Students baffled by professor’s absence

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Students from two Pan-African studies and two urban studies and planning online classes were left confused and without a professor when she stopped communicating with them after the fifth week of classes, according to the students and school officials.

Lisa Richardson, professor of urban studies and planning and Pan-African studies, has not recently contacted either departments after numerous attempts by their employees and university officials to contact her. These attempts were made following repeated inquiries by students in two PAS 300OL and two URBS 150OL classes.

Tom Spencer-Walters, chair of the Pan-African Studies Department, said his department tried to contact Richardson several times through various channels.

“Almost every day,” he said.

Spencer-Walters said he personally spoke to Richardson about four or five weeks ago because of an inquiry from a student who had not heard from her in some time.

“We talked for hours,” he said. “At that time she assured me and reassured me that she would get back to the students. Other students later contacted me and (informed) me that still no information (was received) back from her.”

Spencer-Walters said Richardson informed him during their last conversation that because of her travel to the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina she could not access the technology to keep in constant contact with the class. He said the number listed for Richardson is different from the number she called from four to five weeks ago. Like other professors, Richardson still has a voicemail on her office phone.

The Pan-African Studies Department staff made a serious effort to contact Richardson and has left messages for her, Spencer-Walters said.

According to Christopher Beck, a student from the PAS 300 online class, he has been out of touch with Richardson since Oct. 5. He said it worries him and the other students because they do not know how they will be graded for the class.

William Dagodag, chair of the Urban Studies and Planning Department, said he heard from students about Richardson about a week and a half ago. The department is working on a solution and “trying to get somebody to take over the class,” he said.

According to Christopher Vogel, an administrative support coordinator for the Urban Studies and Planning Department, phone calls to Richardson from the department started around Nov. 7 because students were having trouble trying to get hold of Richardson.

Randal Cummings, coordinator of online instruction in Undergraduate Studies, said this is an unusual circumstance because there have been numerous efforts to contact Richardson and none of them worked. He said that about a year ago another professor left in the middle of a semester because of medical reasons.

Cummings said he spoke to the Urban Studies and Planning Department, which informed him that staffers even tried to contact Richardson through the emergency contact information that she provided and that no one had heard anything back from her.

“(The) lines of communication are there, (but) yield no results,” Cummings said. “I think the (contact) number she has was an East Coast number.”

According to Cummings, there were numerous attempts made since student concerns first arose, but despite the university’s efforts, “nobody has heard anything from her.”

He said the last e-mail correspondence he received from Richardson was on Sept.26 as a result of a student inquiry that he forwarded to her. He said Richardson responded to him, saying she was at an international conference and was not able to get Internet access.

Cummings said that based on the online classes’ site, it showed that Richardson had posted the fifth week of class materials for students. The last time Richardson logged in through the online chat feature was Oct. 5, he said.

Cummings said he has received numerous e-mails from students from the class and has forwarded them to Cynthia Rawitch, associate vice president for Undergraduate Studies.

He said Harry Hellenbrand, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs then requested an investigation and both departments stepped in to address the issue.

“It was a great deal of concern, so I took it to Cynthia Rawitch who took (the issue) to the appropriate deans, even to the top to the Provost,” Cummings said. “(What I know is the departments are) shifting existing staff to take her place.”

According to Cummings, Johnie Scott, director of the writing program and professor in the Pan-African Studies Department and Claude Willey, professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Department, will substitute for Richardson’s online classes.

Cummings said he is currently in the process of providing both professors with access to the online classes.

“I am challenged to step-in,” Scott said. “I first designed the PAS 300 online class in 1998.”

Scott said he was notified by Spencer-Walters to substitute on Nov. 15, and he e-mailed all the students on Nov. 16 saying he was going to take over the class.

He said that along with his introduction, he gave students guidelines and structure to compress the course materials for the remaining weeks.

Spencer-Walters said the students would still earn the three units for the class since students worked with Richardson, despite the complications.

“We want the students to have a meaningful experience and to get something out of it,” Spencer-Walters said.

Kyle Luna, senior real estate finance major, said that despite getting a substitute professor for his online class he is upset for how the university responded to the events. He said there is no excuse for how long it took, and he said he personally needs a formal apology from somebody from the university explaining what happened.

He said he had even sent correspondence to CSUN President Jolene Koester to address the issue, but has yet to receive a response. He added the incident was an instance of “irresponsibility of the university.”

“From my point of view, I am a senior transfer student,” Luna said. “The situation took a long period of time (to be resolved). I learned from other students that the department was aware (of the problem) and nothing was done”

Spencer-Walters said Richardson has been in the university for about two years.

“It was unlike her. According to the department(s), she is a very responsible, talented and intelligent person,” Cummings said. “We trained her on how to do the tricks and engage her students, but this is her first semester she is teaching the online class.”

Joanne Angeles can be reached at city@csun.edu.