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Did Katrina Blow Away Layoff Guidelines?

February 1, 2006

Since Tulane University announced faculty layoffs in December, some faculty members have questioned the way the institution arrived at its post-Katrina reorganization plan, which involved cutting back 230 faculty members, 65 of whom are tenured. Now the Association of American University Professors is seeking some answers too.

Based on news reports on faculty member input, AAUP sent a letter to Tulane President Scott S. Cowen on Thursday, expressing concerns that association guidelines governing the layoff of faculty members may not have been followed, and inviting Cowen to discuss the matter.

According to Tulane and AAUP officials, Cowen spoke with Roger Bowen, general secretary of AAUP, in early December, and expressed his intention to adhere to AAUP guidelines when possible. AAUP letters of concern will also be arriving at Xavier University, Southern University in New Orleans, and the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. AAUP was glad to hear from Cowen in December -- he is the only president from a New Orleans institution to have contacted AAUP. But, since then, vehement complaints from faculty members have frequently surfaced.

The AAUP letter explains that Tulane’s “financial exigency has not been seriously disputed, although some have asserted that the magnitude of the exigency did not warrant so many terminated appointments.” Tulane has said it faced $200 million in recovery costs after Katrina, but faculty members say they have been kept in the dark about details.

The administration “may be right” about the way it arrived at its decisions, but “nobody has any idea about the figures,” said Boumediene Belkhouche, a professor of electrical engineering who has been at Tulane for 23 years, but will have to leave in June 2007, when his department is eliminated. Tulane declared financial exigency on Dec. 8, the day the public announcements about cutbacks were made, according to Mike Strecker, a Tulane spokesman. Said Belkhouche, “There were several forums [since the announcement], and [Cowen] wouldn’t give any numbers.” AAUP guidelines call for “a primary faculty role,” according to the letter, in determining criteria by which to cut back positions.

Strecker said that Cowen did not want to comment, but is formulating a response to AAUP. According to Robert Kreiser, associate secretary in AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom and Governance, Cowen does plan to dispute some of the facts in the letter.

Cowen did consult with an advisory group of 10 faculty members, but many professors at the Tulane School of Medicine and in the cut engineering departments -- civil, environmental, mechanical, electrical and computer engineering -- said that they had little or no representation in forming the renewal plan, and had no idea their positions would be gone until the public announcement was made on Dec. 8. Some engineering administrators continued to recruit students around the country until that date.  

Anthony Lamanna, assistant professor of civil engineering, returned from lunch in Omaha, where he found a temporary position, when the cuts were announced to find students that came with him from New Orleans waiting to deliver the news. “It happened when we were all scattered across the country,” he said. As an untenured faculty member, Lamanna seemed less surprised that his position is gone than that tenured professors were not offered placement in other departments.

According to the letter, AAUP guidelines recommend that tenured faculty members not be terminated “in favor of retaining” a non-tenured faculty member unless it would cause “a serious distortion of the academic program.” The letter adds that every effort should be made to place  “those affected” faculty members in other positions in the institution. “In biomedical engineering” – an engineering program that was not cut – “they’ve got statistics, mechanics and materials, thermodynamics, those could be taught by senior mechanical engineering professors.”

Tulane did conform to AAUP recommendations by informing cut professors -- who can teach until June 2007 -- at least 12 months in advance. However, in line with AAUP’s guidelines and outlined in the Tulane Faculty Handbook, termination of tenure due to financial exigency is “reviewed by the faculty of the division in which they hold appointment, then by the Senate Committee on Faculty Tenure, Freedom and Responsibility, with ultimate review of all controverted issues by the Tulane Board of Administrators.” All of the faculty members interviewed said that they have not been granted a review, and do not expect to have any. Belkhouche said that, at one of the forums, Cowen “bluntly said that the handbook is not enforceable.” In 1998, a Louisiana state court found that the handbook was not a legal contract, but rather a statement of “company policy.”

Stephen D. Cook, professor of orthopedic surgery, and director of orthopedic research at the Tulane med school, made an appeal to administrators to save his job. At first Cook was under the impression that if he could bring in $2 million to $3 million in research money, on top of the $20 million to $30 million his sponsors had given in prior years, he could keep his job. But Cook said that Tulane administrators spoke with his research sponsors, and wanted “$4 million to $6 million in unrestricted funds,” he said. “I think they need money and no long term obligations.” Cook, like many affected faculty members, has been vexed that Cowen, rather than offering financial details, has made continual public assertions that particular programs were cut because they did not have the potential to become “world class.”

Beyond AAUP guidelines and the faculty handbook, some faculty members are just miffed at what they said is a general lack of southern hospitality. Several faculty members would have preferred signed termination letters, rather than the stamped ones they said they received.

Before spending 27 years on the faculty, Cook was a student at Tulane, and spent 35 consecutive years there. Cook packed up his lab, and Tuesday was his last day at Tulane.  “They have not even sent me an e-mail after 27 years on the faculty,” he said.

 

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