Fight Over Tenure and Faculty Rights

Professors at Del Mar say interim president is rewriting the rules and writing away their job security; he says he's trying to promote standards. Battle shifts to court today.
November 6, 2007

Del Mar College’s interim president has come under fire for proposed policy changes affecting faculty life – most notably one decoupling promotion from tenure. Travis P. Kirkland, who has been accused of undercutting academic freedom, shared governance, and the tenure process, plans to bring the proposals to the Board of Regents for the Texas community college next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, this morning, the college's chapter of the American Association of University Professors -- established in October in direct response to the proposed policy changes -- plans to file suit in state court seeking a restraining order that would prevent the president from taking any adverse action against the faculty and an injunction blocking the proposed policy changes, Robert J. Heil, the lawyer for the chapter and three named professors who will also be plaintiffs, said Monday.

"Basically [the president's] threatening their tenure and violating a lot of their internal policies and breaking the contracts he has with the professors there," Heil said, explaining that the lawsuit will include allegations surrounding breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation.

In addition to the potential tenure process change, Interim President Kirkland has proposed several other policy changes, including two that would bolster the president’s authority to appoint department chairs and committee members; one that strengthens the administration’s ability to require a review of a particular faculty member, one that would set a fee for open records act requests that require more than 36 hours of labor to fulfill, and one that would define the role of shared governance at Del Mar in writing for the first time.

(The links are to draft proposals put forward in September. Revised proposals that will go to the board for consideration will be available by Friday, and could in some cases be different: Kirkland said, for instance, that the new language for the policy governing the appointment of committee members will make clear that Faculty Council members will continue to be elected and will not be appointed by the president, as faculty opponents interpreted the original proposed policy change to mean).

"The reason the board's acting this way toward the faculty, we believe, is they're out to destroy faculty rights because they think they have too much power," said Bruce Olson, committee head for the Del Mar AAUP chapter's Legal Defense Fund and chair of the social sciences department. He and Heil cited a number of recent faculty complaints on a variety of issues, including alleged open records act violations, sexual harassment, discrimination and due process violations.

"Faculty have stood up to expose these inappropriate actions, and faculty that are tenured have gone forward to try to protect students and other employees who don’t have those protections," Olson said. "So the Board of Regents, that is elected here, they’ve had their good names and reputations smudged a little bit, but instead of looking at where their responsibilities lie, and selecting a well-qualified president of good character, they’re looking for someone to blame it on.”

President Kirkland said late Monday afternoon however that he was not aware of the AAUP's plans to file suit today, and as for the retaliation argument, he said, "That's bizarre, but I'll leave it at that."

"We kicked [the policies] out for comment," in September, he said. "We got in some cases a lot of comment and in some cases none, but overall, we got some fairly substantial, thoughtful, meaningful commentary, some of which of course we have embraced, because that’s the way the system works, some we didn’t.”

"I would truly be at a loss if somebody said 'You're attacking our academic freedom.' I would say, 'Explain how.' We are not violating academic freedom, we are not eliminating tenure. [Under the proposed policy] there will be a much more rigorous process with faculty taking longer to acquire tenure than we have now."

As for that contentious issue, Del Mar tenure-track faculty members currently receive tenure upon promotion from instructor to assistant professor, a rank they’re eligible for at the end of three years at the college. Of the 315 full-time faculty members, 79 percent on the tenure-track have been tenured, according to Claudia Jackson, assistant to the president for community relations.

In regards to the current system, “It didn’t seen appropriate to me…it appeared to be a matter of doing damage to the concept of tenure,” said Kirkland, who came out of retirement in August to fill the interim president position after a career that included community college presidencies in Oregon and West Virginia. “If tenure is a way of colleagues identifying, selecting from among their colleagues, for what is often viewed as, although it’s not, lifetime employment, [the process] needed to be more credible."

In place of the current policy, the college would initially rely on already-written policies stipulating that a tenure review would happen after five years. But Kirkland expects that policy will change after recommendations are put forward by a faculty committee considering the tenure review process.

“This is a very good school but it has some things like that that have long-range implications that as an interim I feel I need to address,” Kirkland said, adding that the current system seems to have negative implications for faculty quality. “I may be crazy but that’s why I’m doing it.”

But not without substantial opposition. The newly formed AAUP chapter is of course the most obvious force aligned against the proposed changes. "We felt that the standards and principles that are the foundation of AAUP would benefit us as we voice our concerns about continued shared governance and academic freedom and tenure at Del Mar College," Ann Thorn, the chapter president and assistant professor of computer science, said in an e-mail Monday.

Other faculty have also voiced opposition. In a full faculty vote in October -- about 100 faculty showed up -- professors voted to send a request to regents and administrators asking that they conform with board policies regarding ethics and procedures as they consider Kirkland's policy recommendations. And the Faculty Council voted that it does not concur with Kirkland’s proposed tenure change, as well as the draft policy he put forward defining shared governance at the college (currently, the college has no written definition of what “shared governance” actually means).

“There’s been a lot of shared governance but it was never actually written down in a set of principles, and that’s something that we feel would be a good idea to do,” said Stephen Ondrejas, associate professor of business administration and the Faculty Council chair. However, Faculty Council members had some problems with the president’s proposal, which, in its draft form (Kirkland said a revised, shortened version will be presented to the board next week) contains several caveats about the limitations of shared governance, particularly when it comes to policy decisions. In addition to believing the shared governance policy should be expanded, Faculty Council members are likewise concerned about the president’s proposal to separate the promotion and tenure processes.

“We had two concerns about separating it. One is we have about 64 or 65 people who have been hired in the last several years on tenure-track -- these would be our instructors -- our concern was that we wanted to make sure that they were grandfathered in,” said Ondrejas. “And then our second concern is there is a committee that is looking at developing some recommendations on what the criteria for granting tenure would be, but we’d like to also take a look at those criteria as well before we split tenure from promotion.”

For his part, President Kirkland said he did not receive official input from the Faculty Council and that the changes would be grandfathered in so that they wouldn’t affect current tenure-track faculty, but only future tenure-track hires. A letter to that effect would be distributed shortly, Kirkland said.

In addition to a faculty committee that's considering new policies for tenure review, a second faculty-led committee is considering faculty evaluations, and a third, post-tenure review policies – now required under a recent Texas law.

“The changes that I’m making deal with what I regard as ambiguity or weaknesses in the policy. The new president's going to come in sometime next year,” said Kirkland, who added that an accreditation visit from Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is scheduled for 2010. “Let’s say SACS comes in and says you’ve got a state law [requiring post-tenure review] that you’re not in compliance with. That new president’s going to come in and start doing post-tenure review -- what do you think is going to happen?”

“That’s probably the crux of it. You have folks who believe by and large that they have life-time employment and now someone’s going to be looking at them again. And I think that’s totally appropriate.”

But Olson, of the AAUP, stressed that, "For us to attract better-qualified faculty nationwide, we have to be able to compete with other universities around the nation. Tenure is pretty important."

"These actions," he said, "have already caused concern among the tenure-track faculty without tenure."

Chris Tetzlaff-Belhasen, full professor and director of Learning Resources (Del Mar's library), is heading the committee considering what a procedure for annual faculty evaluations would look like. The committee will report its recommendations to the president in January.

Tetzlaff-Belhasen said that without seeing the final versions of the president's proposed policy changes, it's difficult to form an opinion on their merits. But it is fair to say, she said, that faculty are adjusting to a change in leadership style.

“At this point in time, all I can say -- and I am only one person reading policy -- I don’t see that what he is doing has violated any of our current policies, the manner in which he’s doing it. It's just different than the way it’s been done before. We usually had a far longer turn-around time, sometimes to the point where, I know as a member of the policy committee, it would be months and months and months before we heard back from all of the groups. That isn't the best way to operate either.”

“What we had was a process where it wasn’t timely at all and now it seems to be 'zip, zip, zip.’"


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