Voted Off the Island

Professors at two South Texas institutions support the creation of a new, combined university, but see recent actions raising questions about job security and faculty roles.

October 13, 2014

The new University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, set to open in fall 2015, has lofty goals: expand access to comprehensive higher education in South Texas and become one of the biggest and most successful Hispanic-serving institutions in the country.

Most faculty members from the two existing institutions that will be dissolved to make way for Rio Grande Valley support those aims. But as the new university’s inaugural year approaches, professors at the University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas Pan-American – who will make up most of the faculty at the new institution – say they’re increasingly worried about shared governance during the transition.

Case in point: Last week, some 25 tenured and tenure-track professors at Brownsville and Pan American received letters informing them that they had not made the cut after an initial faculty reapplication process. There are enough tenure-line jobs for everyone currently at those two institutions to work at Rio Grande Valley, but faculty members at the two feeder institutions still had to reapply for their jobs. While an overwhelming majority were approved, two dozen were not. The reason? They hadn’t met any number of criteria the university’s new administration set for automatic approval.

Some of the eight or nine requirements, depending on tenure status, were relatively boilerplate: professors had to apply on time, for example. Other criteria – and those most concerning even to those faculty members who passed so-called “Phase I” – were not so basic. Tenure-track and tenured faculty members who had received “written discipline” in the last seven years, for which they had exhausted all internal appeals and grievances, were not eligible for approval on the first round. Neither were those faculty members under investigation for any allegations against them for which there exists “substantial evidence” for termination. Faculty members who were rated “unsatisfactory” or did “not meet expectations” during either one of their last two annual reviews, or their last post-tenure review, also did not pass. And faculty members -- even those who have been tenured for many years without one -- had to have a terminal degree.

Faculty members say that two universities are effectively now punishing some faculty members up until now deemed worthy of continued employment, or who in some cases have not been found to have done anything wrong.

All told, 583 tenure-track or tenured professors were approved; 25 were not. All tenure-line faculty members at both Pan-American and Brownsville were eligible for appointment to the new university in Phase I; there were some faculty buyouts but no layoffs. A dozen current, non-retiring faculty members also didn't apply at all – possibly because they knew they did not meet some of the criteria.

Havidan Rodriguez, ad interim president at Pan-American and founding provost for Rio Grande Valley, said that tenure-line faculty members who did not make the first cut can apply for an appeal with appropriate documentation to support their cases. Those appeals will be adjudicated by a panel of administrators within 45 days. Professors also can reapply in the upcoming Phase II of evaluations, in which full-time, non-tenure-track faculty positions and some additional tenure-line faculty slots will be vetted by specific academic units.

Rodriguez said each application was carefully considered, and that only “significant” disciplinary actions had held up applications in Phase I. He declined to give specific examples, citing personnel privacy policies. Faculty senates on both campuses had been consulted – but were not asked to vote on – the reapplication criteria before they were put into use, he added.

Despite that involvement, faculty members on both campuses have expressed concern about how the process is being handled. Some also have said they're concerned that the University of Texas System is using the creation of a university as an excuse to get rid of faculty members with less-than-perfect records.

One Pan-American faculty member said of the disciplinary record criterion in particular: “Even if [the action] isn’t trivial, it was resolved and didn’t result in termination. So this feels like they’re getting a ‘second chance at the apple.’ ”

That professor, who is a member of Pan-American’s Faculty Senate, said that the body’s involvement in crafting the criteria was nominal, and that at least one member objected so strongly to the idea of tenured faculty members having to reapply for their jobs at all that he recused himself from the conversation.

The faculty member and others who did not want to be identified by name, citing fears about job security during the transition, said they were particularly concerned because the state legislation and official communication about the new university didn’t refer to it as a “merger” between Brownsville and Pan-American. There are practical, well-intentioned reasons for that: In order for Rio Grande Valley to be eligible to benefit from the state's Permanent University Fund, it needed to be a new institution created within the University of Texas system (Brownsville and Pan-American were founded outside the system, and so have been ineligible for such funds, putting them at a disadvantage). Still, some professors say that whereas there are defined processes for how to transition tenured faculty appointments during mergers, the creation of a new university seems to be leaving more room for interpretation.

Beyond that, some said they worried that the letters were an indication of more challenges to tenure obligations and shared governance to come -- and there's not yet a Rio Grande Valley faculty senate to take up those potential problems.

Rio Grande University will be more research-focused than either Pan-American or Brownsville. It will also have a new medical school. But it will have regional footprints in both existing campuses, about an hour apart. Faculty members may be assigned to work on both campuses.

Mary Aldridge, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association, which is associated with the National Education Association, but which does not have collective bargaining rights in Texas, said she also thought both legislators and state university system leaders had been careful not to call “Project: South Texas” a merger, in order to have more flexibility in faculty decisions. She said she spent the better part of last week fielding requests for help from members at Pan-American and Brownsville who had received Phase I rejection letters. So far, she said, she’s referring them to her legal department to help each professor craft his or her case for appeal.

Aldridge also shared some professors’ concerns that the recent personnel decisions were a sign that other challenges to due process and tenure were in store. She said she thought the recent, acrimonious separation of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College – which resulted in the shedding of more than 100 faculty members, many of them tenured – had been a lesson to the university system in “what it could get away with.” The faculty association is suing the system on behalf of several of those laid-off professors.

According to merger guidelines from the American Association of University Professors, “it is imperative that the faculty of the concerned institutions be afforded a meaningful role in the planning and implementation” of such actions, since they’re destined to affect those matters over which faculty members have “primary responsibility” – including faculty status. And especially where financial exigency is not an issue, and no faculty layoffs are necessary due to curricular changes, tenured professors are not supposed to have to compete for their jobs. (Even when financial exigency is at play, the AAUP guidance says, "care must be taken that merger is not employed as a means of breaching tenure obligations.")

The national AAUP office isn’t currently involved in the Rio Grande Valley project, but Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary, said that consolidation – whether it’s officially called a merger or not – “can’t be used as a way to shed off the people you don’t want any more.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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