Can Academic Freedom and 'at Will' Employment Co-Exist?

April 13, 2007

Bastyr University violated the academic freedom of three faculty members when their contracts were not renewed, by failing to have adequate grievance procedures, and by failing to provide tenure or any meaningful job security, according to an investigation by the American Association of University Professors.

The three faculty members had taught at the university, at which faculty members are “at will” employees, for 12, 9 and 4 years. In one case, the professor who was not renewed had been given a negative performance review, largely over issues of whether she intimidated people with her strong positions, but in all three cases, the final decision was abrupt -- and similar to a dismissal in that they immediately lost computer access and had to clear out their offices. Bastyr, located outside Seattle, describes itself as focusing on "natural health sciences," and is known for combining some Eastern traditions of medicine with Western scientific traditions.

In all three professors' cases, university officials said that the institution’s evolving needs meant that the professors were no longer needed. But the AAUP noted that all three had been involved in disputes with their superiors over university policies, and that many faculty members backed all three professors.

“In each of the three cases discussed in this report, there is credible evidence that a major motivating factor for the dismissals was the faculty member’s expression of views on teaching methods, program design, and institutional policies in areas such as faculty compensation and governance,” the AAUP report on its investigation said.

The university said that because the three were not fired, but were just told that their contracts were not being renewed, they had no grievance rights. The AAUP said that faculty members who have worked longer than normal tenure review periods should be treated as if they did have job protections. And in all cases, the AAUP said, some grievance procedure is needed. While the AAUP did not say definitively that the three lost their positions for dissent, the association said that a faculty review committee could have made such a determination.

The case, the AAUP said, illustrates the failings of "at will" employment for faculty members. The report cited a previous association study of the issue, which found the following: "Employment-at-will contracts are by definition inimical to academic freedom and academic due process, because their contractual provisions permit infringements on what academic freedom is designed to protect. Since faculty members under at-will contracts serve at the administration’s pleasure, their services can be terminated at any point because an administrator objects to any aspect of their academic performance, communications as a citizen, or positions on academic governance -- or simply to their personalities. Should this happen, these faculty members have no recourse, since the conditions of their appointment leave them without the procedural safeguards of academic due process."

Bastyr officials did not respond to e-mail or phone messages.

But the AAUP report included the university's response to a draft of the association's findings. The university stressed in the response that, while the AAUP may not like "at will" employment, Bastyr is open about its use, and the professors whose contracts were not renewed should have known that was a possibility.

"Bastyr administrators stated that all faculty at Bastyr University not only sign contracts presented to them with the language of potential non-renewal intact, but they also sign a form upon hire that indicates that they have read the faculty handbook and agree to abide by its contents," the AAUP report said, in quoting the university. "All faculty members who sign contracts as well as the abovementioned form are highly educated adult professionals acting under no coercion whatsoever. While the AAUP is critical of its procedures, Bastyr University did follow them and the written agreements entered into with each of these individuals."

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