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May 18, 2005

The letters went out Friday, via certified mail, to all full-time professors at Grand Canyon University. In a twist on the old college acceptance letters, many of the recipients got the thick envelopes, which included contracts for the coming year (with signing bonuses included).

Seventeen other full-time faculty members got thin envelopes -- single page letters informing them that because "this has a been a year of challenge and change for Grand Canyon University, difficult decisions" must be made. "One area of correction," the letter continued, "is the number of full and part time faculty on campus. It is in this context that I regret to inform you that you will not receive a contract."

At least five of the instructors who were let go had tenure, even though they and other instructors at the college say that administrators had assured them repeatedly since a group of private investors bought the financially ailing Christian college in January 2004 that the institution would honor their tenured status.

In a e-mail message distributed around the campus, Grand Canyon's CEO, Brent Richardson, attributed the layoffs to a "reduction and redirection in certain academic departments, positions and programs." He called the actions "an expected and necessary part of the restructuring of GCU and the first change that impacts faculty in the way staff and even students have been impacted," noting previous cutbacks in staff positions and scholarship adjustments for students.

University officials declined to respond to telephone calls and e-mail messages seeking further comment on the situation, which was first reported Monday by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The actions by Grand Canyon have drawn the interest of the university's accreditor, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and of the American Association of University Professors.

Steven D. Crow, executive director of North Central's Higher Learning Commission, said that Grand Canyon officials did not tell the accrediting group in advance about its actions, and that North Central was "following up" on it with Grand Canyon administrators.

B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the AAUP, said that the faculty group had asked professors at Grand Canyon to send the association documents about the situation for a possible investigation. He added: "The information available to the AAUP thus far raises concerns about issues of tenure and academic due process."

Grand Canyon, which was founded in 1949, faced intensifying financial pressures until, in December 2003, it was several million dollars in debt and could not meet its payroll, says Robert C. Andringa, executive director of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, who says he has kept a close watch on Grand Canyon because it is the first for-profit Christian institution. In January 2004, the university's trustees struck a deal in which a group of investors would absorb its debt and commit to pouring funds into building the institution. 

In the intervening 16 months, university officials say they have spent more than $8 million, increased overall enrollments, especially in online programs, from 1,800 to 8,000, and hired more than 100 faculty and staff members to expand its online offerings.

While they don't dispute those accomplishments, professors at Grand Canyon say the achievements have come at a significant cost to the working environment and resulted in the abandonment of some important academic principles. Several professors interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing, among other things, a clause in the new contracts that warns employees not to share any potentially critical information about the university with people outside it.

The professors say that the university abandoned the representative faculty council that existed before the sale of the institution and, in October, presented a new faculty handbook -- prepared without meaningful input from professors -- in which the institution introduced "term tenure," at three- and five-year lengths. That was one of several open meetings, the professors say, at which administrators verbally committed to continuing "to respect tenure for those who have it." "They told us we would be grandfathered in," said one full time professor. 

But another professor notes that administrators also stated that nothing was binding unless it was put in writing -- and the promise of tenure never was.

Despite those and other signs that the institution was distancing itself from tenure, the actions last week still stunned and dismayed many professors at Grand Canyon.

They were troubled in part by concerns about who was let go. If the institution truly needed to lay off professors for strategic or financial reasons, they said, it would have made sense to have dismissed the newest professors, or the weakest, or those in vulnerable or expendable disciplines. But the list of those laid off last week included longtime and generally well-regarded instructors in core disciplines like business and religion, and several of them were former deans who had at times questioned management decisions.

Faculty members also balked at how the dismissals were carried out. Some professors discovered that they were on the way out only when they found their campus e-mail accounts had been disabled. And the dismissals came, one professor pointed out, at the tail end of the college hiring season, which could make it difficult for those who lost their jobs to get other ones.

One faculty member noted that the layoff letters "hold open the possibility that the university would rehire [the full-time professors] as adjuncts or let them teach online. Because of the timing, they seem to be hoping that people will have to crawl back" and take adjunct positions at Grand Canyon.

This professor added: "The whole scenario of how the layoffs were carried out indicates a lack of respect for the environment of higher education."

The situation at Grand Canyon is likely to attract significant attention because the institution is one of several financially ailing nonprofit colleges that have been taken over or targeted for purchase in the past year or so by for-profit entities or investors. Given the intense worries in some quarters of traditional higher education about the potential influence of the profit motive, critics are sure to be on the lookout for signs of ill motives.

But Lara K. Couturier, a higher education consultant who was interim principal investigator at Brown University's Futures Project, a research center that closed in March, warned against a knee-jerk reaction. "There could be a tendency among some people to make this a poster child for all the evil things that can happen when a for-profit steps in, but I'd caution people from jumping to conclusions," said Couturier, who noted that she was not intimately familiar with the situation at Grand Canyon.

"Had the institution remained a nonprofit but just brought in new leadership, they might have had to make similar hard choices. One thing that higher ed as an enterprise hasn't done a good job at is doing serious cost-benefit analysis and making hard decisions, and that's one thing that for-profits do: impose stricter business practices on higher education."

 

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