The First New Orleans Verdict

Our Lady of Holy Cross found to have violated rights of professor who was fired for pushing salary plan president opposed.
January 23, 2007

Post-Katrina, colleges in the New Orleans area have seen numerous disputes over the rights of professors who have lost their jobs. The American Association of University Professors has set up a special panel to review those cases, and while it has tentatively found violations by numerous colleges, those findings remain under review and some are being revised.

But in one case -- which the association determined was not materially affected by Katrina's aftermath and the financial pressures it created -- the association's investigative panel has issued a verdict. And that was to find that Our Lady of Holy Cross College violated the rights of a professor, who happened to be president of the Faculty Senate at the time, when he was dismissed in April without a hearing. The college, while not discussing details of the case, defends its handling of the situation.

Elroy Eckhardt was fired in April from his position teaching business, following a series of exchanges in person and through memos with the Rev. Anthony G. DeConciliis, the president. As recounted by the AAUP report on the dispute, Eckhardt was named to lead a panel to develop a salary-equity plan before Father DeConciliis arrived at the college, two days before Katrina struck. Father DeConciliis not only rejected the plan, but told Eckhardt to stop pushing his ideas. The case was notable because while plenty of presidents don't get along with their senate presidents, firing them is rare.

Father DeConciliis did not tell Eckhardt or the AAUP why he dismissed the professor -- who, like all professors at the college, worked on a renewable contract, without tenure. In the absence of a reason, the AAUP panel said it concluded that the firing was related to Eckhardt's repeated push for the salary plan. The president apparently was angry, according to the AAUP, because Eckhardt pushed his ideas even after the president had made it clear he had made a final decision to reject the professor's plan. But the AAUP found the Eckhardt's push for the plan was protected and should not have been cause for dismissal.

"The association has consistently maintained that vigorously presenting one’s views on matters of institutional policy, and indeed in reiterating those views more emphatically when they are resisted or ignored, warrants protection under principles of academic freedom," the association's report said. "Professor Eckhardt’s persistence doubtless annoyed the president and others, but the investigating committee does not see it as having approached the extreme dimension where its continuance would cease being protected speech."

As a result, the AAUP found that his rights had been violated. Even if there were problems in the way Eckhardt dealt with the president (and the AAUP found that some faculty members felt the president had been treated with disrespect), the dismissal was "a strong overreaction," the AAUP found.

Father DeConciliis issued a statement to the AAUP in which he said "I stand firm" in his handling of the case. "I am committed to the preservation of faculty and staff welfare in all matters, especially those that relate to human dignity and respect. I also expect that faculty and staff members respect the dignity of all at the college. I am committed to collaborative decision making; however, in some cases, the common good of the college must be primary. I am committed to the principles of academic freedom for the common growth of the college and its members," he said.

He added that the AAUP report "depends significantly on a very few people for information" and that its "conclusions do not seem to be supported by the majority of faculty at the college today, especially as they have had the time to reflect what was happening to the common good and on why the administration had to make such a difficult decision." (The AAUP report acknowledged that some faculty members back the president, and described the faculty as divided.)

Via e-mail, Eckhardt said that he was pleased that the AAUP report had vindicated his position that his rights had been violated. But he also said that he is unemployed. He said he has applied to many colleges in the area, and been unable to find work, which doesn't surprise him, given the layoffs of many colleges in the New Orleans areas. He said he was not expecting Holy Cross to ask him back, despite the AAUP report, and that he was considering legal action.

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