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When Tenure Means Nothing

January 14, 2010

Clark Atlanta University violated the rights of 55 faculty members -- 20 of them with tenure -- when it eliminated their jobs without faculty consultation or due process, and without regard to whether or not they had tenure, according to a report issued Wednesday by the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP called the dismissals -- covering a quarter of the faculty -- "outrageous" and "especially egregious."

The historically black university said at the time that it was responding to an "enrollment emergency," and repeatedly denied that it was facing "financial exigency." The latter state is one that the AAUP requires for the elimination of the jobs of tenured professors (although even in such cases, the association's guidelines require faculty participation in the process, which was largely absent at Clark Atlanta). Not only do AAUP guidelines not allow for such job eliminations as a result of enrollment declines, but the report questioned whether the declines were as significant as the university claimed.

From the time of the dismissals, in February, faculty members at Clark Atlanta (and ex-faculty members) described a situation that was unusual even by the standards of the past year, in which many colleges went through painful budget cuts. For example, faculty leaders say they gave President Carlton E. Brown a list of 46 specific ideas for saving money, including cutting the salaries of all faculty members by up to 10 percent, the day before the layoffs. Not only did he not accept their ideas, but he didn't tell them what was about to happen.

What happened was that the university briefly called off classes, and told the faculty members who lost their jobs that their positions had been eliminated and that they needed to pack up and leave campus immediately. At the time, Brown said that department heads had been involved in the decision on which faculty members to terminate. But the AAUP report, citing interviews with two chairs, said that this involvement consisted of the chairs being given a new faculty evaluation system in mid-January, and being given one weekend to evaluate their departments' members with new criteria -- without having been told that the information would be used to determine who would stay and who would go.

The AAUP report, while acknowledging the tight budget situation facing many colleges, questioned the entire rationale given for faculty layoffs. "The investigating committee has found no evidence to support the administration’s claimed enrollment crisis, however, and, in fact, finds credible that in all likelihood the administration, and President Brown in particular, attempted to manipulate enrollment numbers in order to establish plausible grounds to dismiss faculty members summarily," the report says. (According to the AAUP, enrollment was down about 5 percent, or 230 students, at the start of the academic year in which the layoffs took place, although the university has gone back several years to note a larger decline.)

Further, the AAUP committee found that the dismissals at Clark Atlanta "have exacerbated an atmosphere of mistrust and that shared governance exists at the institution only on paper, in handbook language that reflects the principles set forth in the Association’s Statement on Government, but not in reality."

Among the conclusions of the AAUP investigative committee were that Clark Atlanta violated faculty rights by:

  • Not providing dismissed faculty members with hearings before faculty peers, as required by both AAUP standards and university regulations.
  • Making no distinction between tenured and non-tenured faculty members in dismissal decisions.
  • Using a "largely nonexistent" enrollment problem as "a pretext for avoiding affordance of due process required under university regulations."
  • Providing a "sorely deficient" one month of severance salary.

Clark Atlanta officials did not respond to e-mail or voice messages left on Wednesday.

But Brown, the university's president, did give the AAUP this statement based on a draft of the report: "CAU’s enrollment numbers speak for themselves, as does the state of our nation’s economy. I’m sure you recall like I do a time not very long ago when this university boasted well over 5,000 students. Today, the enrollment is less than 4,000 students. Considering the progressive enrollment decline within the context of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and it should be clear to any objective person that the actions taken as a part of CAU’s resource reduction program were absolutely essential. Please know that we understand and have always understood the position the AAUP would take in this matter. Our number one priority, however, has been and will always be the preservation of this fine institution for the students it serves now and will serve in the future."

The AAUP has faced criticism from some historically black colleges in the past over investigations. The four members of the panel that investigated Clark Atlanta included one professor at a historically black institution (Charles L. Betsey of Howard University) and one professor who has written extensively and sympathetically about black colleges (Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania).

 

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