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Students protest to bring back ousted filmmaking professor

Dena Seidel began utilizing the basement of the building in the University's Department of English to teach film years ago, and just this year, her ambitions paid off when the state of New Jersey approved her courses to become an official Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Mason Gross School of the Arts.

After Seidel wrote the many proposals for grants and the BFA, and getting it approved, Mason Gross School of the Arts decided to let her go and replace her with a man students are unfamiliar with, and whose vision does not align with the pedagogical model Seidel and her students built together, said Sean Feuer, University alumnus and former student of Seidel. 

“We feel like this was done unjustly and learned she received a bad evaluation, not from any of her peers,” Feuer said. “This has sparked a conversation for education reform at this University.”

A group of students aligned with Feuer are deeply adamant about keeping the programs that actually work and not letting administration members who they have never met exploit their work to get a program made and then snatch their director and guider from them, he said.

A formal grievance was filed in late last month on behalf of Seidel by the union representing Rutgers University faculty, said B.J. Walker, senior staff representative at Rutgers Council of AAUP Chapters of the American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers, according to MyCentralJersey.com.

Students so far have created a Facebook page titled “SAVE our Rutgers Film Program,” which currently has more than 1,000 members. The group features testimonials from students, faculty and alumni who have worked with Seidel and are upset and confused about what is happening. Students have also written a letter to University President Robert L. Barchi and Rutgers—New Brunswick Chancellor Richard L. Edwards.

In the official letter sent to Barchi, students write that they understand that both Barchi and Edwards have invested in Seidel’s vision by approving the BFA in Digital Filmmaking proposal she designed and naming her as the program’s director. The University also awarded Seidel RCDF, two New Brunswick strategic planning grants, and named Seidel director on a strategic planning grant to fund the Film Bureau.

“We do not understand how you can recognize these singular achievements and not fight tooth and nail to keep her as a part of the Rutgers community and in a leadership role as the new Digital Filmmaking BFA is blossoming,” the letter said.

Barchi and Edwards were asked to understand that the students who wrote the letter feel this is much larger than a request to protect their innovative, interdisciplinary and professional film program.

“This is really about the future of education at Rutgers,” the letter said. “About who has say in our education, about protecting educational programs and professors that advance us and prepare us for the world. Rutgers students are graduating with tremendous debt and few job prospects, especially those of us in the arts. We created an innovative program with Dena that meets our needs as we prepare to enter an ever-changing digital and technology driven world.”

Amanda Bullis, a former student and employee of Seidel, said the two met when she took the first class Seidel ever taught at Rutgers.

“Dena is, hands down, the professor that has had the largest impact on my life, career and overall educational experience while attending Rutgers,” Bullis said. “She has shaped the way I view stories, science research and storytelling, and has empowered me to believe that a small group of dedicated people with initiative and a story to tell can really produce work worthy of a global audience."

While Bullis was Seidel’s student, she was always there to answer any questions she had from an ethical, technical, anthropological and storytelling perspective, and never felt neglected or unheard in any of the classes she took with her.

“She gave us a lot of responsibility,” Bullis said. “After all, there is a tremendous amount of responsibility in telling the stories of others ... and (she) always expected us to take special care of the stories and people under our stewardship as filmmakers.”

Bullis said Seidel was incredibly supportive of her desire to work on both the "Atlantic Crossing" documentary team, as well as the oceanographic research team, as both documentarian and researcher — truly in the spirit of interdisciplinary learning.

She said she was saddened and disappointed when she learned the news of how Seidel was let go. 

"It really is a great loss for the Rutgers community, and unfortunate that the innovative, truly interdisciplinary pedagogy that was being created through science storytelling has been dismantled,” she said.

Seidel surrounded her teaching and working techniques around building collaborative bridges, Bullis said. Building meaningful relationships has always been essential to Seidel’s leadership style.

Bullis said she had the honor of attending the BFA in Digital Filmmaking Open House in April 2015. She saw that all of the incoming students were so excited to be coming into such a collaborative and empowering learning environment. She feels the most for them.

“I don't think other universities are giving undergraduate film students the kinds of empowering opportunities that Dena has these past eight years,” she said.

As a boss, Bullis said Seidel was always available to speak with her about her feelings and needs, as well as trusted her to complete her tasks without being overbearing. As the director of RCDF, she was constantly open for communication with faculty, staff and students.

“Dena is dedicated to filmmaking education, science filmmaking and telling impactful stories, so it is my personal hope that she will be able to continue her work at an institution that fully supports her unique vision for interdisciplinary education," Bullis said. “I know she will continue to tell meaningful, impactful stories in the spirit of collaboration and trust no matter where she is.”

With Seidel’s guidance, Bullis said she learned practical storytelling skills from an ethical perspective as a documentarian and storyteller.

“(Seidel has) done an immense amount of work to get that done, and I think she deserves the same amount of respect, courtesy, consideration and compromise as other faculty and staff members of this University have received concerning her job title and security as one of the most incredible professors I've ever witnessed teach at Rutgers University,” said Natalie James, a former student of Seidel. 

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