Questioning Southern U. Layoffs
Did Southern University exaggerate the depth of its financial crisis to circumvent the authority of its own faculty?
The charge is being leveled by the American Association of University Professors against Southern University at Baton Rouge, which declared a state of financial exigency on Oct. 28, 2011, and cut the jobs of 19 tenured professors. In the report on its investigation, the AAUP questions both the severity of the Baton Rouge university’s financial situation and the “virtual exclusion of the university’s faculty” from the conversation about how to address the crisis. ("Financial exigency" is the term used by the AAUP to justify the elimination of tenured faculty members' jobs, and it means that a university is in such dire financial condition that its very future is in danger.)
The skepticism has grown this year in light of the fact that Southern doubled the subsidy to its athletic program to $2.4 million, which the university claims was necessary to avoid being demoted from Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, but which faculty members see as evidence that there were alternatives to eliminating professors' positions.
The historically black land-grant institution’s financial woes were a result of a state budget that left the university with a $10.5 million deficit at the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year. The cuts led public institutions throughout the state to identify academic programs graduating less than five students a year, resulting in the elimination of over 100 programs statewide.
In a response to the report, the university accepts the AAUP’s chronology but claims it “did everything possible to avoid financial exigency,” including laying off “hundreds” of non-faculty employees, increasing class sizes and reducing the use of adjunct and temporary instructors. The university declined an offer to expound on its response.
Southern’s administration in October 2011 asked the Board of Supervisors to declare a state of financial exigency after a similar vote failed the month before. The vote passed, enabling the board to approve a new set of procedures to respond to the financial crisis that the AAUP described as “an apparent attempt to avoid the existing standards of the board and handbook.”
With the new procedures in place, Chancellor James L. Llorens announced a 10 percent salary cut for all faculty and staff. And in December 2011, as department heads were asked to produce names of professors recommended for layoffs, the administration published a retrenchment and reorganization plan that included cutting 35 faculty appointments. The plan was never debated in the Faculty Senate.
“According to senate president [Sudhir] Trivedi, President [Ronald Mason Jr.] used the phrase ‘martial law’ to describe what was needed -- removal of obstacles to the reduction of faculty and restructuring of schools and departments,” the report reads.
The university has pointed out that faculty members reneged on their own deal to avert a declaration of financial exigency. “The AAUP draft report implies that financial exigency could have been avoided, had the administration accepted a 60 percent voluntary furlough rate by faculty,” the response reads. “Once faculty members became aware that furloughs would not be 100 percent for all faculty, many who had voluntarily agreed to be furloughed began to demand a reversal of their voluntary furlough pledges.”
Spring 2012 was marked by two rounds of layoffs: First in February, then again in May, as the administration rushed to complete the reorganization process before the state of financial exigency expired at the end of the academic year. According to the report, department heads in some cases had to recommend layoffs within 30 minutes.
As opposed to the professors laid off in February, who were given seven to 10 weeks’ notice, those laid off in May were given about four weeks. In both cases, professors had to appeal the decision within seven days.
“[W]hen some department heads refused to provide names, the deans and the provost selected faculty members for appointment termination,” the report reads. “Faculty members reported to the committee that decisions about which positions to eliminate were made, to the best of their knowledge, by chairs and deans with no other faculty involvement and no scrutiny or review.”
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