Driven Out for Speaking Up?

July 22, 2014

Lisa Guinn was one of the lucky ones. The historian was offered a tenure-track job at one institution in 2008 after a one-year stint there as a temporary professor. Two years later, she got lucky again – or so she thought – when she and her husband, also a historian, were both offered tenure-track jobs at Upper Iowa University. Knowing how rare dual assistant professorships are in history, they took the jobs. They believed in the university’s liberal arts mission and were looking forward to reviving its history major, which they did in 2012.

Now, despite strong faculty reviews, both Guinn and her husband, Thomas Jorsch, are out at Upper Iowa, and they still haven’t been told why. Jorsch was able to find a tenure-track position at Bethany College, in Kansas, but Guinn will be working there as an adjunct. The irony is biting. 

So what happened?

Guinn and other faculty members say shared governance and academic freedom at Upper Iowa have eroded over time, and their vocal opposition to proposed curricular changes put targets on their backs, as well as those of several other untenured professors.

The university says it is committed to shared governance, and that curricular and faculty changes are part of the university’s ongoing program review process.

Guinn says the troubles at Upper Iowa – a private liberal arts university in tiny Fayette, Iowa, with more than a dozen extension and international campuses and online programs – began in the fall of 2012. Former President Alan Walker went on an unplanned sabbatical and soon resigned, along with several other administrators. At the same time, the university’s Board of Trustees announced that it was operating in a deficit, later revealed to be some $7 million. Student enrollment also fell across a number of Upper Iowa’s programs, to about 6,200 students over all in 2012, from 6,800 a year earlier. (The financial woes continue, with the faculty being asked to take five furlough days next year.)

In early 2013, the university began a nationwide search for a new president, with the help of an outside firm. The search yielded three finalists, who were invited to come to campus for interviews and forums with students, faculty and staff. But in April of that year, Robert Firth, chairman of the board, announced that the university was canceling the campus visits and appointing the sole internal candidate. In response, faculty members sent a letter to the chairman and the new president, William Duffy, Upper Iowa’s former senior vice president for academic extension. Faculty members asked for a public commitment to shared governance, better communication, and a meaningful role in the upcoming search for a new provost. The professors say they never got a reply.

A spokesman for the university said it was determined that Duffy, who knew the institution inside and out, was the best candidate for the job because he could "hit the ground running."

Guinn says rumors about potential program and faculty cuts “swirled” once Duffy, handpicked by the board, became president. She and other faculty members publicly suggested that Firth, the board chairman, resign in light of the university’s financial situation. “In my mind, this was not an unreasonable request given that he seemingly failed in that responsibility and had disregarded the suggestions of the presidential search committee,” Guinn said. “While the board has the legal right to do this, it goes against the spirit of shared governance that they claim to support.”

Guinn and her husband also vocally opposed an administrative proposal to eliminate the fledgling history major and the sociology major in order to establish a new social science major with emphases in history and sociology. So did Brian McQueen, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice. The professors argued that there was no evidence the social science major would be more beneficial to students than either of the majors they’d helped build. Guinn also says she opposed a late request by the administration to offer an online history major.

A faculty committee also opposed the idea of folding the majors into a more general social science program, recommending instead that the university retain the majors but with new means of recruiting students.

But Guinn says that the interim dean, John Siblik, told her the university was going to cut history anyway. (A university spokesman said the program will be offered as a major this year, but no changes to sociology have been announced.)

Faculty fears about cuts were heightened last summer, when the board approved a series of changes to the Faculty Handbook that allowed for the president or board to terminate tenure-track (but not yet tenured) faculty members and to deny tenure to faculty members without giving any reason. The handbook also says that grievances can only be based on alleged violations of the policies in the handbook, not possible errors of consideration.  And now, procedure-based grievances only will be handled through the university’s human resources office – not a faculty body, as the American Association of University Professors recommends, and as previously existed at Upper Iowa.

In February, the university called off a search for a new provost, which Duffy said was supposed to save money, and appointed a former trustee (who holds a "trustee emeritus" title) to the job. That same month, Guinn, her husband, and McQueen, the assistant professor of criminal justice studies who opposed the new social science major, were given terminal contracts. Another vocal business faculty member, Eric Eller, was denied tenure by the administration despite strong recommendations from faculty.

In spite of the university’s budget woes, financial exigency was never declared. The university is also hiring a new assistant professor of history and of sociology.

McQueen, the terminated assistant professor criminal justice studies and sociology, says he believes he was terminated because his majors, although popular, proved to administrators to be too rigorous, especially for their non-Fayette campus programs that were struggling with enrollment.

“I had very, very good reviews, and I was told a year ago, on my third-year review, to just ‘keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll get tenure without a problem,’ ” McQueen said. “There were no areas of concern or anything like that.”

McQueen said he was hurt by the termination, but not necessarily surprised – the writing seemed to be on the wall, especially in retrospect. McQueen’s gotten a new tenure-track job at Wartburg College, and he’s looking forward to starting fresh. But he said it’s still hard letting go of the program he built.

“This was something I spent two years of my life building,” he said of the majors. “This was very important to me.”

The changes at Upper Iowa don’t bode well for its students, he said.

“I think it’s going to have a strong negative impact on educational quality when – and I’m including myself in this list – the four people who are some of the best, most active and academically rigorously professors are summarily dismissed.”

Eller, the business professor who was active in faculty governance and who was denied tenure at the presidential and board level, said he filed a grievance with the human resources office, which found his claim that the provost hadn't even looked at his file before denying him tenure to be valid (although the report attributed it to an "administrative error"). Eller said that as a result of the report both the provost and president considered his bid a second time, but made the same recommendation, and still didn't provide a reason.

Eller, too, has gotten a tenure-line job at another institution, but he’s still concerned about shared governance at Upper Iowa, and he still doesn’t have any real reason as to why he was terminated.

Neither does Guinn – despite the fact that AAUP wrote a letter to the university of her behalf, saying it was against its guidelines to withhold such information from a faculty member who requests it. Anita Levy, associate secretary of the AAUP, said that Duffy responded to the letter last month but did not say why Guinn was terminated.  

That’s one of the hardest parts, Guinn said.

“I’ve taken this really personally, and I regret that I gave up a tenure-line job to come here,” she said, referring to the position she left at Ferris State University in 2010. “I had no idea that I could simply be run out for speaking out. To me, that’s what we’re supposed to do as academics – that’s my job as a faculty member. I’m guaranteed academic freedom.”

Andrew Wenthe, vice president for external affairs at Upper Iowa, said that the program cuts were part of the ongoing work of any university to refine and assess its curriculum, including to ensure “hireability” for its graduates. He denied that professors don’t have primary control over the curriculum, as the AAUP recommends, saying that it was a shared concern of the administration and the faculty, which maintains a committee on the matter. Wenthe said he couldn't comment on the circumstances of the professors' terminations, saying they were private personnel matters. But he called McQueen’s allegation that he had been terminated because his programs were too rigorous to appeal to non-Fayette students “ludicrous.”

“We have rigor across the board,” Wenthe said. “Individuals may have their opinions about online or distance education, or about that as a learning experience or a modality, but we stand by our programs across the entire enterprise.”

Wenthe also noted that the changes to the faculty handbook that have enabled the terminated professors to go without answers were all accepted by the faculty as a whole. (The changes were approved by the faculty, although numerous professors contend that the changes were presented by the administration at the last minute and that there was pressure to pass them as-is. The professors said that kind of faculty intimidation is common, and has prevented more tenured professors from speaking out.) Wenthe said he didn’t know anything about the handbook claim, but that the university is committed to shared governance.

Mari Molseed, a tenured professor of sociology and criminal justice, said via email that Guinn, Jorsch and McQueen were strong professors who had the approval of their peers.

“It is the case that [Guinn] had positive evaluations,” Molseed said. “She was an excellent teacher and faculty member.  It is very likely that her termination, as well as the termination of two other faculty, was partly the result of opposition to plans on the part of some administrators to eliminate the history major and replace it with a hybrid social science major that would have little value for students.”

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