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Taking a Stand on 'Mass Firings'

June 14, 2010

WASHINGTON -- The American Association of University Professors voted Saturday to censure two institutions -- Clark Atlanta University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston -- and to place Antioch University on the association's list of those with inappropriate governance systems. The disputes that led to the unanimous votes here at the AAUP's annual meeting all involved mass dismissals of faculty members.

No institutions were removed from the AAUP's censure list -- which had 48 institutions on it before this year's vote. In four of the previous five years, two colleges have come off the list each year, and in the other year, five colleges came off the list.

While AAUP leaders bemoaned the circumstances that led to the critical votes this year about the three universities, there was also news at the annual meeting that cheered the association: After several shaky years financially, the group appears to have regained its fiscal footing.

Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, opened the association's business meeting at which the censure votes took place by noting that he is stunned day after day by the depth of attacks on faculty rights. "You think you have encountered the worst example and then something worse comes up the next day," he said. And as the cases discussed at the meeting demonstrate, he said, "mass firings .... [are] suddenly a characteristic feature of higher education."

The censure votes, Nelson said, reflect one way to take a stand. Faculty members are seeing, he said, that they can't stay "in the solitude of their studies" and that the trends in higher education compromise "their ability to do their work.... Faculty members who are angry can stand together in solidarity."

The Censure List

The AAUP's censure list is for violations of academic freedom, including basic faculty rights to due process. Officials said that they didn't know why no institutions came off the list this year. Each year, the AAUP reaches out to institutions on the list and offers to negotiate a path to removing the condemnation of the association. This year, there wasn't meaningful movement. Typically, such negotiations follow the naming of a new president, who wants to get the college off the list. Some institutions remain on the list for just a year or two; others for decades.

Both institutions that were added this year were cited for the way they eliminated faculty jobs.

Clark Atlanta, in Atlanta, was found by the AAUP to have violated the rights of 55 faculty members -- 20 of them with tenure -- when it eliminated their jobs last year without faculty consultation or due process, and without regard to whether or not they had tenure. The AAUP report on the situation 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 faculty members at Clark Atlanta (and ex-faculty members) described a highly unusual situation. 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.

He 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 decisions on which faculty positions to terminate. But the AAUP, 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.

Clark Atlanta released a statement after the AAUP's vote on Saturday, taking issue with the idea that the association can judge its actions. "While the administration respects the right of the AAUP and its members to express their opinions ... it should be noted that for all of its merits and good work, the AAUP is not a faculty or university governance organization and is not an academic accrediting agency." Further, the statement said that the university made its decisions "to prioritize student academic success and the advancement of instruction and research in fulfillment of our mission."

The censure of UT Galveston is based on the institution's reaction to Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston on September 13, 2008 -- leading the university to eliminate hundreds of jobs. A report by the AAUP, while not contesting that the university faced serious financial challenges from the hurricane’s damage, found that the decisions made as a result violated key faculty rights. Specifically, the report finds that the university failed to involve faculty members in meaningful ways in evaluating the extent of the fiscal crisis, determining which positions should be eliminated, and providing appropriate means of appeal. Further, the report says that some of those who lost jobs were not given appropriate consideration for new positions created after the layoffs.

At the meeting Saturday, there was some discussion of the relative blame that should go to the University of Texas Board of Regents as opposed to the administrators who lead the campus. AAUP leaders said that while the regents were indeed key players, the association censures a central administration without censuring the campus only if campus-based officials all fought the decisions in question, which was not the case here. So the association's intent is to blame both the campus administration and the regents by censuring the branch.

A University of Texas System spokesman said that the institution was declining to comment on the censure vote. But Texas officials did respond to a draft of the AAUP report on Galveston, and in those responses university officials argued that their decisions were more protective of faculty rights than the report suggested and that the university had unique responsibilities to act quickly to preserve vital patient care. The university officials also faulted the association’s committee for accepting "each allegation raised by a faculty member, critic or newspaper reporter" without scrutiny. (The AAUP report disputes this, arguing that it subjected various claims to considerable scrutiny.)

Antioch University and Governance Principles

While the AAUP may be best known for its censure list on issues of academic freedom and faculty rights, it also maintains a much smaller list (only three institutions before Saturday) of institutions sanctioned over their governance principles.

Antioch University was faulted for the way its central board and administration dealt with Antioch College, the liberal arts institution that predated the university system and whose closure by the university set off several years of protests. The college's closure resulted in all of its faculty members losing their jobs, and while the college is in the process of being revived, independent of the university, it has yet to become fully operational. The AAUP stressed that its vote was against the university, not the college.

The AAUP released a report on Antioch last year, finding that the university's board and administration "usurped the faculty’s responsibilities" by imposing curricular changes "that the faculty neither initiated nor approved"; failed to consult with the faculty regarding the college’s financial condition prior to declaring financial exigency; violated "essential standards for continuing faculty appointments" by declaring financial exigency without having considered alternatives, "systematically reduced the flow of budgetary information" to the college's faculty, and "failed to protect the autonomy of Antioch College and, in fact, significantly undermined it by approving a shift of administrative functions from Antioch College to the university administration without ensuring means for communication or sharing of governance."

The AAUP also faults Antioch University -- now no longer controlling the college -- for not having specific systems in place to assure faculty rights and an appropriate role for faculty in the governance system of the remaining campuses in the university.

Before the AAUP vote on Saturday, Chris Hill, one of the professors who lost their jobs when the college closed, read a statement about the impact -- even with the eventual independence of the college. "We should not overlook the university administration's tragic decision to close the college that sadly did produce deep and long term collateral damage," she said.

"Out of a faculty census of 35 who taught the last year the college was open, we know of two tenured faculty who by the time the college closed in spring '08 had secured tenure-track jobs elsewhere, with two more formerly tenured faculty over the following year finding non-tenure track contract jobs that involve some administration and some teaching. Some former faculty retired after the college closed," she said. Others have worked to revive the college. Many are "teaching as adjuncts or visiting faculty in the area, grievously underpaid and with no job security."

Hill concluded her talk -- to sustained applause -- this way: "By sanctioning Antioch University, you will continue to direct attention to the university’s unprofessional and uncollegial faculty governance policies, practices detrimental to the maintenance of high standards, fair working conditions for teachers and scholars, and to the academic freedom that is the precondition for all higher learning."

Toni Murdock, the chancellor of Antioch University, said in an interview after the censure vote that it struck her as unfair for the AAUP to be criticizing the university at this time, given that the supporters of the college have achieved what they wanted -- the independence for that institution.

As for criticism of the university's governance, she said that the departure of the college was but one of a series of major changes at the university, which in the last year has created independent boards to assume some authority over each of the individual campuses. During the year, she said, much effort has gone into defining the campus-university system relationship.

"We are rebuilding and restructuring the university," she said.

Murdock said that defining the faculty role was key and that a meeting is already scheduled for this month to help create a new way for faculty to play a role in university governance. "This is a work in progress," she said, but the university's administration and board are committed to a meaningful faculty role. "We are going to honor the faculty voice," she said.

Further, she said that the AAUP evaluation of Antioch was a "stacked deck" process because Nelson, the AAUP president, is an Antioch College alumnus who has been vocal in his defense of the college and criticism of the university administration. "What we're looking at is a most egregious conflict of interest." Nelson recused himself from a role in the AAUP's analysis of Antioch, but Murdock said that "he claims he has recused himself, but he's been actively involved with the college. This is just a huge conflict."

Via e-mail, Nelson reiterated that he did not play a role -- and said that AAUP staff members took the lead in deciding to investigate and drafting the report. Nelson said it would have been surprising if the AAUP staff hadn't made a decision to investigate, given "the sheer scale of the terminations."

Improved Finances

Recent AAUP meetings have featured some concern about the state of the association's finances. On Saturday, the financial report suggested a much healthier picture. Under audited results released at the meeting, the AAUP finished 2009 with revenues outpacing expenses -- following three years in which the opposite had been the case (by at least $200,000).

AAUP leaders had worried that the ongoing deficits would make it difficult to raise money and plan new initiatives, so many at the meeting cheered the turnaround, particularly since it took place during a severe downturn in the economy.

 

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