Cuts Questioned at Notre Dame de Namur

Joining professors elsewhere, tenured Notre Dame de Namur faculty members protest cuts that followed academic program prioritization. But their new status as union members may complicate their situation.

August 26, 2016

Faculty members at yet another college are fighting what they say are unilateral, sweeping cuts to academic programs following a round of academic prioritization. The cuts announced at Notre Dame de Namur University in California also follow the institution’s unusual decision to recognize its tenured faculty union.

“The cuts that have been announced go well beyond the faculty recommendations” made during the recent prioritization process, or formal review of the educational and financial viability of academic programs, said Kim Tolley, a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur and chair of its Faculty Senate. “Faculty who teach on nine-month contracts just returned on Aug. 15 and were instructed to submit teach-out plans by Aug. 22. There are real questions here about the extent of these cuts and how they’ll impact students, along with the faculty.”

This spring, Notre Dame de Namur surprisingly agreed to allow its tenured faculty members to join an existing part-time faculty union affiliated with Service Employees International Union. Legal precedent holds that tenured faculty members at private institutions have managerial responsibilities and are therefore not entitled to collective bargaining. But Notre Dame de Namur said in a statement that its Board of Trustees made a "considered decision" to allow tenure-track and tenured faculty members to obtain “status as labor” if they so chose. And they did, 35 to 6.

Notre Dame de Namur’s statement about the decision made several references to the faculty members’ choice, in kind, to give up their status as managers in exchange for the recognition. “Going forward, internal university governance processes will be changed to adapt to their voting choice,” the university said.

But faculty members maintain that they didn’t understand those references, because they never agreed to give up any managerial rights in exchange for a union. They continued to celebrate the victory until July 29, when Judith Maxwell Greig, university president, sent a seemingly innocuous email entitled “Results of Spring Program Prioritization Process; Cost Reductions in Administration.” The body was blank, causing some faculty members to overlook it for days.

But the attached memo was significant. It said the board already had approved Greig’s recommendations to terminate bachelor’s degree programs in philosophy, theater arts and English, along with the French, dance and theater arts minors and several other concentrations.

Master’s degree programs in musical performance and systems management also were terminated, as was a certificate program in clinical gerontology.

The board also voted to terminate the women’s tennis programs but to add men’s and women’s track and field, and to sell or otherwise derive income from the theater building.

Greig said the university suffered last year from declining enrollment and lower than expected revenue from gifts, and has "substantive issues to resolve." Fixing that "requires sacrifice by all participants and clear alignment with our common objective of serving students with access to an excellent education," she wrote.

Professors knew some program changes were coming, as a faculty panel had been one of three on-campus groups to make suggestions during the formal academic prioritization process last year. Indeed, the faculty panel submitted a plan it estimated would cut academic program costs by 6-8 percent. That included terminating clinical gerontology, theater arts, musical performance and the master of science in systems management.

But as far as other programs, and especially those in the liberal arts, it suggested creating a new, multidisciplinary Department of Humanities and Culture and other tweaks -- not cutting philosophy or English outright. Moreover, Tolley said, Notre Dame de Namur’s polices and procedures dictate that curricular changes be vetted by a faculty body.

Specifically, the Governance Handbook says that the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee "is the chief body for implementing the undergraduate curricular goals of the university. The committee reviews any pending decisions that may impact the curriculum and/or educational aims of the university."

Yet Greig presented the changes as final. The course catalog already has been updated to the reflect them, Tolley said.

Asked if the changes could be related to the faculty’s new union status, Tolley reiterated that the faculty never signed away any managerial rights. “When [Greig] made that statement, no one really knew what she meant,” Tolley added, referring to the faculty's alleged exchange of rights. “We say that we’ve never been managers here but we do have shared governance -- we have a Faculty Senate and faculty committees that provide curricular decisions and so on. And shared governance is very important to us.”

Tolley noted that a recent report from WASC Senior College and University Commission, the college's accreditor, recommended more shared governance, not less. 

SEIU has filed an unfair labor practice claim on behalf of the faculty union, alleging that Notre Dame de Namur unilaterally changed faculty working conditions ahead of collective bargaining. It had explicitly asked the university not to make any changes to the curriculum before contract negotiations.

A spokesperson for Notre Dame de Namur referred questions to the office of the president. The office did not respond to specific questions but forwarded a recent statement to faculty and staff. It says, in part, that it is "absolutely essential to the survival of Notre Dame de Namur University and our Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur small private universities that serve the needs of so many modest-income families and ethnically underserved students that the university conserve its resources and limit its spending on courses and programs that are not expected to attract student enrollment."

William Herbert, executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said there was no reason, legal or otherwise, that being part of a union would preclude faculty members from being key players in curricular changes. In a higher education setting, he added, it's expected that faculty members guide that process.

Some faculty members suspect that Notre Dame de Namur pushed the curricular changes through ahead of collective bargaining. Herbert said it's common for questions about faculty curricular control to be discussed during collective bargaining and eventually written into union contracts.

It’s also possible that the outcomes of prioritization had nothing to do with the union, since a number of colleges and universities with profiles similar to Notre Dame de Namur’s have made major academic cuts following formal program reviews in recent years.

The College of Saint Rose’s process, in New York, resulted in the elimination or curtailing of American studies, art education, economics, geology, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, Spanish, and women’s and gender studies, as well as a number of graduate programs. Twenty-three tenure-line faculty members, about half of them tenured, received notices of termination.

And Felician College in New Jersey cut approximately 15 percent of its faculty some time after what the institution called a “reprioritization process.” St. Joseph’s University in New York also is in the midst of a prioritization process that has roiled faculty.

The American Association of University Professors has since 2013 censured Saint Rose and Felician, along with National Louis University and the University of Southern Maine, over alleged violations of tenure and academic freedom during academic prioritization. The association maintains that the curriculum is the primary domain of the faculty and that academic changes should result in the firing of tenured faculty members only in cases of true financial exigency, or for sound educational reasons backed by the faculty.

Academic prioritization, proposed in an influential book, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance, isn’t always so controversial. Author Robert Dickeson, president emeritus of the University of Northern Colorado, said earlier this month that some 300 institutions already have tried prioritization for reasons including balancing the budget, informing future budget decisions and improving overall efficiency and effectiveness.


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