The College of Saint Rose rendered tenure “virtually meaningless” in program cuts resulting in the termination of 23 tenure-line appointments, according to a new report from the American Association of University Professors. The report paves the way for the association to possibly vote to censure the college at AAUP’s annual meeting next month.
“Under the current administration and governing board, the faculty has repeatedly been left out of deliberations or had its reasoned objections ignored, creating conditions for shared academic governance that can only be described as deplorable,” reads the report. “The program eliminations and faculty layoffs were ultimately the result of a lack of responsible stewardship at the board and presidential levels,” leading to a recent faculty vote of no confidence in President Carolyn Stefanco.
The college, meanwhile, says the cuts were necessary to ensure Saint Rose’s future viability. In an April response to a preliminary version of the investigation, Stefanco told AAUP that this “was a critical time for the college as it faced financial challenges that needed to be addressed without delay. Your investigators -- and unfortunately a subset of our faculty -- seem to have little understanding of the perils that face the college as a tuition-dependent institution of higher education today.”
At issue are actions taken by the college last semester to close a reported $9 million budget deficit, including shuttering a number of units and eliminating faculty positions to funnel resources into other, more popular programs. The college called the process an “academic reprioritization.” But professors, in multiple protests and in the course of the AAUP investigation, said Saint Rose’s process lacked sufficient faculty input, and that the liberal arts in particular took the brunt of it.
Bridgett Williams-Searle, an associate professor of history and politics, for example, told the Albany Business Review in February that Stefanco's “disruptions promised to materially damage the curriculum and community at the College of Saint Rose.”
According to the AAUP report, the trouble began in 2014, several months after Stefanco become president. During a series of “finance convocations,” she informed faculty and staff members that the college was not on sound financial footing and blamed previous administrators for "improper" accounting. She said there was an $18 million structural deficit and longer-term debt of $56 million (with 70 percent of college property mortgaged) -- in addition to 9 percent and 27 percent declines in undergraduate and graduate enrollment, respectively, the report says.
Stefanco soon announced the elimination of some 40 staff positions, reductions to the college’s health care benefits and tuition remission and other changes. Then, last summer, the college’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously -- and, according to the report, without faculty input -- to raise the number of transfer credits accepted from students from outside four-year institutions from 62 to 90 -- ostensibly to put the college at a competitive advantage in terms of recruitment of transfer students. The Undergraduate Academic Committee soon voted to counter the move, establishing its own new ceiling of 70 credits. In response, the board reaffirmed its original vote.
In late August 2015, faculty members were informed that retrenchment would occur, in an attempt to close a now $9.3 million structural deficit caused in part by declining enrollment. Stefanco told faculty members the college sought to identify through academic reprioritization areas of high student demand (and meet that demand with investment in faculty and program quality), areas not currently in high demand but with future potential, and those areas not in demand with little near-term potential. She also stated via email that the college would follow its own policies and procedures, and invited the faculty to participate through the Representative Committee of the Faculty.
Yet the body did not meet until the end of September, leaving just about six weeks for it develop a prioritization plan. Stefanco allegedly said she was creating a separate plan, as a backup.
Over the next few weeks, AAUP says, Stefanco and the committee sparred about whether such a task could be accomplished in so short a period, and whether it was necessary to talk to deans and department chairs about potential cuts (the committee wanted to do so). Eventually the committee resolved not to participate in a “rushed and superficial” reprioritization, which put “the institution at risk of destabilization by sanctioning cuts without regard for accreditation standards, degree requirements or the mission of the college.”
The college in the interim announced that it was seeing near-record enrollment in its first-year class and had received $2 million in donations. Yet Stefanco wrote in an open letter that a $9 million deficit persisted. The root cause was “significant and sustained enrollment declines in certain programs, without concomitant change in the number of faculty,” necessitating a process for discontinuing programs and terminating appointments, she said. So the prioritization was to continue, with or without the faculty committee’s involvement.
Academic cuts and closures were announced in early December. They include eliminating or curtailing undergraduate degree and certificate programs in American studies, art education, economics, geology, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, Spanish, and women’s and gender studies. Graduate degree and advanced certificate programs in art education, communications, educational psychology, English, history/political science, music education and studio art also suffered.
Twenty-three tenure-line faculty members, about half of them tenured, received notices of termination, to take effect after one year.
AAUP reached out to Saint Rose on behalf of concerned faculty members. The college eventually declined to participate in the association’s investigation, saying it believed it was one-sided with an apparently predetermined outcome. Representatives of AAUP visited the campus in January 2016 and met with about 30 faculty members and a dozen students.
Investigators determined that Saint Rose violated widely followed AAUP standards regarding tenure, specifically that tenured appointments may only be eliminated in extraordinary cases involving bona fide financial exigency or discontinuance -- not just a reduction -- of a program or department based on educational reasons. Saint Rose’s repeated declarations of “serious fiscal challenges” due to lowered enrollment (which is now on the rise) simply don’t meet that standard, the report says. And nearly half of the terminated professors weren’t in discontinued departments.
Moreover, the report says, faculty members haven’t seen enrollment data that back college claims about why it cut the programs it did. Some faculty members interviewed by AAUP said that while their programs weren’t necessarily growing, they weren’t shrinking, either.
Saint Rose also violated AAUP and its own standards for shared governance and academic due process, according to the report. Faculty members serving on additional shared governance committees said they were not consulted on the college’s program cut plans.
“We did no deliberating whatsoever,” one faculty representative said.
AAUP says it considered whether the original representative faculty committee was right to withdraw from the prioritization process, after an overall faculty vote in favor of the move. It decided it was.
“Ultimately, the faculty asserted that it had no choice given the constraints -- of time, information, authority and purview -- under which the administration was requiring [the faculty committee] to operate,” the report says. “The evidence compels the investigating committee to reach the same conclusion.”
In her response to AAUP’s draft report, Stefanco alleged numerous inaccuracies and “misrepresentations” of the situation. For example, she wrote, the report implies that the college put off meeting with the faculty representative committee between late August of last year, when it announced the prioritization process, and late September. In fact, Stefanco wrote, the body was not available to meet until that time due to leadership changes. (The deadline for a plan for cuts was Nov. 2, 2015, regardless.)
“As was true at the college this fall, sometimes action is required on a shorter timeline than we all would like,” Stefanco wrote. “We are saddened by each and every faculty member who received a layoff notice. The college has already reinstated five faculty without an adverse budget impact.” Stefanco also noted that any claims about an unfair faculty appeals process is premature.
Saint Rose in a statement on Tuesday that echoed Stefanco's earlier sentiments, saying, in part, that the college "is making necessary, though difficult, changes to reduce a $9 million deficit, increase enrollment, keep tuition sensible and better serve the changing needs of our students. The reality at Saint Rose is that 75 percent of our students are enrolled in 25 percent of our academic programs. We have an obligation to enable our students to pursue the degrees they want. To do so, the college will shift resources from low-enrollment academic programs to high-enrollment programs. The programs to be reduced or eliminated affect 4 percent of our students. They entail the elimination of faculty positions with 12 months’ notice and other assistance -- a regrettable but unavoidable step.”
Greg Scholtz, director of tenure, academic freedom and governance for AAUP, said academic prioritization without financial exigency seems to be happening at a number of institutions, including National Louis University, the University of Southern Maine and Felician College. Maintaining the highest standard for getting rid of tenured faculty positions also has been central to the ongoing debate over changes to faculty layoff policies in the University of Wisconsin System. Faculty members at smaller, tuition-dependent institutions seem to be particularly at risk, he said, though he noted a number of such colleges in recent years have avoided their own "bloodbaths" by eliminating faculty positions through early retirement or other alternatives to termination.
“Small underendowed private colleges are an increasingly endangered species,” he added. “I hope we don’t see more and more Saint Roses in the years to come.”