22 Years, 1 Phone Call

AAUP report says Nunez CC fired a longtime professor of English when he asked too many questions about how it would meet reaccreditation requirements on assessment.

February 12, 2019
 

Nunez Community College in Louisiana terminated a longtime professor over the phone with no due process, in apparent retaliation for speaking out on accreditation issues, says an investigative report by the American Association of University Professors.

The report sets the stage for the association to vote to censure Nunez for violations of academic freedom at its annual meeting later this year.

AAUP’s report concerns Richard Schmitt, a former associate professor of English at Nunez who taught there for 22 years. Schmitt didn’t have tenure because Nunez hasn’t offered it since 1999. But widely followed AAUP standards stipulate that full-time professors who have served their institutions well for seven years, or the typical tenure probationary period, should be afforded the due process protections that come with tenure -- even if the professor isn’t tenured.

Nunez did not respond to AAUP’s draft report when it received it, according to the association. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System, of which Nunez is part, declined comment on the circumstances surrounding Schmitt’s termination this week.

More generally, Quentin Taylor, system spokesperson, said, "We support anybody’s right to academic freedom and to express themselves however they see fit."

Taylor added, "We are moving forward with a new chancellor, and she decided to take the college in a different direction."

Schmitt’s troubles with his administration began last year when he served as program manager for general studies, around the same time that Tina Tinney became Nunez’s chancellor. In his new role, Schmitt was responsible for preparing reports on student learning outcomes for the college’s regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. This was especially significant because the commission determined that Nunez had failed to properly document student success rates and initiatives during reaccreditation the year prior, and imposed additional reporting measures on the college.

In January of last year, Schmitt reportedly received a newly designed form from the college on which to report “program student learning outcomes.” He says that he argued with another administrator involved in reaccreditation when she offered “suggestions” on how to alter a previous form, and that he told her he wouldn’t “fabricate” information.

The next month, Schmitt says, he sent an email to Tinney and other administrators complaining that documents he’d prepared for the commission’s monitoring report had been excluded from the package.

“I am left to conclude that either my work was so unsatisfactory that it did not merit a review or that there’s more going on behind these curtains than I am given access to, such that what I am producing with honesty and integrity does not suit our aims,” he wrote. “Can we garner a consistent view about what we want the [general studies] forms to read like? Does anything regarding what we want smack of unethical production? Am I the best person to perform this task, or am I a name to put on the forms?”

Tinney reportedly responded by saying she’d never asked anyone to fabricate data or otherwise endorsed dishonesty.

“I find this question offensive,” she reportedly wrote. “I have asked for commitment and dedication to the task but at no point suggested ‘unethical production,’ nor would [I] condone that approach.”

She concluded by accepting Schmitt’s earlier offer to resign as program manager, citing his “level of frustration with the process” and his “repeated erroneous interpretation” of the administration’s actions, according to the report.

Three weeks later, Schmitt says, he discovered that his name was still included in the report to the accreditation commission, with information he didn’t agree to include. He asked for his name to be removed, writing in an email to administrators that sought “neither credit nor accountability for reports that bear only [a] vague resemblance to the documents” he drafted.

Schmitt’s request was denied, he says. Then, in May, Tinney reportedly informed him in a conference call that his faculty appointment would not be renewed for the fall, citing a poor “fit.”

Tinney’s later letter confirming the decision reads, “As an ‘at-will’ employee who is an unclassified nontenured faculty employee, your contract is subject to renewal on an annual basis.” The letter does not include a reason for the decision.

Schmitt appealed, saying that the non-reappointment was about accreditation issues.

Tinney responded that Schmitt was an at-will employee who was not guaranteed reappointment.

“Serving as chancellor of Nunez makes it my responsibility to access [sic] all needs of the college when making decisions,” she reportedly wrote in her email to Schmitt. “That evaluative process resulted in my discretionary, unpleasant decision not to renew your contract for the 2018-2019 year. Non-reappointment is not a reflection of your work record or behavior. Nor does it diminish the past contributions you have made to the college. Your time and service to the college is appreciated.”

Schmitt filed a complaint with the accreditation commission about the material Nunez submitted, as well. But it responded that he’d provided “insufficient actionable evidence.”

The AAUP wrote to Tinney on behalf of Schmitt, who is now teaching at Prairie View A&M University. She responded that Schmitt always was an “at-will employee” and that there was “never any type of tenure, actual or implied, associated with his employment. As an at-will employee, he was totally free, as was the college as his employer, to end the employer-employee relationship at any time with or without cause.”

The AAUP responded, in turn, that “although the administration’s action may have accorded with the employee handbook, it did not accord with normative academic standards.”

It investigated the case in the New Orleans area in October, after the college said it was not under any obligation to participate in the association’s review. Just one additional, unidentified colleague agreed to meet with the AAUP committee.

Still, the investigating committee, chaired by Nicholas A. Fleisher, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, determined that it had enough evidence to finish its report -- and find that Nunez had “very plausibly” violated Schmitt’s academic freedom.

Tenure -- at least de facto tenure -- is also at issue in the case, according to the report, which says that the administration’s “abrupt termination of Schmitt’s appointment, without stated cause, after more than 20 years of service, was effected with gross disregard for the protections of academic due process to which he was entitled based on the length of his service.”

As for Nunez’s insistence that Schmitt was always an at-will employee, the AAUP’s report notes that the college’s own policies state that a “determination to reappoint, or not to reappoint, should be based upon a review by the dean of the division, and/or the vice chancellor for academic affairs, and/or the chancellor of the college of the specific conditions relating to the position.” Faculty members also should be given notice of “in advance of the expiration of the appointment.”

While it’s possible that Nunez did review Schmitt in this manner, he had no knowledge of it, the report notes.

Taylor, the college system’s spokesperson, said the accreditation commission’s own finding on Schmitt’s complaint “speaks for itself.” The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this case.

What does Schmitt allege, exactly? The report says that he was responsible for providing student learning outcome data from certain years and that, “in many cases, the relevant outcomes apparently had not been tracked, with the result that the requisite data were missing.” And at “the heart of Schmitt’s dispute with the administration was his refusal to reconstruct those data from student academic performance in a manner that he perceived as tantamount to fabrication.”

Circumstantial evidence that the administration may have tried to “reconstruct the relevant data” comes from Schmitt, who says he saw a dean removing boxes of files from his office without his permission. That was after Schmitt fell out with the reaccreditation committee. But Schmitt said it “felt like breaking and entering.”

Whatever really happened with the data, AAUP’s report says, “In exercising his right to speak out critically on institutional matters with which he was directly involved, Schmitt appears to have incurred the displeasure of his administrative superiors.”

Fleisher, the investigating committee chair, said Monday that the U.S. professoriate is “increasingly contingent and off the tenure track, and this case shows one of the many problems that can arise as a result.”

Due process exists “not only to guarantee academic freedom and protect faculty from reprisal, but to protect institutions from the unwise decisions that administrators can make in its absence,” he added.

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