New Orleans colleges, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, failed to follow their own procedures in their treatment of faculty members, which led to prolonged lapses in academic freedom protection, a new report by the American Association of University Professors finds.
The eight-member "Special Committee on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities" based its conclusions on interviews with faculty members, chief administrative officers and lawyers representing some of the institutions. The report focuses on Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, Southern University at New Orleans, and two campuses within the Louisiana State University system -- the University of New Orleans and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center.
While noting that the storm caused widespread damage and forced colleges to make tough choices, the report says that disaster preparation at the five universities was "uneven." That poor preparation is part of the reason why institutions found themselves needing to cut costs, which they did, in part, by terminating faculty members or placing them on unpaid leave, sometimes without due process, the report says.
“The largest problem common to just about all of these universities was a move by administrative authorities to abandon existing rules and regulations and to put in alternative measures in deciding how to proceed that moved away from checks and balances that had been in place," said Jordan E. Kurland, principal staff officer with AAUP. "This happened at different degrees at different places and resulted in unnecessary decisions and dissatisfied faculty who felt they weren't respected."
The report says that while the committee heard reports of faculty members being singled out for adverse treatment on grounds unrelated to the hurricane, those charges could not be substantiated. But it adds that "given the manner in which these decisions were made -- the malleability of standards, the absence of meaningful faculty involvement, the disregard for tenure, and, often, the inadequacy of review -- it seems almost inevitable that such would be a common perception."
Officials at the New Orleans institutions said they vehemently disagree with the report's charges, particularly that the number of faculty terminations "exceeded the inescapable or minimal needs of the [institutions], sometimes substantially," and that the "condition of academic freedom [at these institutions] remains alarmingly uncertain."
"The LSU system continues to be astonished that the AAUP doesn't understand the difference between planning for what can be considered a routine hurricane and for the most catastrophic hurricane in U.S. history," said Charles Zewe, a spokesman for the LSU system.
Zewe said he sees the report more as a cautionary tale for colleges that are looking at how to prepare to a possible disaster. Emergency plans were "overwhelmed" by the scope of the disaster, which caused the system to keep an eye toward preservation, he said. "It's regrettable that people's jobs had to be sacrificed, but we felt then and feel now that it was necessary as a last resort measure. We ought to be applauded for preserving the vast majority of jobs."
The report outlines, over dozens of pages, individual grievances against each of the five institutions. For instance, it criticizes the University of New Orleans for the manner in which it placed faculty on unpaid leave, and adds that "tenure is insecure and likely to remain so as long as the current Declaration of Financial Exigency with its procedures for releasing faculty remains in effect."
Fredrick Barton, New Orleans's provost, said the university's exigency is up next month. The university decided that placing some faculty on leave and eventually terminating some contracts were necessary given the dire financial situation, which Barton said the report's authors "fail to understand." He said the university showed the AAUP committee documentation that while it expected nearly 15,000 students in fall 2006, only 11,700 enrolled. New Orleans had more than 17,250 students prior to Katrina.
Barton said no new faculty have been placed on unpaid leave since last summer. (Some of the previously terminated faculty have challenged the university's decision to take action against them.)
"I don't know at what point the AAUP will be willing to remove the statement that tenure is insecure here," Barton said. "We don't think so at all. Tenure remains highly important, but it can't be the determining factor. What we're saying is the survival of the institution required us to do this."
The AAUP committee also came down on Loyola and Tulane, two of the wealthier institutions that sustained comparatively less hurricane damage. The report says Loyola showed a disregard for its policies by terminating the appointments of faculty on the stated grounds of program discontinuance. Kurland of the AAUP said he found particularly troubling the conduct of Loyola's administration in "trying to fend off no confidence votes by the faculty" against the president and provost.
Both officials played a role in creating a controversial strategic plan that included the elimination or suspension of more than 20 academic programs and the dismissal of 17 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. A Loyola spokeswoman said the university isn't commenting on the AAUP report until officials read the entire document. Last fall, the university reported that it had seen a 30 percent decrease in the size of the freshman class and that it had finished the fiscal year that ended in July with a $14 million budget shortfall.
The AAUP panel continued to criticize Tulane for the way it handled its academic reorganization and for its elimination of more than 200 faculty members on the grounds of exigency, making "no meaningful distinction between tenured and nontenured faculty members except in terms of notice and/or severance pay." The report says that Tulane failed to provide "any but the most generic evidence [with] respect to the declared state of financial exigency," which prevented faculty -- tenured and untenured -- from finding out details about their cases.
Kurland said that he has never been prepared to dispute Tulane's financial exigency, but that area institutions with fewer financial resources have "moved out of that type of situation." Tulane, like Loyola, declined to comment on details of the report. A statement from the university said that "after incurring massive losses as a result of Hurricane Katrina, the university is on a pathway to recovery. However, it is remarkable that, to this day, the AAUP fails to comprehend the magnitude of the devastation."