'Fire in Haste and Rehire at Leisure'

The devastation of Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston on September 13, 2008, is not in dispute. But the way the University of Texas Medical Branch on Galveston Island responded -- especially its elimination of hundreds of jobs -- has been much debated.

May 3, 2010

The devastation of Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston on September 13, 2008, is not in dispute. But the way the University of Texas Medical Branch on Galveston Island responded -- especially its elimination of hundreds of jobs -- has been much debated.

A report being issued today by the American Association of University Professors, while not contesting that the university faced serious financial challenges from the hurricane’s damage, finds that the decisions made as a result violated key faculty rights. Specifically, the report finds that the university failed to involve faculty members in meaningful ways in evaluating the extent of the fiscal crisis, determining which positions should be eliminated, and providing appropriate means of appeal. Further, the report says that some of those who lost jobs were not given appropriate consideration for new positions created after the layoffs.

The report does not rule out the possibility that there was a financial crisis of sufficient magnitude to require layoffs, but also suggests that the university might have considered alternatives to the quick push to eliminate positions. The general approach taken by the university seemed to fit a philosophy of “fire in haste and rehire at leisure,” the report says.

Following the hurricane, which led to the suspension of many of the operations of the branch at Galveston, the university went through a process that led to 127 faculty members in the School of Medicine having their jobs eliminated. Of those, more than 40 had tenure and another 15 or so were on the tenure track. The university did declare financial exigency -- a statement of dire economic condition that the AAUP says is needed to justify eliminating the jobs of tenured professors -- but the association report questions the process that led to that decision as well.

The report acknowledges that faculty members played a role in the decision-making but questions whether it was an appropriate role. The key faculty role was one in which chairs were asked to develop lists of faculty members who were so essential that they could not have their jobs eliminated, and to identify other faculty members whose positions were key and still others whose jobs might be done without. The report notes that these lists were essential in determining who lost jobs.

But the report questions the idea that all power should have been delegated to chairs to represent faculty interests. “The legitimacy of the process was undercut by the perception that chairs owe their primary allegiance to the administration,” the report says. And in the context of this medical school, chairs might be better compared to unit heads (administrators) than faculty. Thus the key information gathering process should be described as “chair driven,” not “faculty driven," the report says.

The AAUP in this report -- as it did in an earlier investigation of how colleges in New Orleans responded to Hurricane Katrina -- addresses the question of whether some financial situations are so serious that faculty roles might legitimately be more limited than they might be in other circumstances. Texas officials raised the issue, the report says, and the association called it “a fair question.”

On this issue, the report says that administrators have a right to a faculty that moves at a reasonably speedy pace, but the report argues that was the case at Galveston (or would have been, had it been tried).

“To be sure, a faculty body that simply refuses to do its duty in responding to a financial crisis requiring a reduction in force, or which dodges hard questions, has no claim to deference if it abdicates the field it ought properly to occupy,” the report says. “But by every means the investigating committee could determine, there appears to have been a signal willingness of the faculty as a whole, and particularly an appropriate body such as the faculty senate, which could have constituted an independent committee not appointed by the administration, to offer advice.”

Such a committee, the report notes, might have suggested different ways of allocating cuts, different protections for faculty members, and different academic priorities in terms of which areas to preserve and which to jettison.

In several points in the report, it quotes from a response from senior University of Texas officials. In their response, they argue that the decisions and appeals process were more protective of faculty rights than the report suggests and that the university had unique responsibilities to act quickly to preserve vital patient care. The university also faults the association’s committee for accepting “each allegation raised by a faculty member, critic or newspaper reporter” without scrutiny.

The university response also strongly disputes the argument of the report that the layoffs at Galveston reflect any lack of commitment to faculty rights or tenure at the Texas system. The 15-campus system has more than 18,000 faculty members, of whom 6,841 have tenure and another 3,229 are on the tenure track, the response notes. Tenure, once earned, “is cherished by the holder and respected” by the university, the UT statement says.


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