Faculty Rights, Post-Katrina

AAUP reviews how much flexibility colleges should get when disaster strikes -- and one dismissal with little apparent link to the hurricane.
May 25, 2006

When colleges want to eliminate a faculty job (and not get a bad reputation), there are extensive procedures they can follow that have been set forth by the American Association of University Professors. Rules cover how to determine whether colleges face a financial necessity to eliminate a job, the rights that should be accorded to someone losing a position, and so forth.

While the rules anticipated many situations, they didn't anticipate Katrina. The hurricane had a devastating impact on many colleges in New Orleans, leading most of them to impose layoffs, eliminate programs and take other radical steps -- many times without the kind of lead time associated with other sorts of dramatic change in academe. Dozens of professors at Gulf Coast institutions have complained to the AAUP that their rights are being violated, and on Wednesday the association convened a special committee that is trying to consider how to handle those cases, and specifically how to apply standards to protect faculty rights when a disaster the magnitude of Katrina strikes.

For the AAUP and the colleges involved, the balance is a delicate one. Both the association and the colleges say that they understand that the situation in New Orleans in the last year is a unique tragedy and that colleges need more leeway than normal. Both also say that faculty rights still matter. But defining the right balance may not be so simple -- and the association also faces the problem of being sure that any flexibility it accepts at New Orleans colleges because of Katrina isn't interpreted as carte blanche for firing people. Right now, for example, the AAUP is investigating a complaint by a professor who was dismissed from Our Lady of Holy Cross College -- even though he was head of the Faculty Senate -- in a dispute that many think has more to do with his advocacy for fellow professors than with the finances of that New Orleans college.

Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the AAUP, said that the panel that started work Wednesday would try to answer the question of "how the principles of the academic profession can be preserved in the aftermath of a natural disaster."

He said he realized that even basic requirements set out by the association would have been more difficult, post-Katrina. For example, considerable emphasis is placed on the idea that faculty members need to be consulted and play a meaningful role in determining the extent of a college's financial difficulties and a path out. That requirement assumes faculty members who are on a campus, not scattered around the country while their campus is closed, as was the case for New Orleans colleges in the fall.

As a result, Knight said, "we recognize that truly extraordinary circumstances may call for actions that cannot be fitted well into the standards we normally insist upon," adding that "we're very mindful that emergencies of this grave sort cannot simply be dealt with by saying you have a procedure to follow."

But he stressed that there was more to the equation. "We also think that fundamental values should be given weight, even in this kind of situation."

The AAUP panel plans to travel to New Orleans as well as to research how colleges in the past have responded to natural disasters. The finances of the colleges need to come into play, Knight said, since the institutions in New Orleans were not all hit by Katrina in the same way and didn't have the same financial resources. "We cannot paint with a single brush," he said.

He also noted that while New Orleans colleges continue to talk about the damage they suffered, some are also telling people that they are well on the way to recovery. This raises the question, Knight said, of whether it's time to give people back their old jobs.

William Arceneaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said that he hoped the AAUP would see that colleges needed "maximum flexibility" to respond to Katrina. "These colleges faced a tragedy for which we were unrehearsed and we still don't know the full dimensions of what happened," he said.

Arceneaux said he understood that for faculty members who lost their jobs, "it's personal" and a "very difficult situation." But he said that the college presidents who approved layoffs did so only out of an obligation to "look at the big picture in terms of what's best for the institution." The college presidents in the state "didn't do this lightly -- nobody is suffering more anguish than they are," he said.

Of the many complaints that the AAUP has received from faculty members at New Orleans colleges, all but one have been cases involving a post-Katrina layoff or program change. The one exception, which is worrying to faculty members in the region as a possible sign that dismissals could be seen as OK, involves Our Lady of Holy Cross.

Elroy Eckhardt was fired in April from his position teaching business. Eckhardt was serving at the time as president of the Faculty Senate -- a position the Senate asked him to continue to hold even after he lost his job. Eckhardt says that he was fired because the Rev. Anthony G. DeConciliis, the president, wanted him out. Eckhardt and Father DeConciliis had been through a series of exchanges over faculty salary levels -- with Eckhardt pushing for higher salaries and for administration follow-up on plans that professors believe had been put in place to increase their compensation.

While there are plenty of cases in academe where presidents of colleges and presidents of faculty senates don't get along, dismissals are rare. The other thing unusual about the case is that a senior official at the college -- the acting vice president for academic affairs -- sent faculty members a letter after the dismissal saying that it took place despite her warning to the president that he was violating the college's policies and that there were not grounds to fire Eckhardt. The acting vice president, who was retiring, wrote that she realized that there was "nothing that will protect the faculty."

A spokesman for the college said that it would not comment on Eckhardt's dismissal because it was a personnel matter, but that it would answer the AAUP's questions on the matter. Knight, of the AAUP, said that the college's response thus far had been to say that it would not discuss the matter out of concern for the privacy of faculty members.


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