Challenging the Rationale for Job Cuts

AAUP reports condemn Felician, U of Southern Maine for alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure system ahead of likely censure votes.

May 13, 2015
 

Two more institutions could be headed for censure by the American Association of University Professors at its annual meeting next month, based on the content of twin reports out today on the University of Southern Maine and Felician College. The reports, based on AAUP investigations of alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure on both campuses, question campus rationales for faculty job cuts and possibly shed new light on conditions for professors on the ground. The institutions, meanwhile, argue that AAUP is not a regulatory body and largely reject the claims made in the respective reports.

University of Southern Maine

“In terminating the appointments of 60 of the 250 full-time faculty members and eliminating, reducing or consolidating numerous academic programs, allegedly on financial grounds, the administration of [Southern Maine] acted in flagrant violation” of AAUP’s principles on academic freedom and tenure and its recommendation that true financial exigency be present and demonstrated before faculty members are terminated, reads AAUP’s report on that institution.

Southern Maine also acted in “brazen disregard” of AAUP’s statement on and its own procedures for shared governance in eliminating multiple academic programs without consulting the faculty, the report says. “The program closures at [Southern Maine] are not merely matters of bookkeeping; they impinge on matters of curriculum and instruction, for which the faculty should always have primary responsibility. The administration’s ignoring the faculty senate, repeatedly and apparently deliberately, is at odds with generally accepted norms of academic governance in American higher education.”

AAUP’s tone isn’t surprising, given its involvement for more than a year in opposing planned cuts to academic departments and faculty lines at Southern Maine. In April 2014, roughly two dozen layoffs were called off amid public outcry, but in the fall the university under a new president unveiled plans for deeper cuts: between one-fifth and one-sixth of the faculty (about 50 professors) and about 100 staff members, along with a swath of programs. The national AAUP at the time argued that Southern Maine’s claims it had to balance the budget in the face of a $16 million projected shortfall, based on current enrollments, were unsound -- or at least didn't amount to the existential financial threat that could by AAUP standards excuse the terminations of tenured faculty members. Faculty members had a week’s time to submit comments on the cuts before the Board of Trustees of the University of Maine System voted to eliminate the graduate program in American and New England studies and the geosciences department, along with the arts and humanities major at the Lewiston-Auburn College campus.

The next month, in October, the university announced even more sweeping program cuts and consolidations to “fundamentally transform” its campus. Plans included the merger of English, philosophy and history into one department, and the same for chemistry, physics and math, to the tune of 50 eliminated faculty positions (eventually 61, about half of which were terminated under the retrenchment provision in the National Education Association-affiliated collective bargaining unit’s contract and the rest through retirements). Southern Maine said it wanted to become a “metro university,” distinct from all other campuses within the state system.

The new report offers evidence supporting AAUP’s suspicion that Southern Maine was more flush than it let on to the faculty, which repeatedly asked for proof of financial exigency. The AAUP report suggests that programs may have been cherry-picked for closure to accommodate its emerging “metro campus” model and as not to compete with other Maine system campuses’ missions over any real financial need. In the case of the department of applied medical sciences, for example, the university’s accounting considered only graduate tuition dollars -- not grants, which more than cover the $455,623 gap between faculty salaries and tuition revenue. AAUP says that during the course of its investigation, the administration said grants to the program had been declining, but that it didn't uncover any evidence of such a trend. The report also includes lengthy testimony from local biotech executives, expressing bewilderment that the university would shutter a program promising collaboration with and employee training for local industry.

“The investigating committee has cited these letters at length because the investigating committee has never seen anything like them,” the report says of the testimony. The committee, “baffled by this response, finds it impossible to imagine how [Southern Maine] is not serving as a ‘metropolitan university’ by maintaining a program in the life sciences that directly serves the needs of biotechnology firms in the metropolitan area.”

Citing faculty testimony and a speech by President David T. Flanagan in November to corporate partners of the university -- in which he said having “two flagship universities wasn’t such a great idea” -- the committee suggests that the changes at Southern Maine have been part of a systemwide mission realignment more than anything else. (Interestingly, the system recently announced it is seeking accreditation to become a collection of campuses under a single university, as opposed to seven different universities within a system.)

AAUP says that Southern Maine faculty members involved in the investigation recounted similar irregularities in assessing program viability, such as counting majors rather than enrollment in some instances and not others. That’s despite a Faculty Senate recommendation that programs be assessed by the same formula. The report also alleges numerous instances of administrative attempts to “stymie” faculty participation in the process, such as moving a scheduled board meeting to the other side of the state, some 300 miles away.

Program closures involved no “teach-out” strategies, leaving researchers and students alike “stranded,” the report says.

In a response to an early draft of the AAUP report, Southern Maine alleged factual inaccuracies and problems with the AAUP investigative process, such as the inability of the university to meet with and cross-examine witnesses. It also called the suggestion that it was operating on a surplus “erroneous" at best. The university stressed its belief that AAUP has no authority over it.

In a statement released late Tuesday, the university reiterated its concerns, calling the AAUP report “unworthy of serious consideration.”

“The AAUP is sadly out of touch with the current needs and realities of public universities, and its ill-founded financial analysis is a misleading attempt to paper over the urgency of the economic situation of our state higher education system,” reads the statement. “[Southern Maine] is proud to serve as an affordable, accessible and high-quality public institution located in the economic and cultural center of Maine. We celebrate our students and faculty and work to build a prosperous future for our students and our communities.”

Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, led the AAUP investigative committee. He said the circumstances surrounding the closure of the applied medical sciences program were “key” to understanding what’s happening across campus. The idea, it seems, he said, “is to knock [Southern Maine] down a peg so that it doesn't rival [the Orono campus] as the flagship -- President Flanagan actually said that in so many words.”

Beyond the whys of the closures, the hows were just as bad -- seemingly “above and beyond the usual travesties,” Bérubé said via email. “Look at the fact that the programs were closed midyear (!) without teach-out provisions for the students in the programs: [Southern Maine] acted as if its financial situation was so dire that if it did not ax these programs and faculty immediately, the mob would cut off their fingers on Jan. 1.”

Bérubé said he didn’t speculate about AAUP censure, but that that he thinks the report “makes a very strong case that severe violations of AAUP principles occurred at [Southern Maine] and [Southern Maine] administration has been very emphatic in saying that they do not believe AAUP principles apply to their institution.”

Lorrayne Carroll, associate professor of English at Southern Maine and president of the new AAUP advocacy chapter on campus, said the report -- while damning and an accurate reflection of what’s been happening on campus -- left the “door open” to possible remedies before AAUP initiates any censure vote procedures ahead of its annual conference next month.

“What this report sums up is what’s been going on for years leading up to what has become a real crisis here,” Carroll said. “But I think the most important point is that the university is a place when everyone collaborates… When people come into a position of leadership and just ignore or actually violate those process on which the entire edifice is built -- shared governance and faculty consultation -- then you wind up with not only a crisis but an institution that’s not able to carry out what the people of Maine want us to carry out.”

Felician College

AAUP’s other report out today documents alleged violations of academic freedom and abuses of the tenure system -- or the lack thereof -- at Felician College, a private Roman Catholic institution in New Jersey.

“In terminating the appointments of 16 full-time faculty members, 7 of whom sought the association’s assistance, the administration of [Felician] attributed its action simply to the ‘exigency of the college’s financial status,’” which didn’t exist, reads the AAUP report. “The only discernible reason for the administration’s terminating the appointments of approximately 15 percent of the faculty (and presumably assigning some of their courses to part-time faculty members) was its dubious desire to [increase] the ratio between full-time faculty and students enrolled.”

In so doing, the report continues, Felician shed more than a dozen faculty members who had served well over the seven-year period that AAUP says should afford even untenured faculty members the due process afforded to tenured peers. In making the terminations final and not subject to review, Felician “acted summarily and in virtually total disregard” of AAUP standards, which are widely followed by colleges and universities.

AAUP also alleges that Felician retaliated against one professor for speaking out against the cuts last year to Inside Higher Ed, denying him emeritus status despite many years of well-reviewed service. That and the overall climate at Felician greatly inhibited faculty members’ willingness to participate in AAUP’s investigation, the report says, asserting that academic freedom on campus "barely exists."

In January 2014, Felician sent an email to affected faculty members saying it was “facing the necessity to focus on its financial stability to ensure its future.” Due to declining enrollments, it could not maintain the number of faculty members “accrued” in the last several years, and, consequently, would not be renewing some contracts.

The college said it knew the professors would continue to serve their students “in a most professional way for the remainder of the semester.”

At the time, several high-performing, long-serving faculty members in interviews with Inside Higher Ed said they were blindsided by the cuts and never given a reason why. The university had previously undergone a “reprioritization process” to assess program viability, but the cuts were seemingly unconnected to that effort.

According to the AAUP report, one of those professors, Robert Ingoglia, was later retaliated against for his public remarks. Despite serving for 19 years -- 9 more than what was required for emeritus status -- Ingoglia was denied by the president the honorific that would have signaled to potential future employers that his dismissal was not performance related and would have allowed him continued access to the college library. Ingoglia -- who taught history and a host of other disciplines, and who directed the college’s computer labs -- was never given a reason for the denial but AAUP suggests it was his remarks to Inside Higher Ed. AAUP calls the move “astonishingly petty and punitive.”

AAUP also determined, through interviews and communications with various administrators, that the cuts had less to do with the reprioritization process than a desire to eliminate full-time faculty members to better compete financially with peer institutions. In an August letter to AAUP staff, Anne M. Prisco, Felician’s president, reportedly wrote that a study of 20 institutions revealed that the college had an unusually low student-to-full-time-faculty ratio. So with a temporary drop in enrollments, AAUP concluded, Felician was looking for an excuse to shed full-time faculty. According to one now-retired dean’s account, the faculty elimination process was completed without any faculty input, and with no clear set of criteria. (A senior administrator allegedly said at one faculty town hall meeting that those who had been pegged for termination were those who would “land on their feet.”) At no point was the college in dire financial straits due to lower enrollments, AAUP says.

No faculty members filed grievances with the college, a fact AAUP attributes to the finality with which the financial exigency excuse was presented, and a culture of fear -- in this case a fear of sudden termination (the faculty members were given five months’ warning). The report also alleges a long-term lack of shared governance at the college, in which faculty members were left “in the dark” about major institutional decisions.

The AAUP report alleges an unwillingness on the part of college to participate in the investigation, up to and including the “blacklisting” of all AAUP email addresses on the Felician server, beginning in December.

Felician released a statement Tuesday disputing AAUP’s take on its personnel actions, calling them “necessary.” The statement also notes that “AAUP has no formal affiliation with faculty on the Felician College campus and no jurisdiction for investigating our practices.”

It continues: “Our commitment to placing students first requires us to make prudent decisions regarding the allocation of their tuition dollars to ensure a quality educational experience. The procedures we used to reduce faculty positions were fair and undertaken thoughtfully with the faculty impacted by this reduction in force.”

Felician said it agreed to reinstate faculty members “as our fiscal situation improved,” and that five of seven faculty members offered back their positions returned.

Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance at AAUP, said the Felician investigation was notable for its “petty retribution” toward Ingoglia and the unprecedented blacklisting of AAUP email addresses “to prevent the AAUP from communicating with it and with members of the faculty.”

There’s also the contrast between the college’s stated Franciscan values and the way it allegedly treated faculty members, Scholtz said, and the continuing mystery surrounding the layoffs -- along with the remaining faculty members’ fear of participating in the investigation.

All that considered, Scholtz said -- barring any positive developments in the coming weeks -- “it is difficult for me to see a basis for [AAUP] not recommending censure.”

Diane Zannoni, the G. Fox and Company Professor of Economics at Trinity College in Connecticut, and chair of the AAUP committee investigating Felician, said she didn't know if the report would lead to a censure recommendation. But what the case clearly points out, she said, "is how quickly a faculty can be silenced where there is not tenure. How quickly an academic environment can change from one where there is an exchange of ideas to one of silence and fear when there is no due process."

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