Faculty members at the State College of Florida don’t have tenure, but many longtime professors were satisfied with the due process guarantees included in their rolling contracts. But that all changed this week when, seemingly out of the blue, the college’s Board of Trustees -- over opposition from faculty members and administrators alike -- voted to end the continuous contract system and initiate one-year contracts for all newly hired faculty members.
“The reaction has run the gamut -- though it’s been all negative -- from, ‘Let’s start a union,’ to ‘This is such a shame,’ to ‘Well, now the college is just going to be a training ground for people who are willing to come stay here a short time until they move on to a job that does offer a longer contract,’” said Robyn Bell, an instructor of music and president of the Faculty Senate. State College is one of numerous institutions in Florida that has transitioned from a community college to a four-year institution.
Bell added, “There’s also basic confusion about why this is even an issue with our board. Everybody works diligently at our [college], and the board couldn’t give us an answer.”
Several years ago, trustees initiated a conversation with college instructors and administrators about continuing contracts and how they affected faculty productivity. After hearing presentations about how these contracts merely ensured due process, not a “job for life,” as critics of tenure often say, the board dropped the matter.
But trustees raised the issue again in August, telling faculty members that they’d reconsider their stance on continuing contracts at their next meeting. And they made good on that promise earlier this week, voting 7 to 1 to end the contracts and, with them, guarantees of due process.
Faculty members hired after July 2016 will be affected by the changes; those hired previously will be grandfathered into continuing contracts under the existing system. Currently, full-time faculty members teaching continuously, with strong annual evaluations, for five years are offered continuous, one-year contracts after that time. The difference is that after a period of satisfactory service, faculty members can expect continuous employment, year after year. Any challenge to their continued employment would have to be articulated by the college, and the faculty member would have an opportunity to appeal.
Those who have been teaching for fewer than five years are rehired annually and don’t need to be given a reason if the college at any point decides not to rehire them. This approach will now apply to all instructors, regardless of how long they've been at the college.
Advocates of the current system say that continuous contracts aren’t a license for professors to stop performing, but rather an assurance that they’ll be given a reason and an opportunity to defend themselves should their continued employment be threatened. That’s vital to academic freedom and an important faculty recruitment and retention tool, advocates say -- especially since the board’s vote makes the three-campus college in the Bradenton-Sarasota area Florida’s only state college not to offer continuing contracts.
“This is going to be a recruitment problem,” said Gary Russell, vice president of academic affairs for the college, who strongly disagreed with the board’s proposal at the recent meeting. “Maybe if the other 27 state colleges were doing it [it wouldn’t be], but people will say, ‘Why am I coming here? It doesn’t make sense to me.’”
Like Bell, Russell also said he got no clear answers from the board about why the current system needed changing. One board member referred to a faculty member who was “ranting” in a class some time ago, but that faculty member was a part-time professor and not on a continuous contract, Russell said.
Russell also said he worried about the academic freedom implications of the decision. He said he imagined a scenario in which, for example, a faculty member was hired to teach world religions and devoted equal time to each of the world’s major belief systems. If for any reason a student found that offensive and filed a complaint, that’s exactly the kind of teaching decision that continuous contracts protect, he said.
Under his watch, even a faculty member with a one-year contract would be cleared of wrongdoing in such a case, Russell said. But without continuous contracts there’s no guarantee, should someone less dedicated to academic freedom be making that decision sometime in the future.
“I don’t mean to disparage the board or put them in a bad light,” Russell said. “But I do believe that our board under certain circumstances is more interested in fulfilling some external something than really taking care of this college.”
Members of the board did not immediately return a request for comment. But it appears fears about faculty productivity and professionalism influenced their decision.
Carlos Beruff, a longtime trustee and proponent of one-year contracts for all faculty, said at the meeting that “This country is based on the freedom of work,” and that the college could counter any hiring disadvantage by offering merit pay or bonuses to high-performing employees, according to the Bradenton Herald. Beruff also noted that other Florida colleges -- the for-profit Full Sail University and the private Ringling College of Art and Design -- operate without tenure systems.
Anita Levy, associate secretary for tenure, academic freedom and governance at the American Association of University Professors, said after learning of the vote Wednesday that academic freedom is “the first casualty of this move away from due process protections for long-serving faculty members, which is essentially what tenure means.”