WASHINGTON -- The American Association of University Professors on Saturday censured three Louisiana universities for violations of AAUP standards on faculty rights. The institutions are: Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University.
The censures, which are preceded by detailed investigations by an AAUP committee on academic freedom, are a longstanding tradition at the association's annual meeting.
But one administrator Saturday questioned whether the procedure had any meaning or value. Randy Moffett, University of Louisiana System president, whose system includes two of the censured institutions, said via e-mail that “placing universities on a censure list has little, if any, practical implication as the AAUP is an advocacy group that holds no authority over higher education institutions and represents less than 4 percent of instructional staff at degree-granting institutions nationwide.”
The cases at Northwestern and Southeastern in the University of Louisiana System involved program closures, and the AAUP investigation said that the universities used the excuse of budget constraints to arbitrarily lay off tenured professors.
At LSU Baton Rouge, a research professor, who was later let go, became unpopular with the university (and the federal government) after he opined that the damage to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina happened because of structural failure of the levees and blamed the Army Corps of Engineers. Another case at the university involved a tenured biology professor who was removed from teaching a course mid-semester because her grading was too tough. LSU chancellor Michael Martin said via e-mail that although the university is very interested in what the AAUP has to say, the organization had not spoken to him about the cases and could not know all the details about the incidents.
No universities were taken off the censure list this year -- an action that happens after previously censured institutions work to deal with the AAUP complaints that landed the institutions on the censure list.
Here are details on the institutions censured:
Ivor van Heerden, a permanent but untenured professor at LSU who specialized in coastal geology and hurricane research, described the flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a “catastrophic structural failure” in a Washington Post article in Sept. 2005. This opinion did not sit well with university administrators and federal officials then, although those opinions are now widely accepted. And although he had worked for the university for 17 years, van Heerden was denied reappointment.
The association concluded that van Heerden was denied reappointment as retaliation “for his continuing dissent from the prevailing LSU position on the failed levees and the New Orleans flooding, thereby violating his academic freedom.” The dismissed professor sued the university for wrongful dismissal, and the case remains in litigation.
The other case in the LSU censure involved Dominique G. Homberger, a tenured biology professor, who had a “reputation for setting high standards” and was known to be a tough grader. In March 2010, she received an e-mail from a dean saying that she would not be teaching her introductory biology course for non-majors because of low student grades. The AAUP investigation found that the university violated the professor’s right to assign student grades and teach by removing her from the course mid-semester, and further ignored her due process rights because she did not receive a faculty hearing on the issue.
Martin, the LSU chancellor, said that “one of these cases is still going through the legal process and the other has long since been resolved internally.” He said the university had done its best to get to the bottom of the issues and had handled them appropriately.
University of Louisiana
The AAUP investigation into program closures at Northwestern State found that faculty members were not given a chance to estimate or analyze the extent of the financial crisis at the university and whether there were any alternatives to laying off tenured faculty.
The association said that decisions on the academic programs that would be closed “were made behind the scenes by chief administrative officers without meaningful consultation with the faculty.” At least 16 tenured professors have lost their jobs at the university in the last two years, and programs in political science, economics and journalism were among those eliminated at the university.
At Southeastern Louisiana University, three tenured positions in the French department were eliminated, and the AAUP report said that the university administration ignored academic freedom and tenure regulations, although the professors had opportunities for hearings before the university’s Faculty Senate.
Margaret Marshall, one of the Southeastern French professors who decided to retire as a result of the university’s decision, said Saturday that the AAUP censure would show the University of Louisiana system in a bad light. “They ignored the recommendations of the Faculty Senate. The AAUP has been a great source of comfort,” she said.
The University of Louisiana system responded forcefully to the censure Saturday, saying that the AAUP ignored the dire financial situation in the state that led to the university’s action. “University of Louisiana system schools have lost $187 million in state funding since 2008 and will lose an additional $54 million next year,” said Moffett, the system president. Moffett suggested that if the AAUP wants to be a “relevant organization” it should advocate for more funding for institutions.
When the AAUP published its report in April, the system marked up a version of the report, citing what they said were numerous errors and discrepancies.
At the meeting, Sudhir Trivedi, vice president of the AAUP’s Louisiana Conference and a computer science professor at the Southern University at Baton Rouge, said that the Louisiana universities were ending up on the censure list because there seemed to be a clear signal from the state’s Board of Regents and the governor that “academic freedom doesn’t matter.” The association is also currently investigating a decision to declare financial exigency at Southern University.