Sending a Message

June 16, 2014

WASHINGTON – Members of the American Association of University Professors voted unanimously Saturday to censure Northeastern Illinois University for alleged violations of academic freedom in a controversial tenure case.

“No one likes censure, but in this case it is absolutely necessary that such actions be taken to defend AAUP principles, defend the rights of faculty against arbitrary and capricious presidential dictate, and preserve what remains of the tenure system and the treatment of tenure-track probationary faculty,” said Peter Neil Kirstein, professor of history at St. Xavier University and vice president of the Illinois Conference of the AAUP.

Kirstein helped launch AAUP’s investigation into Northeastern Illinois’s denial of tenure to John Boyle, on which the censure was based. Boyle, a former assistant professor of linguistics, received strong faculty recommendations for tenure in the 2011 academic year but his bid was rejected by President Sharon Hahs. AAUP says that the move was retaliatory, since Boyle was associated with a group of colleagues who voted no confidence in the president a year ealier. AAUP also believes that the Boyle was caught in a kind of “turf war” between linguistics faculty and professors who taught teaching English as a second language (TESL), and that rival faculty members supplied the ammunition – knowingly or not – for the president to reject Boyle’s bid. She said he was uncollegial and used poor mentoring practices in trying to get students to switch minors from TESL to linguistics; Boyle said he was doing his job.

Censuring Northeastern Illinois would “send a message” not only to that university but others that tenure decisions should be based on teaching, scholarship and service – not personal conflicts, Kirstein said.

Northeastern Illinois has repeatedly challenged the accuracy of AAUP’s assertions about Boyle’s case, including when the association released a lengthy investigative report on it last year. But the university has released few details about what it sees as problematic about AAUP’s account, saying that Boyle’s case is a private, personnel matter.

The university again on Saturday challenged the validity of AAUP’s findings and the length of its reach.

“Northeastern’s response to the report last December stated that the report included factual errors, misinterpretations of university policies and procedures, and assumptions about Northeastern’s governance structures and decision-making processes,” the university said in a statement. “Therefore, the university rejects the conclusions drawn in the report.”

The university said that while AAUP’s decision was “disappointing,” it has “no practical effect on the university.”

It’s true that AAUP has no regulatory authority over colleges and universities. But past censures have moved institutions to embrace reform, sometimes after a change in presidents, as in the case of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. AAUP members on Saturday moved overwhelmingly to allow the association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure to consider taking the university off its standing censure list sometime within the next year.

Rewarding Progress

The Louisiana State flagship was censured in 2012, for not reappointing a 17-year, full-time, non-tenure-track professor of engineering after he publicly attributed the devastation in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans to what he called a structural failure of the levees overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. AAUP said the university also tried to restrict his public activities leading up to the non-reappointment, as not to risk cooperation from the corps in anticipated coastal restoration.

In its 2012 vote regarding Louisiana State, AAUP also cited a separate case in which the university removed a tenured professor of biology from teaching an ongoing course after her students’ grades skewed towards Ds and Fs. The professors group said that the university had violated her right to teach as she saw fit and removed her without due process.

At Saturday’s meeting, Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of AAUP’s Committee A, said the body wasn’t quite ready to recommend Louisiana State’s removal from the censure list. But he said that the university’s new administration, headed by King Alexander, former president of California State University at Long Beach, was taking “important steps forward[.]” The university recently settled with the engineering professor in a lawsuit he brought, and the biology professor was recently lauded in a university publication for her teaching leadership, AAUP said.

Reichman pointed to a letter from Alexander, sent in March, that noted administrative turnover and a desire to work with the AAUP to move off the censure list.

However, Reichman said Committee A was still concerned with the status of and proportion of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members employed by the university.

“A major concern over the past few years for the AAUP nationally, and particularly at large research universities such as LSU in the context of a removal censure, is the status and number of full-time faculty members who serve, beyond any reasonable period of apprenticeship, on term appointments renewable at the administration’s discretion,” Reichman said, quoting from the committee’s written recommendation.

Reichman said that Louisiana State was planning to fill some 25 tenure-line positions in the near future, pending state funding, and hasn’t added significantly to its full-time, non-tenure-track faculty ranks since the censure. So if the university continues down such a path, he said, it would be a “shame” to let it remain on the censure list for another year.

A Louisiana State University spokesman said the institution had no immediate comment.

In another case of AAUP recognizing what it called “progress” towards protecting academic freedom, the body moved to close its file on Northern Iowa University. AAUP never held a censure vote, but left open the possibility at its meeting last year. At that time, Committee A said that the university, assisted by a new president, William N. Ruud, was making strides toward correcting alleged violations of shared governance principles in the midst of a budget crisis in 2012.

On Saturday, AAUP said it was satisfied all concerns had been resolved.

A university spokesman referred questions about the AAUP decision to a letter Ruud sent the organization in May. In the letter, the president described new shared governance models the university has adopted, including an executive management team with sitting faculty members. Ruud thanked AAUP for its “communicating, support and assistance over the past year and for helping us move forward with AAUP as a partner in the educational process.”

Concerns About Confucius

Also at the meeting, Committee A previewed a forthcoming statement warning its members against partnering with the many Confucius Institutes across the U.S. and abroad. Such institutes promote Chinese language and culture on college and university campuses but are funded by the Chinese government. Recently, concerns about the academic freedom of faculty members teaching at the institutions -- such as whether or not they have control over the curriculum -- have emerged. The Canadian Association of University Teachers in December to recommend their members part ways with the institutes.

In its statement, which has yet to be officially released, on Confucius Institutes, AAUP references the Canadian group’s decision and says allowing “any third party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities.”

AAUP recommends that professors sever ties with the institutes unless the agreement between the partner university and Hanban, the Chinese Ministry of Education subsidiary that oversees the centers, is renegotiated so that the U.S. institution has “unilateral control, consistent with [AAUP principles] over all academic matters, including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum and choice of texts[.]” AAUP also wants the agreement to guarantee Confucius Institute faculty the same academic freedom afforded to all other faculty and that for the agreement to be available to all faculty members.

More generally, AAUP says, “these conditions should apply to any partnerships or collaborations with foreign governments or foreign government-related agencies.”

A Canada-based representative for Hanban did not immediately return a request for comment.

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