Nicholls State Faulted on Treatment of Long-Term Adjunct

AAUP finds concerns about due process and academic freedom in case of mathematics instructor let go after 12 years of work.
November 13, 2008

After 12 years of work, you are entitled to more than one day of notice that you no longer have a job, even without tenure. That is among the conclusions of a report by an investigative committee of the American Association of University Professors

The AAUP found that Nicholls State University, in Louisiana, violated the due process rights and academic freedom of Maureen Watson when it terminated her in that way last year. Watson had been working as a non-tenure-track lecturer in mathematics, earning exemplary reviews until her dismissal.

The association found several problems with how she was treated. On the issue of due process, the association noted that its guidelines call on colleges to treat all faculty members either as probationary or as having the due process rights that come with tenure or other forms of long-term employment. Watson was "well beyond" the point where she was entitled to real due process, the AAUP committee found.

Because Nicholls State didn't provide a clear reason for its decision, the AAUP evaluated evidence suggesting that reasons given to Watson weren't true and that other, inappropriate issues may have been at play. Watson said she was initially told that her job was being eliminated both because of tight budgets and the concern that the mathematics department was using too many of its alumni, like Watson, to teach. But the AAUP found subsequent hiring took place in the department, and that alumni were hired after Watson started there.

Some evidence, which the AAUP said the university did not refute, suggests that Watson was punished because of clashes she had with administrators who were concerned that she was failing too many students. While no evidence was presented that Watson was failing students inappropriately, she spoke in defense of standards when officials raised questions about high failure rates in some departments and indicated that they were looking at the rates of individual faculty members.

"The Nicholls administration’s efforts to reduce failing grades seem to have been detrimental to the climate for academic freedom by causing faculty members in affected departments to believe that they did not have the right to assign grades based on their own knowledge and judgment," said the AAUP report. "Ms. Watson exercised her own academic freedom by grading as she saw fit, despite the administration’s pressure for a reduction in failing grades. Her dismissal, if the investigating committee’s conclusion on the matter stands unrebutted by the administration, was therefore in violation of her academic freedom. The investigating committee commends her determination to grade according to her best professional assessment of the merits of student performance."

The report concluded: "No plausible reason for the administration’s dismissal of Ms. Watson can be ascertained other than its displeasure with her having assigned a large percentage of failing grades to her students in college algebra. Dismissing her for that reason, assuming the reason remains unrebutted, violated her academic freedom. Her insistence on grading in accordance with her best professional judgment of a student’s academic performance warranted not dismissal but commendation."

Nicholls State did not respond to messages seeking comment. The AAUP provides advance copies of its reports to the universities discussed, and Nicholls State rejected the underlying premises of the association, but didn't offer different versions of the facts. The AAUP report said that administrations "reiterated that under Nicholls State and University of Louisiana system policies, full-time faculty members who are neither tenured nor probationary for tenure, regardless of how many years they have served, are not entitled to advance notice of non-retention, reasons for non-retention, or opportunity for appeal."


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