For six years, Alma Martinez served as an Assistant Professor of Theater at Pomona College until she failed to receive tenure in January 2013 and was notified that her employment would be terminated at the end of the academic year. Following her termination, Martinez filed a lawsuit against Pomona College in August 2013 alleging wrongful termination and discrimination based on her national origin and gender.
The complaint issued by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which is representing Martinez, claims that Pomona College discriminated against Martinez, denied her tenure, subjected her to differential treatment, and terminated her “based on her national origin, Latino.” The complaint continues to make the same claims on the basis of her gender, female. It then accuses Pomona of acting willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, and with the wrongful intent to injure Martinez in conscious disregard of her rights. The demands made by the suit include reinstatement with tenure, damages awarded to Martinez, punitive damages placed upon Pomona, the cost of the suit, interest on all sums awarded, and payment of attorney’s fees and litigious expenses.
Martinez and her legal team claim that she had unanimous department recommendation for tenure and that Martinez met Pomona’s three criteria for tenure: professional achievement, effective service, and intellectual leadership.
Professor James Taylor, the chair of the theater department, said, “personnel recommendations such as these are considered confidential at the College” and was unable to confirm Martinez’s claim regarding her unanimous recommendation.
As touted by MALDEF and Martinez, her professional achievements seem commensurate with tenure requirements. She received her MFA in acting from the University of Southern California and her PhD in drama from Stanford University and touts her role in the 1981 film Zoot Suit as her first starring role in a long list of movies, plays, and television shows. Regarding her effective service, Martinez must receive the benefit of the doubt and it is highly likely that she met this tenet as well as most faculty who receive tenure. Last fall during a production of Stand and Deliver, Martinez reached out to Latino youth in the surrounding community and shared the story and experience of producing the play with them. This act of community outreach and inspiration surely contributes to effective service, which includes “outreach to diverse communities and underrepresented groups” in the Pomona College Faculty Handbook.
However, professional achievement and effective service are not the only two factors determining tenure. The component of intellectual leadership remains. The Faculty Handbook defines intellectual leadership as “good teaching, meaning competence in all three, and excellence in at least one, of these teaching activities as measured by the high standards that prevail at Pomona College: 1. Lecturing; 2. Leading seminars and discussions; 3. Guiding laboratories, studios, independent studies, tutorials, and student research or other modes of individual or collaborative learning.”
On ASPC’s course reviews site (which is accessible only to Pomona students), Martinez has received a rating of 3.62 out of 5, based on only seven reviews. Six of those reviews were submitted in April 2013, months after Martinez had been notified of her dismissal. And while this rating is by no means a wholly accurate representation of Martinez’s teaching ability, it does seem to indicate that she was a competent professor. Yet some students active in the theater department disagree.
Eliza Pennell, a Pomona College senior, is the only senior Theater major at any of the five Claremont Colleges. Pennell had two classes with Martinez– Intro to Acting her freshman year and Intermediate Acting her sophomore year. While acknowledging Martinez’s passion for the subject, Pennell said that Martinez’s style did not work for most students, who were often audience members in class rather than active participants.
In her Intermediate Acting class, Pennell and her class only did two full scenes throughout the entire semester, which in her experience as a theater student, is a very limited and ineffectively low amount of actual acting work. She recalls a class during which Martinez assigned a scene and roles to each student to practice improvisation. After a brief time spent on this exercise Pennell said that Martinez then turned the attention back on herself and spent more time discussing her personal life experiences than the class had spent actually doing the exercise.
Brendan Gillett, a Pomona College senior English major who is actively involved in the theater department and productions, said, “Students didn’t like her and that’s what it came down to. If you interacted with her it didn’t ever involve her listening.” Pennell added that she was “very in her own world”.
When both students were asked if they thought there was any truth to the allegations of racial and gender discrimination both vehemently rejected that. They added that Pomona College cannot begin the process of searching for and hiring a new Assistant Professor of Theater to take Martinez’s place until the suit is resolved, putting greater strain on the department.
Pomona College itself has been tight-lipped on the matter. Spokesman Mark Wood said, ““Pomona College has one of the most diverse faculties, in terms of both gender and race, of any college of its type in the country. The tenure review process at Pomona is designed to be both exhaustive and fair. However, since this matter is now under litigation and involves private information about a former employee, we cannot comment further.”
Martinez has both professional experience and a desire to help out underrepresented segments of the local community. But a professor’s experience and community involvement do not always translate well to effective teaching practices. Engaging a room full of students and effectively teaching them the course material is a skill that cannot come from roles in movies or community outreach. Pennell and Gillett believe Martinez lacked the pedagogical ability to teach at Pomona; Martinez and MALDEF believe otherwise. It seems this lawsuit will center around whether Martinez was a good teacher, or if she was just acting like one.
Want to know the gender and race breakdown of tenured professors at the 5Cs? Check out our report from last May, “Tenure at the Claremont Colleges.”