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Going to Bat for Tenure

September 12, 2011

Faculty leaders at Western Nevada College are hopeful they have found a new way to oppose layoffs of five tenured faculty members. The Faculty Senate has passed a resolution calling on colleagues not to participate in any new hire search committees until the tenured positions are restored.

Faculty leaders said they were confused and angry when the administration announced it was searching for new positions soon after faculty layoffs were deemed necessary. Administrators, though, say the move was needed in a time of change for the college.

Robin Herlands, chair of the Western Nevada Faculty Senate, read a statement to the Board of Regents Thursday, imploring the system’s leaders to investigate the college’s use of curricular review to justify the layoffs.

“Some of us feel we have leadership who let no crisis go unused,” said Jim Strange, president of Western Nevada’s chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance. “We have this crisis which turned out to be half as bad as we feared ... yet we are still losing the same amount of people. Many of us feel the president has designs to make the college something different than it is.”

Administrators employed a curricular review process to, in essence, audit the college’s departments and determine which areas were no longer pertinent or valid. Strange, also a mathematics professor, said he believes this process has been co-opted for budgetary reasons.

While the threat to boycott search committees may be new, layoffs of tenured faculty members -- following program reviews -- are not. Last year, Florida State and Clark Atlanta Universities announced plans to lay off more than a dozen tenured faculty members, each without declaring financial exigency (although the Florida State plans were called off following an arbitrator's ruling). And earlier this year, the American Association of University Professors announced it is creating a special committee to review policies on financial exigency and program closure.

Declaring exigency gives colleges and universities with catastrophic financial issues the ability to include tenured faculty members among those laid off, and Nevada faculty members noted that officials at Western Nevada did not do so. “We also once more urge the ... leadership to give the potential termination of tenured faculty without a declaration of financial exigency the full and careful scrutiny that such a grave development for higher education warrants,” Herlands told the regents.

The eight Nevada state colleges and universities were facing a proposed 31 percent cut in appropriations this academic year. This is what kickstarted the curricular review process in March, said Mark Ghan, the college’s vice president for human resources and legal affairs. The curricular review committee recommended that seven faculty positions should be terminated. Two of the seven took a buyout from Western Nevada, while five await a termination notice, he said. These layoffs are “rare,” Ghan said, and it is the first time the college has ever terminated tenured faculty to his memory.

“What the reduction has done is force a shift in priorities,” Ghan said. “Instead of being all things to all people, we were directed ... to shift to producing graduates.”

But it’s the final appropriation number that has faculty members at Western Nevada scratching their heads. The college ended up having about 18 percent cut from its state appropriations, instead of the potentially disastrous 31 percent reduction. So it is puzzling that the university is still laying off the same number of faculty members as officials said would be necessary when it appeared that there would be a 31 percent cut, Strange said.

The five tenured faculty members facing layoff have taught at the college anywhere from 12 to 30 years, Strange said. It’s this fact that demonstrates why the faculty are so adamant about retaining these professors, said Jeffrey Downs, Faculty Senate chair at the college. “We have an obligation as a college to these people,” he said.

The senate also passed a resolution calling on the administration to restart the curricular review process now that the budget reductions are no longer up in the air.

Downs said it is unclear if Herlands’s call to the state system’s board of regents will be followed up on. The next possible time the board could discuss the issue is at its next meeting in December, he said.

In the meantime, the five faculty members — whose subjects include computer education, developmental reading, music and drama and teaching education — are teaching students and awaiting a termination notice that is expected to come in December and will take effect at the end of the academic year, Strange said.

Ghan said declaring exigency was on everyone’s minds after news of the governor’s proposed cuts hit campus. But it was ultimately decided against because of unclear codes and the potentially disastrous effect it could have had on the college as a whole, he said.

The college is looking to the future, beginning its search for professors with other specialties, including instructors in the automotive and construction fields, Ghan said. Faculty members assigned to these search committees have thus far participated as anticipated, Ghan said.

At the end of the day, Ghan said the faculty concerns are not falling on deaf ears, but the college has to do something to survive financially and move forward.

“It’s a close-knit community, so this is a painful and destructive thing we are going through here,” Ghan said.

 

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