WASHINGTON -- Nearly six years ago, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina touched every facet of life in New Orleans. The city's institutions of higher education were not spared, and their administrators anticipated projected drops in funding and enrollment by closing programs, dismissing professors and adopting restructuring plans -- actions that ran afoul of faculty advocates.
In 2007, the American Association of University Professors launched a special investigation that resulted in censures of Loyola University New Orleans, Southern University at New Orleans, Tulane University and the University of New Orleans for what it deemed to be violations of academic freedom and tenure.
On Saturday, the AAUP officially closed the books on Katrina when its members voted unanimously to clear the final two institutions -- the University of New Orleans and Loyola -- from its censure list. Southern had its censure lifted in 2008; the same happened for Tulane the following year.
“This is really one of the great, historic achievements of the AAUP,” said David M. Rabban, chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure for the AAUP and the Dahr Jamail, Randall Hage Jamail and Robert Lee Jamail Regents Chair at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Law. A statement released by the AAUP after its members voted unanimously to remove the universities from the censure list hailed the investigation and ensuing responses from the universities as evidence of “the constructive role of censure” in protecting academic freedom, tenure and sound principles of shared governance.
UNO closed in the wake of Katrina in August 2005 and reopened in October of that year with much lower enrollment and dire prospects for funding. The governing board of the university declared financial exigency, the AAUP said, and slated 80 faculty members for layoff, without regard for tenure. (This paragraph was corrected to reflect the fact that the college re-opened earlier than noted in a previous version.)
After more faculty members resigned or retired than was initially projected, the number identified for dismissal dropped to 18. The AAUP’s investigating committee determined that the administration had not convincingly demonstrated why any of them needed to be let go. Following the AAUP's censure in 2007, several faculty members were offered reinstatement, the AAUP said, and the remainder eventually resolved their disputes. The university, after a change in leadership, eventually adopted an AAUP proposal to revise what the association saw as deficiencies in the university’s rules on financial exigency.
By comparison, Loyola University New Orleans experienced less damage as a result of Katrina, though it did institute a plan to shutter several academic programs on the basis of educational rather than financial considerations -- over the objections of the Faculty Senate, which later cast votes of no confidence in the administration. Seventeen faculty members, 11 of them tenured and six probationary, were told their jobs were eliminated, according to the AAUP narrative.
Eleven of the professors appealed the decision to a faculty hearing body, which found that the administration had failed to follow established procedures in every case. The president at the time rejected these findings. Seven of those whose positions were eliminated brought lawsuits, several of which resulted in settlements, the AAUP said.
A new administrative team at Loyola subsequently took over and vowed to restore a smoother and more amicable system of faculty governance. According to the AAUP, the new president of the university reaffirmed to the Senate that the faculty handbook was contractually binding and agreed to new provisions for faculty governance. A spokeswoman for Loyola called removal from the censure list "a very positive step for the university" and said that it reflects the institution's recovery from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
While the two New Orleans institutions had their censures lifted, three other institutions elsewhere came in for criticism.
Bethune-Cookman University in Florida was censured for what its investigating committee called breaches of academic freedom, as documented in a report released in October. Bethune-Cookman strenuously contested that report at the time, saying it “contains many errors and false assertions and presents a one-sided view.” The university also pointed out that the professors -- who are unnamed in the reports on the subject -- had filed appeals to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that were rejected.
The chief points of contention revolve around the dismissal of three groups of professors, comprising seven in total. Four were dismissed in connection with allegations of sexual harassment by male professors of female students. According to the university’s investigation, the professors maintained an off-campus apartment where they took female students to have sex, with one or more of the professors taking nude photos of them, and threatening to release the photos on the Internet if the students reported what was happening.
The AAUP objected to the terminations, saying that the four professors accused of sexual harassment were dismissed without cause being demonstrated in a hearing before faculty peers, and without the benefit of due process, advance notice of the charges or the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. In addition, the AAUP contends that no records of the hearings were produced and no firsthand testimony or signed statements were presented.
Bethune-Cookman disputed these claims, in an investigative report that described “overwhelming evidence” in favor of termination. The administration also said it had found files documenting administrative hearings in 1999 and 2000 involving two of the professors. Those earlier hearings concluded that the professors had sexually harassed students, and came with a warning that the professors would be fired if similar incidents happened again.
In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, the university further defended its handling of the controversy.
"We regret the AAUP has decided to pursue this action after we provided clear and convincing evidence to them supporting our actions in terminating the four professors," said Trudie Kibbe Reed, Bethune-Cookman's president. “We followed the guidelines in our handbook, and we do not apologize for protecting our students and upholding the mission of our university and the legacy of our founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
"I am a former tenured professor and tenure is very important, but tenure does not supersede our obligations to our students. No student should be placed in a position to be propositioned by faculty for sexual acts. No student should encounter this behavior from people who should be role models. Integrity, upholding the mission of our university and maintaining the legacy of our founder are of the utmost importance to us. We stand behind our actions.”
This position was backed up by Deborah Freckleton, director of faculty development and president of the faculty association at Bethune-Cookman. "I would expect a university to balance the due process rights of tenured faculty with the federally mandated requirements to take 'swift and remedial action' in cases of sexual allegations that have merit," she said.
The other major allegation seems to involve the dismissal of three other professors, two as part of a board mandate to reduce expenses, and one because of credentials. The AAUP says that, according to its guidelines, financial exigency -- a state of financial affairs so dire that the existence of the college was at stake -- needed to be declared in order to dismiss faculty on economic grounds, but that this had not been established.
RPI and Idaho State Sanctioned
Two other institutions, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Idaho State University, which were the subject of AAUP investigations this year, were put on the sanction list for what the association found to be violations of principles of shared governance.
The conflict at RPI dates to 2007, and the time it took to conduct an investigation and recommend sanctioning was noted with dismay by some members. It was in 2007 that the Faculty Senate was suspended, as chronicled in an AAUP report in February. The suspension was in response to an effort by the senate, which was opposed by administration, to allow contingent faculty to participate -- an effort at widening the franchise that Larry Gerber, chair of the Committee on College and University Governance and professor of history at Auburn University, noted with pride when presented the recommendation on Saturday.
RPI did not cooperate with the AAUP investigation, refused to recognize the association’s role in what the institute said was a private matter and called the finished product factually incorrect with “many relevant omissions, and much speculative comment, which may easily have influenced the erroneous conclusions reached," though these were not named. RPI has declined to comment on the report or on the sanction vote.
The findings of the Idaho State investigation were the freshest, published last month and, as Gerber pointed out, produced in a much more timely fashion. The leader of the university’s Faculty Senate -- which has been dissolved and provisionally reconstituted -- was at the meeting Saturday and issued a statement on the matter.
The relevance of the sanction at Idaho State extends beyond the borders of the campus, said Philip Cole, associate professor of physics and president of the senate, both before its dissolution and since its provisional resurrection. The conflict, he said, touches more deeply on how universities marshal intellectual expertise to teach students, and how such institutions create new knowledge.
“Removing professors from meaningful oversight of the curriculum and scholarship can only be detrimental to the quality of student learning. And educating students is the business of a university,” Cole said. “Are students products or are they humans representing the future of our society? Is the purpose of research to bring in extramural money, or is the purpose of extramural money to do research and educate students? ISU faculty fully understand curriculum, teaching and research, but our expertise has been silenced.”
Idaho State’s administration stood by its critique of the AAUP report when it was released last month, in which it described the investigation as "biased and unbalanced" and as containing "critical flaws" because it embraced AAUP’s views on faculty-administration conflict. In response to news of the sanction vote, Idaho State extolled the progress the institution has made under its president, Arthur C. Vailas, who comes in for a harsh critique in the AAUP report and has received a vote of no confidence from the faculty.
Idaho State has seen significant improvements under Vailas's leadership, said Mark Levine, a spokesman for the university. These include higher federal grant funding, the classification of the university as a “research high” university, new ties with the private sector, and enrollment that is both higher and reflective of higher-quality students. “ISU is now a destination school and is particularly a first choice for foreign students,” Levine said in an e-mail, also noting that the institution had been attracting strong faculty. “The upward trajectory that has marked Idaho State University will continue.”