelli said. “I’ve loved teaching, that’s what’s really driven me my entire career. It was always my dream to — when I finished as president — to go back to the classroom here. And I love the Belles. I mean, I loved being president, but I also love being in the classroom with the Belles, too.”

Observer File Photo

Cervelli said she is not quite sure how students will receive her as a professor, as they’ve only ever known her as President of the College.

“So far, students have been very, very warm and friendly when I’ve met with them and talked with them,” she said. “I suppose they’re very curious. Because when you hold one role or you’re a figure in one way, do they see that other side? I hope there’s an open mind and I know there certainly is for me, and in many ways I’m going to be able to be closer to the students than I was president, although I gave it my best.”

If faced with difficult questions surrounding the events of the past year, Cervelli said she cannot address certain aspects of her lawsuit with the College, but hopes by remaining on campus to fill a teaching position, she will show students how invested she is in the Saint Mary’s community.

“I believe in life that honesty and transparency is the best way,” she said. “I can’t talk about everything because I’m not at liberty to. It’s not my choice. But I think I want everyone to know, from my perspective, that I loved being president of Saint Mary’s. I love the Belles, that has never changed. My commitment is still here 900% as it was. I can’t really speak to the rest of it. But I hope by my remaining here, and working hard on these classes that my actions speak louder than any rumors, reports in the newspaper, any of that. I think that one’s heart is demonstrated by who someone is and what they do.”

Past multidisciplinary experience and future, far-reaching lesson plans

Cervelli received her Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Guelph and a Bachelor of Science from Purdue University’s College of Agriculture, and has previously taught courses in landscape architecture and design at other universities.

“I started way back in 1981, as a junior professor at the University of Kentucky, and I taught there for 20 years in landscape architecture,” she said. “And then I went to Clemson University as Dean, but I continued to teach in the design studios. I’ve taught subjects like basic landscape architecture, site planning, urban design, urban planning, transportation planning, urban infill and revitalization, sustainable urban infrastructure, sustainable construction technology, graphic design, communication and leadership.”

Cervelli is scheduled to teach ART 103, the Design Lab I course within the Art Department, as well as three classes within the College’s Environmental Studies program. These courses will explore environmental design, a field Cervelli said she is excited to introduce to Saint Mary’s students.

“It’s a field that leads to many great careers,” Cervelli said. “And it’s very attractive to those that are interested in the environment generally, so it aligns with the Environmental Studies program that we started few years ago. The first class is ART 274, which is ‘Introduction to Environmental Design,’ so that’s kind of the basics of ‘How does one go about designing an exterior space?’ For those who are interested in landscape architecture, architecture, construction, real estate development or environmental art, we will be spending a lot of time looking at environmental factors but also how people use outdoor space.”

This class will offer students the opportunity to work on projects pertaining to the outdoor spaces on Saint Mary’s campus, including the sustainable farm, she said.

“I’m working with the facilities folks to identify some projects that they might like for the students to undertake,” Cervelli said. “Mark Kubacki, the head of the grounds, is excited for the opportunity to work with students. So I think it’s a great opportunity for students to be creative, but also see what it might be to actually implement something.”

The second class within the Environmental Studies department, Environmental Design Studio II, is the advanced version of ART 274, Cervelli said.

“These courses again are studio, so we’re spending a lot of time interacting one-on-one, doing critiques and working at a studio kind of an environment,” Cervelli said. “And so it deals with bigger, more complex projects. One might be, for example, the crossing of [Indiana State Road] 933 and the Avenue, and looking at not only the beauty of the area and preserving the Avenue experience, but also improving big-time safety issues there.”

Cervelli said these safety concerns should be seriously considered, referencing a 2012 incident in which a Saint Mary’s sophomore riding a bike across State Route 933 around 9 p.m. died after being struck by SUV.

“As we know, unfortunately we lost a Belle there,” Cervelli said. “I think there’s a lot of different lessons to be learned around traffic control, visibility, … all the different ways you can configure roadways to help, and it might get a little bit more fanciful, maybe some underpasses, possibly. So I want the students to be able to explore their imaginations, but also look at what may be feasible because you never know in the long-run, these ideas might be able to feed the administrations on both sides of the road. I’ve had some conversations with the folks at Notre Dame … about those issues because they’re concerned about them as well.”

The third course Cervelli will teach within the department is titled “Give Me Shelter,” an exploration of the history and theory of the house, its impact on the nature of the family unit and its evolution over time.

“We’re going to go all the way back to ancient times, and look at shelter in the most basic form for humans,” she said. “But we’re also going to look at some of the social issues related to housing affordability. We’ll also address issues of environmental justice as it relates and health as it relates to housing.”

Within the studio portion of “Give Me Shelter,” Cervelli said students will complete an exercise in which they are assigned a hypothetical mortgage and asked to research what kind of house they could afford to purchase in South Bend, as opposed to other areas, such as San Francisco.

“It really brings home both as a good exercise for students, for themselves in terms of financial management and planning, but also, what are the challenges to many people who work multiple jobs and still find it difficult to have decent housing,” Cervelli said.

In pursuit of course approval and tenured teaching position

Cervelli said the process of getting her lesson plans for these courses approved was extremely intensive, and necessarily so. When writing course proposals for a specific department, the department’s learning objectives must always be met, she said. In applying for her four courses, Cervelli took her proposals through the Art Department and Environmental Studies Department, as well as the multidisciplinary Sophia Program.

“Saint Mary’s has a very, very involved process of writing course proposals, going through a review process at various levels,” she said. “You’ve got to give credit to Saint Mary’s faculty, they take this very seriously. They want to make sure that not only are you up to speed in your field, that you’re recognized in it, but you’re also looking at it through the lens of the student. They’re rigorous, I can tell you, and I did several revisions, which is great because it really, really made me think.”

This approval process was crucial to Cervelli’s pursuit of a teaching position at Saint Mary’s, which was allegedly contested following her resignation. In her formal complaint, Cervelli claimed that the College had not honored its settlement agreement, which stated that Cervelli would be granted tenured professorship and the appropriate pay and benefits following her resignation.

When the College filed a counterclaim response March 22, 2019, former assistant director of integrated communications Haleigh Ehmsen addressed these issues in a statement.

“This case is about tenure, and as is Saint Mary’s policy and practice, we are working with Ms. Cervelli to get her classes approved so that she can teach,” Ehmsen said in the statement.

Cervelli said she plans to continue working towards her original plan for after she resigned.

“I was granted tenure here as a full professor,” Cervelli said. “And tenure is a very sacred and important element in higher education, maybe the most important in any institution of higher education. I’m proceeding on the same path that I planned when I agreed to be president. My personal plan was to come back home, be part of Saint Mary’s and be part of my hometown, and I’m continuing with my plan.”

Tenure is an important principle to uphold at all institutions of higher learning, Cervelli said, and a concept sometimes foreign to students.

“What it means is that the institution makes a commitment to the individual until they decide to resign or retire,” Cervelli said. “And then likewise, the individual makes a commitment to bring excellence to the classroom and to the students. To me, it’s a sacred agreement. And what it does is it provides you faculty that are at the top of their game, and that are truly committed as partners, true partners. It’s like a partnership in a business. And when you’re not really in a committed situation, faculty may not … be as committed in a long-term sense of really giving their heart and their soul to the institution.”

Tenure also protects academic freedom, Cervelli said, allowing the professor true expression within his or her field of expertise.

“So tenure is really critical, and it is a mark of quality to an institution,” Cervelli said. “And when I started by saying it’s one of the most sacred concepts to higher education, it truly is. My continuing in this position is a reflection of my personal plan, but it’s also my absolute and core belief in tenure at Saint Mary’s College.”

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About Maeve Filbin

Maeve is a senior studying political science and economics at Saint Mary's, as well as Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame. She serves as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Observer, and thinks everyone should support student journalism.

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