AAUP Censures 4 Colleges

In two cases, and another in which censure was lifted, focus was treatment of adjuncts. Association also drafts policies to call for more protections for graduate students.
June 15, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The American Association of University Professors on Saturday voted to censure four colleges: Cedarville University, Nicholls State University, North Idaho College and Stillman College. At the same time, the association lifted censure of the University of New Haven and took a step toward doing so for Tulane University.

The Nicholls State, North Idaho and New Haven cases all involved adjunct faculty members. And AAUP members, speaking at the annual meeting where the censure votes took place, noted that it was appropriate that the association is taking more censure votes over the rights (or violated rights) of those off the tenure track.

These votes mark something of a shift. The 46 institutions that were on the list prior to Saturday's votes were primarily cited for actions they took that violated AAUP principles on the rights of tenured or tenure-track faculty members. In recent years, however, the AAUP has been focusing more on the rights of adjunct faculty members and others off the tenure track. In fact, at Saturday's meeting, Cary Nelson, the association's president, announced a revised draft on the protections colleges owe to graduate student employees, and the AAUP may be codifying those changes after they are reviewed by members.

Institutions land on the censure list after their cases are first investigated by the association's committee on academic freedom. To come off the list, the institution must meet certain conditions -- typically a combination involving principles or policies at stake, and also redress for the individuals whose rights the AAUP believes were violated.

The Adjunct Cases

The AAUP censured Nicholls State because the Louisiana university terminated Maureen Watson after 12 years of work as a non-tenure track faculty member, with one day of notice -- even though she had earned consistently good reviews. The AAUP faulted Nicholls State for not providing due process appropriate for someone with that much of a work history at the university, and for not even acknowledging Watson's right to know why her teaching career was being ended. The association also noted plausible evidence -- not refuted by the university -- that Watson lost her job because her rigorous grading was resulting in too many students receiving low or failing grades in her mathematics courses.

Ernst Benjamin, former interim general secretary of the AAUP, said that the case was important both because of Watson's adjunct status and because of what the issues say about academic freedom. While people associate academic freedom with controversial research or teaching topics, Benjamin noted that for "most faculty, the ability to maintain professional standards" through honest grades is of great importance to their academic freedom.

Nicholls State did not respond to requests for comment on the censure vote. It has previously maintained that non-tenure-track instructors like Watson are not entitled to the due process that the AAUP sees as essential.

At North Idaho College, too, the censure concerned the end of an adjunct's employment. That case involved Jessica Bryan, who taught English part time for 13 consecutive semesters -- and several summers -- ending in the fall of 2007. During that time, she taught at least two courses a semester and sometimes as many as five, including a course normally taught only by tenured professors.

On the last day of the fall semester in 2007, Bryan was told by the college that she would not receive any courses the following semester -- and her courses were subsequently assigned to more junior part timers. Bryan's apparent good standing changed at the college -- according to the AAUP report on the college -- following two events.

One was a conflict between college officials and Bryan's husband, in which he was suspended from his tenured position despite findings by the college's hearing officer that questioned the allegations against him. The other incident occurred when Bryan made a comment in class that one student and conservative blogs said amounted to saying that people who vote Republican should be executed. She has said that the comment was designed to provoke discussion and was clearly not intended literally.

The AAUP found that Bryan was entitled to -- and did not receive -- earlier notice of the end of her employment at the college, a stated reason for her losing her job when her classes were still being offered, and a chance for faculty review of the decision.

At the time the AAUP issued its report on North Idaho, the college issued a statement that didn't dispute the facts as the AAUP outlined them, but disputed the AAUP's views of adjunct rights. "As a community college, North Idaho College must have the flexibility to respond to the ever-changing needs of its students on a semester by semester basis. While North Idaho College does have a significant number of full-time tenured faculty, the institution must have both part-time and adjunct instructors to teach specific classes on a semester by semester basis. The employment policies for instructors at North Idaho College are adopted by a duly elected board of trustees and, understandably, do not provide for review of decisions regarding whether to extend a contract offer to individuals to teach a specific course on an adjunct basis," the statement said.

The adjunct case involving the University of New Haven led to the AAUP censuring that institution last year. New Haven was sanctioned for ending the employment of Marianna M. Vieira after she had worked in the English department at New Haven for 14 years, 6 as a part-time instructor and 8 on full-time, non-tenure-track appointments. Vieira was dismissed by a dean -- without full rights of a hearing or to contest evidence -- on the basis of a series of student complaints. An AAUP investigating committee found that only one complaint went to an issue of professional conduct, and that the complaint had not been proven to be factual. The others were typical of the sort of complaints many instructors receive -- in this case about her grading, policing of plagiarism and so forth.

Vieira was dismissed under standards for those with minimal job security, not tenure or even the assurances that come with multi-year contracts. Under these standards, the AAUP found, her department’s backing meant nothing and a dean could -- and did -- make a decision to get rid of her.

Vieira sued over the case, but was able to reach a resolution with the university. In terms of policy, the AAUP negotiated with New Haven, which approved new policies designed to give long-term non-tenure track faculty members due process with a faculty committee and other rights based on their years of experience at the university. With adoption of these procedures -- which AAUP officials said were needed at many institutions -- New Haven could come off the censure list. Several AAUP members said that they hoped the New Haven case could be a model for the way the association could use individual incidents of adjunct mistreatment to provide more job security for all adjuncts.

The Other Censure Votes

The other censure votes involved tenured professors.

Cedarville, a Baptist university, was faulted for dismissing David Hoffeditz from his tenured position teaching the Bible. He was among a group of "traditionalist" faculty whom the AAUP found were criticized by university leaders for opposing apparent changes in religious thinking at the institution. The AAUP found that Hoffeditz was fired after dissenting on the work of a faculty committee trying to better define institutional beliefs on truth and certainty. He wasn't alone in his views, the AAUP found. Much to the distress of administrators and trustees, many students and some faculty colleagues shared his view that the university appeared to be moving away from its roots in its definitions of truth. The opposition may have been particularly unwelcome because university officials had indicated the existence of consensus among the faculty on the revised statements.

The AAUP found that this firing went straight to issues of faculty members' rights to express their views and to teach them.

In advance of Saturday's vote, the university issued a statement calling the AAUP's report on the university "flawed, biased, misleading, and fundamentally false." The statement charged that the AAUP had "predetermined conclusions" and was biased against religious colleges.

Benjamin of the AAUP, in presenting the Cedarville case, noted that the professor whose rights the association is defending is a theological conservative who is criticizing his institution for moving away from some religious traditions.

Dissent was also the issue at Stillman College. There the AAUP is criticizing the university for firing Ekow O. Hayford, who held tenure and had taught business at the college for 27 years. The AAUP found that Hayford was fired without due process after he publicly criticized the president of the college, a historically black institution in Alabama.

Hayford taught without incident for most of his career, but his situation at Stillman unraveled after he started to criticize Ernest McNealey, who became president in 1997. During the 2006-7 academic year, the AAUP report found, Hayford spoke out about McNealy's failure to issue contracts to faculty members. And the next academic year, Hayford spoke to The Tuscaloosa News about concerns over a decline in enrollment at the college and the potential impact of the decline on Stillman's finances.

Stillman did not respond to e-mail asking about the censure vote. But responding to the AAUP about an early draft of its report on the college, Stillman's lawyer said that the findings included "unsupported inferences, conclusions and assumptions." The lawyer added: "Freedom of speech does not allow Hayford to scream fire in a crowded theater. The economic and enrollment challenges with which Stillman has dealt in attempting to continue its persistent and determined commitment to the education of its students are exacerbated by inflammatory, conclusory personal criticisms such as levied by Professor Hayford.”

Tulane and Katrina

The only disagreement on censure decisions Saturday (and it was modest) was over a vote to authorize the association's academic freedom committee to lift censure of Tulane University when certain conditions are met. Tulane was censured in 2007 for the way it eliminated departments and made decisions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The university maintained at the time -- and has maintained since -- that it had no choice but to act quickly to shift priorities in light of the severe situation presented by Katrina. But the AAUP investigation into the situation questioned the extent to which the university needed to take those specific steps, particularly without appropriate levels (to the AAUP) of faculty input.

Tulane and the AAUP have been negotiating to bring the university off the censure list. The university has adopted policies -- developed by faculty members and with AAUP backing -- that specify more explicit faculty roles in decision making in a financial crisis, and that stress the protections that should be offered to tenured faculty members.

While these changes are acceptable to the AAUP, the association has held off on removing Tulane in part because of concerns over how the removal of censure might be used by Tulane in its defense against lawsuits from professors who lost positions in the wake of Katrina. The AAUP is asking for, and has not yet received, assurances from the administration about how censure removal would be used in the litigation. As a result, the association voted to authorize the academic freedom committee to lift censure (authority that normally rests with the members at the annual meeting each summer).

Some AAUP members said that they were skeptical of voting now, when all issues are not resolved. But AAUP leaders (with endorsements from Tulane faculty leaders) said that they feared the progress made with the Tulane administration would evaporate if the issues were put off until next year's AAUP meeting.

The Rights of Graduate Students

Nelson, the AAUP president, predicted in his remarks at the meeting that the years ahead would see more cases involving those off the tenure track. Along those lines, the AAUP is moving to be more specific in its policies about the rights of graduate students. The AAUP has included graduate students in the policies governing academic freedom for many years, but association committees are proposing that those policies get more detail in key areas. The proposed revisions will soon be sent to members for consideration and may then be adopted.

Several of the draft changes are consistent with the AAUP's support for the right of graduate students to unionize. (Currently, some states allow collective bargaining by public university teaching assistants, but the National Labor Relations Board -- in a ruling many expect to be overturned when President Obama nominates new members -- does not recognize collective bargaining as a right for private universities' graduate students.)

The draft would change the name of the policy section from "Graduate Student Academic Staff" to "Graduate Student Employees." That matters because the NLRB and some private universities have based opposition to teaching assistant unions on the idea that graduate students are students and should not be seen as employees. Further, in discussing the justifications for dismissal of graduate students, the draft would add a footnote specifying that according to AAUP policies, "participation in a strike or other work action does not by itself constitute grounds for non-renewal or dismissal."


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