Turmoil Over 70 Faculty Layoffs at Clark Atlanta

February 9, 2009

On Wednesday, a delegation of faculty leaders at Clark Atlanta University gave President Carlton E. Brown a list of 46 specific ideas for saving money. One of them was cutting the salaries of all faculty members by up to 10 percent. According to faculty leaders, he didn't inform them of his plans for the next day.

On Thursday, the university announced the layoffs of 100 employees, including 70 full-time faculty members. (While the university did not indicate the tenure status of those affected, faculty sources and a university spokeswoman both said that some have tenure.) Most of the dismissed professors were told to leave immediately and classes were called off Friday and today to allow for courses to be reassigned to other professors. That may not be easy: Officially Clark Atlanta has 230 faculty members, which would mean that the layoffs constitute about 30 percent of the faculty. Some professors say that 230 is a high figure and that the base is actually lower.

The university's announcement of the layoffs noted that the economic downturn has affected the university through drops in enrollment and fund raising. But the announcement also said that no courses or academic programs would be eliminated (although some sections might be combined) and that the university was fundamentally in solid shape. "Clark Atlanta University is not in financial trouble. There is absolutely no financial emergency at CAU, and the university is not in a cash-marginal position. CAU remains a viable institution and is fiscally sound. CAU is still committed to long-term growth and forward progress," the statement says in a series of bullets. One bullet, in upper case, states: "CLARK ATLANTA UNIVERSITY IS NOT DECLARING FINANCIAL EXIGENCY."

That statement is of course problematic for those who care about faculty rights. Financial exigency is a state in which a college's finances are so precarious that it may be appropriate to do things such as eliminating the jobs of tenured faculty members or eliminating any faculty jobs without normal procedures in place for reviewing these decisions.

Under the guidelines of the American Association of University Professors, a declaration of financial exigency must be made before such steps are taken. Generally, in disputes over faculty layoffs and financial exigency, a college declares financial exigency, institutes layoffs and professors say that the financial woes have been overstated to justify layoffs. The Clark Atlanta situation is unusual in that an institution is eliminating a major proportion of its faculty and insisting that there is no financial crisis.

Clark Atlanta is a relatively young institution under that name, as the university was created by the 1988 merger of Clark College and Atlanta University. The former was an undergraduate college and the latter a graduate institution -- both historically black institutions and part of the Atlanta University Center, also home to Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. Atlanta University was for many decades one of the few places seriously committed to graduate education for black students and research on black America. W.E.B. Du Bois taught for many years at Atlanta University and conducted some of his groundbreaking research while there.

This decade has been a difficult one, however, for Clark Atlanta. A series of financial difficulties led to complaints and periodic protests. The university eliminated its engineering program over faculty and student objections. Enrollment has fallen from more than 5,000 at the start of the decade to less than 4,000 now, and about 200 students didn't show up for this semester, citing financial difficulties.

Jennifer Jiles, a spokeswoman for the university, said that a committee decided which professors and other employees would lose their jobs. Asked whether faculty members were involved, she said that the committee consisted of the four college deans and other administrators and that she was not aware of whether professors were involved. As to why the university didn't take the faculty suggestions for avoiding layoffs, she said that "pay cuts would have to be a matter of seeking agreement from all personnel and this was not likely, given our current salary configurations and the process would have exceeded the time period necessary to maintain good financial positioning." She also said that the faculty plans didn't save enough money.

The layoffs were made with the goal of aligning staffing patterns with enrollments. "They made an assessment of enrollment and current needs," she said.

While Clark Atlanta has not declared financial exigency, she said that the university did face an "enrollment emergency." Asked about the AAUP ban on layoffs of tenured faculty members without an institution being in a state of financial exigency, Jiles said initially that she was "not aware of that policy." In a later e-mail message, she said that Clark Atlanta was justified in ignoring the AAUP.

"Whereas we certainly can appreciate AAUP's purpose, universities, with their accrediting bodies, determine the place of tenure in the organization. Universities determine when and how tenured faculty may be removed or laid off and can lay off tenured faculty for a variety of reasons," she said. "In this instance, CAU used productivity measures to make assessments and decisions. All measures taken in this process are within our faculty handbook."

Diane Plummer, a professor of psychology who is chair of the Clark Atlanta Faculty Assembly, said she was "in shock" about the layoffs. Professors "are loyal and committed to our school and want to educate the students," she said, but most disagree with the decisions and wish their other ideas for savings had been considered. "We're in a difficult position at this time."

Plummer questioned whether departments would really be able to serve students without the professors who are leaving. She said that in her department, there are six faculty members. Two were in the layoff group -- one was told he had to be out immediately, with the other getting to finish the semester. The one who is already gone was teaching four courses as scheduled, plus an overload course, with about 50 students in each course. That's a typical schedule for the department, she said. She said she didn't know how the remaining faculty could take on more courses, especially given that these will be courses they didn't necessarily plan, a few weeks into the semester, with overload courses already the norm.

"We're thinking it's going to be a nightmare," she said.

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