Return of the Professor

Activist English instructor at Ohio community college without tenure, who president admitted was laid off in violation of contract, is reinstated following faculty outcry.
July 28, 2009

Stephen D. Marlowe, the Edison Community College professor whose recent contract-violating layoff outraged faculty members, has been reinstated. Despite the victory, Marlowe and local union leaders express lingering dissatisfaction with the leadership of Kenneth A. Yowell, the institution’s president.

As Edison does not award tenure, a significant number of its full-time faculty members are employed with union-negotiated continuing contracts that afford them protections similar to tenure. When he was laid off in May, Marlowe — a well-liked English professor — was in the first year of a continuing contract that had already rolled over multiple times.

Marlowe and many other prominent faculty leaders suspected he was singled out for layoff because of his recent public criticism of Yowell, both in his involvement with a no-confidence vote in Yowell and as the editor of the local union’s news blog. Yowell, however, countered that Marlowe was being laid off because of a staffing imbalance between the English and math departments. He argued that it made more sense to eliminate Marlowe’s full-time English position and create another full-time mathematics position.

In either case, Marlowe’s contract, per the most recent collective bargaining agreement, stipulates that he can only be laid off for three specific reasons: financial exigency, retrenchment or program elimination. And, even though Yowell admitted both to the union and in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that the layoff violated the contract, he went ahead anyway.

Appalled by Yowell’s action, Marlowe filed a formal grievance through the union immediately following his layoff. An initial meeting with Marlowe, the union president and a college official representing Yowell did not result in a solution to the contract dispute, and the case appeared to be heading for outside arbitration or perhaps even a lawsuit.

Then, after nearly a week’s silence and as the deadline for arbitration neared, all the parties involved signed an agreement that Marlowe would be reinstated if the union dropped all of its formal grievances against Yowell and the college.

“I was surprised,” Marlowe said. “I had no hopes that this would result in anything but a move to arbitration or a huge honking lawsuit. But, the contract held up, and the right outcome occurred. The shame is that it had to come to this in the first place. Even though we had to drop the grievances, this is ultimately OK with me. I wanted to be back with my students and colleagues, and we had to put this part of the controversy to bed as soon as possible. But, do I feel as though I have been aggrieved in other matters that haven’t been remedied? Absolutely.”

Marlowe views his situation as representative of much larger issues with the administration at Edison. With a victory under his belt, he said he hopes the backlash generated by his case among the community will be enough to force Yowell to leave his post as president.

“We won the battle but not the war,” Marlowe said. “My termination was the last in a series of really heavy handed missteps in leadership. If I could be fired, then anyone could be fired at [Yowell’s] pleasure by moving a line on the budget. Others in the faculty became obviously concerned. My case was symbolic of what many people have suffered for the last 20 years of [Yowell’s] leadership. Still, I don’t think [Yowell] had a road to Damascus experience; I think we’re doing with the same animal. The only reasonable outcome of this situation is that [Yowell] retire.”

Larry Dragosavac, president of the Edison State Education Association, the local Ohio Education Association-affiliated union, was also pleased with the reinstatement, but acknowledged there were other issues for the union to face.

“I think it’s a huge victory for us that the contract stood up without having to go to arbitration,” Dragosavac said. “That makes us feel proud in our contract, that is has value. Still, because we have unrest and other issues at the college, we’re expecting a serious August board meeting to discuss potential changes in how the college operates. We’re hoping the board will exert more control and put more pressure on [Yowell] for the remaining two years on his contract.”

Yowell would not offer extensive comment on Marlowe’s reinstatement. He did, however, offer a rationale for the change of heart in keeping with his prior argument of there being a staffing inequity.

“I will say only that because of the late-June unexpected retirement of the math tutor coordinator, and whose position was earmarked to become a full-time math position upon retirement, the urgency for faculty parity based on enrollment between full-time math and English faculty was diminished,” he wrote in a short e-mail.

Another professor involved in a similar personnel dispute, however, did not fare as well as Marlowe. Quincy Essinger, an adjunct humanities professor who has earned excellent student evaluations and the respect of his supervisors, was given notice that he would not be brought back to teach in the fall semester. Essinger, as it happens, was also a vocal critic of Yowell.

As an at-will employee, Essinger does not have to be given a reason for not being brought back. Still, he was dismayed at one of Yowell’s reasons for making the move. Yowell told Inside Higher Ed in an interview that he did not wish to bring back Essinger because he thought Essinger had “a bad attitude” and “disrespected” the college’s board chair by videotaping a contentious board meeting following the faculty’s no-confidence vote in him.

Despite being given hope by Marlowe’s reinstatement, Essinger said his situation has not changed.

“I thought that in resolving [Marlowe’s] situation that they’d take care of mine as well,” Essinger said. “But, that’s not been the case. It wasn’t like these were rogue activities. Ohio has sunshine laws which permit people to tape meetings. I did something protected by free speech law and the president responded by trying to move me from the area.”

Essinger said he was considering taking legal action against the college for what he views as not just a personnel suit but a First Amendment case. Still, he admitted he worries that such a case could take a long time and distractingly hang over any prospective employment at another institution.

“This situation is less cut and dry than it might seem,” Essinger said. “There’s nothing wrong with people feeling happy [about Marlowe] and that they were able to bring him back and knowing that the contract stands up. Still, there are all of those grievances that were there before [Marlowe’s] case. [Marlowe] coming back was a good battle, but it wasn’t the entire war.”


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