By Noah Bergam (V), Justin Li (V), and Aneesh Karuppur (V)
June 18, 2020
On the evening of June 11, the Pingry community received an email from Head of School Matt Levinson and the Board of Trustees confirming that Mr. Jake Ross was fired from The Pingry School. A few hours earlier, an apology email which Mr. Ross had sent to the baseball team earlier in the week began to circulate around the student body, and gained more public visibility as a result of an email from Alexandra Weber ‘20 sent to juniors and seniors; in her email, Weber stated that Mr. Ross had been barred by “the administration” from sending his apology to the whole school. The next day, a group of students, backed by over 600 petition signatures, sent an email to the Board of Trustees asking them to reinstate Mr. Ross.
Here is how we interpret the situation, according to the content and rhetoric of the Board’s June 11 termination letter, Mr. Ross’ apology letter, and the students’ June 12 letter to the Board.
On the week of June 8, an Instagram account operated by Pingry parents known as “_bigbluebaseball_” posted a picture of Mr Ross and the seniors on the boys’ baseball team, holding a banner that read “Everything Matters.” Some Pingry students thought the timing of this banner was in bad taste, since it resembled the slogan “All Lives Matter,” which is used as a protest against the Black Lives Matter movement.
If the June 11 letter from the Board answered one thing directly, it was that Mr. Ross was not fired for the Instagram post itself. Rather, he was fired for disrespectful conduct towards “school administrators,” including Mr. Levinson, when they attempted to “engage the community in dialogue” about the post and its impact.
Why was Mr. Ross disrespectful? Rather than providing any direct insight into the context of his frustration, or affirming the confidentiality of such context, the June 11 letter expounds on the idea that the conduct was part of a longer pattern of bad behavior: “This is also not the first instance in which he has demonstrated poor judgment and disrespect. We have learned there have been other instances that have resulted in a demotion of leadership responsibilities.” These words attack Ross’ character in past, possibly unrelated incidents rather than shedding light on the moment that actually caused him to get fired.
Moreover, the vocabulary describing Mr. Ross in this email is much harsher than that used to describe Mr. Graig Peterson in the August 27, 2019 email which announced Peterson’s firing in the wake of his use of “extensive, non-school-related electronic communication with several Upper School students.” In the August 27 email, written by Mr. Levinson and Upper School Director Ms. Chatterji, the only directly negative word used to describe Peterson’s behavior was “inappropriate,” whereas the June 11 email condemns Ross’ behavior with phrases such “unprofessional and inappropriate,” “unacceptable and antithetical to our values,” and “poor judgment and disrespect.” The June 12 petition letter pointed out the “usually strong terms used to characterize this incident,” going so far as to say that “the Dean Ross you described is not the Dean Ross we all know and love.”
The June 11 letter props up the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, treating Ross’ termination as a stepping stone towards that goal. The letter begins by quoting Mr. Levinson (or, as the letter colloquially refers to him, “Matt”) about his determination to uphold Pingry’s “inclusivity, honor, respect, and civic engagement” and ends with actions the school will take towards making a more inclusive educational environment. The aforementioned, overtly negative depiction of Ross, bookended by positive descriptions of the inclusive mission of the Board and Mr. Levinson in particular, implies that Mr. Ross personally stood in the way of this mission, and moreover that his termination contributed to the school’s goals of diversity and inclusion: “This letter and the actions below are only the first step.”
In his apology letter, Ross takes on a very different style from the Board; while the June 11 letter is self-promoting and, with 29 authors, profoundly impersonal, Ross’ letter establishes a voice that acknowledges mistakes and commits to personal change: “I clearly missed this one, but I will learn. I will be better.” Ross’ language is perhaps not as professional and self-assured as the Board’s (“The emotional rage and hurt I feel each time I think about what it must be like to be a black person in America, is not something I can convey in an email”) yet it embodies his open, relatable style as a leader, which the June 12 petition letter from students defends as a quality that allowed him, as a dean, to contribute to diversity and inclusion at Pingry with “sensitivity, dignity, and swiftness.”
The June 12 petition letter takes a sharp stance against the rhetoric of the June 11 message, stating that the “vagueness of the statements in the letter we received has also done little to assuage our concerns about the handling of this incident.” It implies that the June 11 email increased the very “deepening polarity” it pointed out and may have broken the Honor Code principle of “confidentiality in disciplinary proceedings” considering how it “so readily and publicly humiliate[d] a colleague.” Ultimately, the letter makes a bold request to the Board: “rectify your mistake by reinstating him.”
As of June 19, The Board of Trustees and Mr. Levinson have yet to respond.
We do not know much about the situation surrounding Mr. Ross’ misconduct: neither its severity nor its source. What we do know is that, between the language that the Board and Mr. Levinson used to describe Ross, and the language used by students and Ross himself, we have two very different pictures of the former dean––one depicting a disrespectful figure who stood in the way of diversity and inclusion, and the other depicting a crucial part of the Pingry community who actively supported the endeavour.
In the last year-and-a-half, the departures of teachers such as Mr. Peterson, Ms. Taylor, and Mr. Thompson did not pass without controversy and speculation. Despite the uncertainty clouding most of these departures, it is undeniable that each one these teachers, and every faculty member at Pingry, offers something unique to the community; this year, the absences of these teachers have made us especially aware of this fact. As such, their departures left many of us feeling disappointed, and in many cases confused.
By speaking one-on-one with a few students, I have gleaned that the effect of these recent departures and the broader issue of teacher turnover is a topic students want to discuss. Aneesh Karuppur (V), for example, tells me that he is specifically “concerned regarding the number of departures each year, as it hurts the continuity throughout the years, as well as the solidity of Pingry’s teaching style and curriculum.” He also mentions that “as more and more of the Magistri faculty leave each year, it’s very important to secure replacements who will be able to stay at Pingry for similarly long periods of time.“
The foundation of an effective education, especially at Pingry, is the student-teacher relationship, and the concerns of Aneesh and many others raise important questions about Pingry as an educational institution. However, it is important to examine whether concerns like these are even justifiable. Looking past the particularly conspicuous departures in recent years, is teacher turnover really an issue at Pingry? Is the administration doing enough to make Pingry a place where teachers want to teach, and keep teaching?
To begin my investigation, I took a quantitative approach. In search of a reliable faculty database, I spoke with Dr. Dinkins, who informed me that such a resource was not readily accessible and instead advised me to look through past yearbooks. While yearbooks would not allow me to examine metrics, like average faculty tenure, using them in combination with departing faculty articles in the Record’s annual commencement issues allowed me to generate an annual proportion of departing faculty. This statistic would provide a broad picture of teacher turnover each year, which I could further categorize by department.
At home, I laid out the yearbooks I had accumulated on my bookshelf from 2012 to 2019 and recorded the number of Upper and Middle School faculty in each department each year, as well as the number of Magistri across all three campuses (I chose to exclude administrators since their turnover does not necessarily fit within the scope of my investigation and a large portion of administrators also taught classes in other departments). I added the department totals to obtain a total number of teaching faculty, making an effort to avoid double-counting faculty members who appeared in multiple departments, such as Mr. Lear or Ms. Thuzar.
I found that from 2012 to 2018, the proportion of faculty departures remained relatively consistent. The only notable feature of the graph occurs in 2019, where 9.4% of total teaching faculty departed and the graph indicates a significant upward spike, giving some justification to the recent concern. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that this singular spike, which could very likely be an outlier, indicates any overarching issue with teacher turnover at Pingry. However, it is notable that the number of Magistri has declined rather steadily since 2012, a trend that affirms Aneesh’s concern that fewer and fewer of Pingry’s faculty are holders of this prestigious distinction.
I decided it might also be interesting to see the differences in faculty retention across departments; I observed that the department that seems to retain its faculty the best is the arts department, which sees an average 5.47% of its faculty leave each year since 2012. By my metric, the language department seems to be the worst, with an average percentage at 11.04%, which doubles that of the arts department
While quantitative analysis can be informative, I do not feel it is sufficient to survey an issue as nuanced as teacher turnover solely by the use of statistics. In an effort to humanize my analysis, I spoke with US Director Chatterji, who was familiar with many of the recently departed faculty and could give me a more personal outlook on the issue. We talked first about the measures Pingry takes to incentivize teachers to keep teaching at Pingry. While she pointed out that Pingry has no formal incentivization program, she stressed the importance of “conversation” to faculty retention. She says that “teachers want to teach at Pingry because of its emphasis on human relationships.” She cited the numerous instances in which she had written recommendations for teachers applying for positions at other schools: by speaking about their experience and perhaps making a change to what they’re teaching, their office space, or the number of seasons they coach, these teachers were often happier and chose to continue teaching at Pingry, even with other job offers on the table.
She also made an important distinction between the types of departures, saying that “[Pingry] can’t hold all people. Our goal is not to retain people who are leaving because of retirement, marriage, or other life circumstances.” Instead, she believes that the more important number to look at is how many teachers are moving to other schools in pursuit of something Pingry wasn’t providing. Mr. Karrat or Dr. Chin-Shefi are examples of teachers who could fall into this category. Looking at departures from this lens, there does not seem to be a trend or major issue, with an average of 2.5 faculty moving to different schools each year and the rest leaving for largely unpreventable reasons.
The third category of departures is dismissals. While often the most dramatic and memorable, this is the category over which Pingry has the least control, as the school cannot control the behavior of its faculty. Nonetheless, I chose to look into an area where Pingry can exert at least some influence over the frequency at which they are forced to dismiss teachers: the hiring process. Ms. Chatterji explained that Pingry posts job openings in various locations, including job search websites, as well as on the “Employment” page of pingry.org. Mr. Dinkins, and now Ms. Holmes-Glogwer, in collaboration with department chairs, then sorts through resumes and applications from these various channels to identify qualified candidates. If the number of dismissals is actually an issue, which I don’t have the data to conclude (the Record does not write departing faculty articles for dismissed faculty), perhaps Pingry is losing its ability to attract candidates who, once hired, can continue to uphold the standard that Pingry expects from its faculty. Eva Schiller (V) also mentions that “there seems to be very extreme punishment for certain teachers without widespread preventative measures being made across the board,” and I concur that clearer guidelines for faculty conduct might help reduce the number of necessary dismissals.
Ultimately, though, I believe this investigation indicates that the Pingry administration seems to be doing their best to retain faculty. As the statistics I gathered show, recent concern likely stems from last year’s unusually high departure rate, and while the number of Magistri does seem to be declining, there is no way to say it will not rise again in the near future. At the same time, teacher turnover is an important issue to monitor, and investigations like this one can allow us to hold the school accountable if an abnormal teacher turnover rate begins to more conclusively tarnish the Pingry experience.