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Power Play

May 13, 2010

A plan to eliminate 15 faculty positions regardless of tenure status might hit some speed bumps if Albion College’s faculty handbook were followed, but the college’s trustees have decided to ignore that minor inconvenience.

When Albion faculty said the dismissals might violate the handbook, the board promptly passed a resolution washing their hands of the guidelines. Indeed, the board didn’t even bother to say which parts of the book they would change; the trustees simply declared that anything standing in their way was “amended effective immediately.”

“RESOLVED that exercising the authority of the Board of Trustees under the Charter of 1857, the Faculty Handbook is amended effective immediately in all ways necessary to permit the reduction of 15 full time equivalent (FTE) existing faculty positions, which may include tenured faculty positions, by the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year,” the resolution states.

The trustees requested plans for cuts from faculty and administrators after they received enrollment projections that suggested further declines, and they are expected to approve a plan today or Friday. Most of the students at Albion, a private liberal arts college 90 miles west of Detroit, are Michigan residents, and the college’s falling fortunes are closely tied to the state’s own fiscal challenges, administrators say.

The board’s March 30 resolution has shown Albion faculty just how powerless they are in the college’s governance structure, and many now say they are afraid to express their concerns publicly amid talk of dismissing tenured professors. While the handbook outlines specific guidelines for removing tenured faculty, those regulations all amounted to nothing when the board exercised its stated authority to both suggest and approve handbook revisions.

“The handbook is a governance document that’s widely respected on campus by the trustees and the administration and the faculty themselves, but the board does have the authority (to amend it) and it’s stated within the handbook that it is the ultimate decision maker,” said Donna Randall, the college’s president.

Indeed, the handbook [See relevant excerpts here] does give the board the “final” authority to approve changes. It also states, however, that “every effort will be made by appropriate consultation and conference to resolve any differences.” There's no evidence suggesting any such consultation occurred, at least with faculty.

The handbook only allows for the dismissal of tenured faculty for misconduct, after the declaration of financial exigency or in the event of complete program elimination. Financial exigency has not been declared and no one is targeting faculty for misconduct in this instance. And while the board has welcomed faculty and administrative suggestions for program cuts, the trustees have not said the dismissals should be limited to faculty in eliminated programs.

At a Feb. 19 meeting, Albion trustees invited professors to submit suggestions for 15 faculty position eliminations -- about 10 percent of the faculty. The board said it needed the plans by May 3, and faculty argued the roughly 10-week time frame was insufficient to conduct a thorough analysis of programs. Even so, faculty did approve a March resolution that promised a strategy of position cuts through attrition, retirements and non-renewal of adjuncts. The board’s response? Too little, too slow.

“We truly understand your response as presented in the faculty resolution. However, the problems we collectively confront cannot, in our judgment, be solved by incremental remedies,” Paul Tobias, chair of the board, wrote to faculty. “The issues require more prompt and fundamental attention than you propose.”

Randall acknowledged “there’s a difference of opinion” on whether the trustees’ timetable allowed for a rigorous and thorough faculty review of programs.

“The board felt it was in the best interest of the college to have a decision made in a reasonable period of time,” said Randall, who declined repeatedly to say whether she personally felt the time allotted was “reasonable.”

The college has already put non-tenured faculty on notice, sending out letters to all of them stating that their appointments will not be renewed. Those faculty may not know their employment status until June, according to the letter.

Trustees Once Backed Faculty Growth

There is no doubt that Albion’s enrollment has faltered, dropping from 1,938 full-time students in 2007-8 to 1,709 in 2009-10. In an analysis of population and other demographic trends, Albion officials projected enrollment would fall to about 1,635 students in the next couple of years – marking a 16 percent decline from the college’s peak enrollments of the mid-2000s.

“What’s motivating this change is a structural imbalance,” Randall said. “What we need to do is have an appropriate number of faculty for the size of the student body. That’s what’s motivating the change.”

The change, however, is really just a return to Albion’s enrollment and staffing levels of about 10 years ago. Randall’s predecessor, Peter Mitchell, announced a plan in 2002 to increase the size of the college’s freshman class from 450 to 600, adding about 14 faculty members to help address the increase. Some of the very trustees who now want to cut the faculty were cheerleading faculty growth eight years ago, despite some public objections from faculty who questioned the wisdom of the hires at the time, said an Albion professor who asked not to be identified.

As for the college’s financial state, some question whether it’s as dire as the trustees describe. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, the college reported $5.7 million of revenues in excess of expenses on its Form 990. The college also reported $19.5 million in unrealized losses, which likely refer to the falling value of stocks that Albion has yet to sell for a loss and that could still rebound in the future.

Howard Bunsis, who has conducted independent audits of several colleges undergoing budget cuts, informally reviewed Albion’s public financial documents at the request of faculty, and said he saw little to justify concern.

“There is absolutely no need to be eliminating positions at Albion College, given what I see here,” said Bunsis, chair of the Collective Bargaining Congress for the American Association of University Professors and a professor of accounting and finance at Eastern Michigan University.

While citing concerns about finances, Albion officials have not declared financial exigency or suggested the college faces an economic crisis that threatens the institution's survival -- the AAUP's standard for such a declaration. But if Albion dismisses tenured faculty as has been suggested, the college will join a growing number of institutions that have done so amid the economic crisis without declaring exigency. That's a disturbing trend for defenders of tenure, who say layoffs without a stated dire financial emergency undermine the tenure system and its intended protections.

The AAUP has made known its concerns about the process unfolding at Albion. The organization's own standards for dismissing tenured faculty closely mirror those set out in Albion’s handbook, and the AAUP sent a letter to Randall reiterating its position that such protocols should be followed.

“Our association would view with serious concern any actions taken to reduce the size of the faculty that departed significantly from our recommended standards, regardless of any amendments to the faculty handbook,” wrote Gregory F. Scholtz, associate secretary and director of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance.

Albion trustees, however, have clung to the position that tenured faculty dismissals should remain on the table. One Albion professor said it was surprising that trustees specifically mentioned potential dismissals of tenured faculty, even after Albion professors voted in favor of crafting a plan that would reduce positions through attrition and the dismissal of adjuncts.

“That was very, very provocative,” the professor said. “They have to know the laying off of tenured faculty is a significant escalation of the stakes.”

 

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