Shrinking Censure List

AAUP removes 5 colleges from its sanction list, adds New Mexico Highlands -- and debates what to do about Medaille.
June 12, 2006

The list of institutions whose administrations are under censure by the American Association of University Professors is getting smaller.

At the association's annual meeting on Saturday, members voted to add one institution: New Mexico Highlands University.  But the association removed five from the censure list: Community College of Baltimore County, Des Moines University, Maryland Institute College of Art, Nyack College and Westminster College. In each of those cases, college administrations agreed to provide remedies to faculty members whose rights had been violated and to change policies to bring them into accord with the AAUP's standards.

Prior to Saturday's vote, 47 institutions had administrations under censure for violations of academic freedom. Since 2000, 17 institutions have been removed from the list and 9 have been added. AAUP leaders at the meeting Saturday were generally upbeat about the trend of administrations being willing to take steps to get off of the censure list. But there was also considerable frustration expressed by members about Medaille College, an institution that many argued had "gamed the system" to avoid censure -- a charge disputed by other AAUP leaders and Medaille's president.

First the votes on and off the censure list: New Mexico Highlands was added for its treatment of two professors. In one case, the association found that a professor was dismissed without due process after making public criticism of various decisions -- including his tenure denial. In the other case, a professor was denied tenure without appropriate procedures being followed and despite the findings of two faculty review committees. New Mexico Highlands officials did not respond to messages seeking comment this weekend or last month, when the AAUP's investigation of the case was released.

The institutions removed from the censure list had been on there for a long time, with Des Moines University's case going back to 1977. The AAUP periodically sends letters to censured administrations, inviting them to negotiate steps that would lead to removal from the list -- a process that sometimes takes years. In most cases, this process typically follows a change in presidents, so the association isn't typically negotiating with those whose actions set off the controversy.

Here are the details on the colleges removed from the list:

  • Community College of Baltimore County was censured in 1995 because its Essex campus (then called Essex Community College) dismissed four tenured faculty members without due process and because the board abolished the tenure system. Since then, the college has resolved the cases of the professors who were dismissed and also agreed to a series of changes that establish specific procedures to protect faculty rights, and set strict standards to apply to any dismissals of faculty members who have had seven years of full-time service.
  • Des Moines University was censured in 1977 for the dismissal of a tenured professor and the non-reappointment of a non-tenured faculty member without due process. At the time, the university was known as the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery. Since then, the university has reached settlements with the professors and agreed to new due process procedures for faculty termination or suspension.
  • Maryland Institute College of Art was censured in 1988 for dismissing a faculty member who had worked at the college for 18 years. While the faculty member didn't have tenure, the AAUP determined that that length of work at the college entitled the professor to due process. To get off the list, the college agreed to a series of protections and due process rights for professors.
  • Nyack College, in New York, was censured in 1995 after a faculty member was not reappointed after she wore a button supporting gay rights. The college agreed to a series of policy changes to respect the rights of free speech of professors and to assure due process in cases of any dismissals. AAUP officials noted that while aggrieved professors normally want a personal settlement, the scholar whose case prompted the Nyack inquiry wanted only policy changes to help other professors.
  • Westminster College, in Utah, was censured in 1985 for dismissing a tenured faculty member for financial reasons that the AAUP said did not justify eliminating the position, and for altering tenure procedures. Since then, the college reached a settlement with the professor and agreed to new protections for faculty members with more than seven years of service.

There was little or no debate on the moves on and off the censure list, but there was lengthy discussion and frustration about the case of Medaille, in Buffalo, over fallout from the dismissal of two tenured faculty members in 2002. Faculty leaders from Medaille said at the meeting that they will soon sue the college over the dispute. An AAUP investigation of the incident said that they were dismissed inappropriately and without adequate due process in a dispute over the confidentiality of some discussions of a faculty panel.

Medaille has been discussed at the past few AAUP meetings -- each time with some of those familiar with the case pushing for censure, but AAUP leaders discouraging such an action. While AAUP leaders have been unequivocal that the college violated faculty rights in 2002, they have noted that the two faculty members reached settlements with the college and that the college has adopted changes in its faculty procedures -- with the consent of professors -- setting out due process rights that are consistent with AAUP guidelines.

Critics said that there were two problems with this argument. They said that one of the faculty members had been "coerced" into an agreement with the college. And they said that while the college had changed the faculty handbook to add due process rights, it had also changed it to give the college's board sole power over future changes in the handbook -- a power that the board had previously shared with professors. John Schedel, president of Medaille's AAUP chapter, said that the college had committed a "gross injustice" and that it was "tragic" that the AAUP would not censure an institution where "careers have been ruined and lived damaged."

Several speakers Saturday -- urging the immediate censure of Medaille -- said that the college had "managed to dodge the bullet" of censure, while still leaving faculty members vulnerable to having the rights stripped from them. One speaker criticized the AAUP for emphasizing "the dotting of i's and crossing of t's" in college policies, rather than the question of whether professors were being mistreated. AAUP leaders, however, noted that not all faculty members at Medaille were united in their view of the situation and that AAUP policy does not consider it a violation of academic freedom for a college board to retain ultimate control of a faculty handbook.

In the end, the association took no action against Medaille, agreeing to postpone indefinitely a censure vote some members wanted to pass. But this came only after numerous speakers denounced the college.

In an interview Sunday, Joseph W. Bascuas, president of the college, said that the AAUP "rightfully" examined the faculty dismissals and offered suggestions on improving procedures. (The dismissals predated his arrival at Medaille and he noted that the entire administration is new.) Bascuas said that the AAUP's recommendations had real influence on the revised procedures and what he called a "process of consultation" in adopting the changes. He also said that the settlements with faculty members were "freely entered into."

While the board did want to maintain control over the faculty handbook, Bascuas said that this was not to the detriment of academic freedom or the value of consulting professors. "They are ultimately responsible for the institution in a fiduciary way, so they need to be responsible for the handbook," he said of board members. He noted that the handbook provisions have been reviewed by multiple AAUP panels and said "academic freedom is enhanced" compared to the college's previous policies.

Much of the AAUP annual meeting focuses on what members consider mismanagement by college administrations. But many members said that they were embarrassed and concerned Saturday by some management problems of the association that were very much on display. Officials said that they could not present the financial report about the association, which is usually a pretty standard agenda item, because of staff problems that made it impossible to gather reliable figures. In addition, several speakers noted concerns about the membership operation -- with people noting complaints about billing and management of records.

Cary Nelson, the new president of the association, and Roger Bowen, the general secretary, both said that solutions were being found and that the lack of financial data did not indicate any serious financial problem. Nelson has said that he wants a major push to add to the association's membership -- which is both shrinking and aging. And he said at the meeting that it was essential to fix the membership/accounting issues to accomplish those goals.

The association's voting meetings sometimes are notorious for their length and seemingly tedious discussions of how to apply Robert's Rules of Order. Nelson joked that the sessions sometimes can feel like the Bataan death march and urged members to limit themselves to one trip to the microphone, suggesting that they were as likely to lose support as to gain it with a second speech. Most, but not all, AAUP members honored the request of their president.


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