Contracts Withheld

St. Thomas in Houston has held back reappointment notices for philosophy professors -- even those with tenure -- amid debates over budget and the curriculum.

May 22, 2017
 
University of St. Thomas, Houston
Robert Ivany

Many Roman Catholic colleges are rooted in the liberal arts, but the University of St. Thomas in Houston has a particularly hefty core curriculum: students must take three courses each in English, theology and philosophy before graduating, among other requirements.

So it’s puzzling to many on campus that reappointment notifications to tenured faculty members in philosophy may be sent up to month late this year, as the administration reviews department offerings in looking for ways to close a campus budget deficit.

St. Thomas says that faculty members this year, at least, are safe, and that all current philosophy faculty members will receive at least one-year assignments by June 12; typically contracts are sent by May 15. But some professors say it all feels like a ruse to put off bad news until after commencement and the setting in of summer quiet.

“I'm starting my 40th year as full time teacher-scholar in higher education,” said John Hittinger, chair of philosophy at St. Thomas, and “never had my tenure [or] faculty status been treated with such contempt.”

Calling the one-year contract promise “empty,” Hittinger continued, “If June 12, then why not now? We are due not just one-year contracts but with the tenure clause, and with the conditions for course load and salary amount. We don’t know what the contracts will look like until they are in our hands. This is why the May 15 date is sacrosanct. We have been set aside, as if the president were culling the herd.”

Robert Ivany, St. Thomas’s president, waved a red flag earlier this month when he sent an email to faculty members in philosophy and English saying their contracts had been delayed because the departments were "under review for potential reorganization and/or program elimination.”

Ivany offered little explanation, other than “I hope you will understand that certain financial circumstances require the university to carefully review certain programs and departments before making contract renewal decisions.”

The email, predictably, triggered panic that some philosophy and English jobs -- or even the departments -- could be eliminated immediately. So Ivany sent another, campuswide, email, saying the university “understands that the educational needs of students and society change,” and that “St. Thomas, as many other universities, has responded to students’ increasing interest in professional and pre-professional programs."

Meeting “evolving educational needs may require reorganization and mergers of academic departments,” Ivany continued, but “the university has not indicated nor does it intend to eliminate core academic disciplines, such as English or philosophy. Discussions among academic deans, the administration, board members, faculty and staff are ongoing.”

Faculty members in English have since received their contracts -- after some agreed to phased retirements. But philosophy professors continue to wait and worry.

Ivany reiterated in an interview that no tenured faculty members will be laid off this year, and everyone will receive a one-year contract by mid-June. He also said there’s no way the university would eliminate English or philosophy, two of its major service departments. Yet St. Thomas is reviewing programs within these departments -- such as degree offerings, he said. The Board of Directors could eliminate jobs at some future date, pending the outcome of the review.

Widely followed policies recommended by the American Association of University Professors say that tenured faculty positions may only be eliminated in times of true financial exigency or for sound educational reasons backed by faculty members. St. Thomas policy defines tenure as protection from being eliminated without cause. It says a tenure contract is “for one academic year and gives the faculty member the contractual right to be re-employed for succeeding academic years until he/she resigns, retires, is terminated for cause or the Board of Directors terminates a program.”

Neither AAUP condition for the elimination of tenured positions applies here, but Ivany said student demands are changing and the university must respond.

“We’ve had to hire faculty in the sciences, math, nursing and education because we have enormous student demand in these areas and others, and there isn’t as much student demand in the other liberal arts,” he said, explaining part of what’s caused a projected $4 million deficit for the coming fiscal year. The university has in the past covered deficits with reserve funds but won’t keeping doing so, Ivany said, as it’s increasing financial aid to a student body that needs it. Some 40 percent of incoming freshmen are Pell Grant recipients, he added.

Asked if it was prudent to consider shearing foundations of the core curriculum, Ivany said the college’s liberal arts mission remains strong -- as does its commitment to English and philosophy, in particular, as departments. But even packed lower-level courses can’t justify low enrollments in upper-level classes for lack of majors, he said.

Asked if the university’s review will consider more than just numbers of majors, Ivany said yes. Service hours, for example, are important.

But Hittinger, in philosophy, asked what kind of meaningful review can be undertaken within weeks, at the end of the year, and without the participation of faculty members. Even by university guidelines, he said, such reviews are supposed to take a year and include professors. He said he doubted whether reviews were under way at all, and guessed that withholding contracts was a way to intimidate the department into various budget concessions. Philosophy, in particular, makes a juicy target, he said, since it -- unlike most other departments -- has graduate programs, including the university's only Ph.D program. That means there are enough faculty members to teach entry-level courses, and they aren't just given by adjuncts at lower pay.

Hittinger also suggested that administrators -- not just students -- were leaning toward pre-professional offerings. Costly new STEM facilities have been built, and it appears the humanities are being asked to pay for them, he said.

Faculty members in philosophy and English have started a fund-raising campaign to defray the costs of pursuing a possible legal case against the university. “Help to protect 17 faculty,” reads their GoFundMe page, “who have been illegally denied a contract for the fall -- they need to fund a legal defense to go up against the goliath of the institutional resources of St. Thomas.” (Again, English professors have already received one-year contracts, after negotiations with the administration that involved some phased retirement agreements).

If the case goes forward, little love will be lost between professors and Ivany; faculty members voted no confidence in him last year, citing his alleged lack of transparency over university finances. They’ve also clashed with him over the search for his successor after he steps down this summer after more than decade, leading Ivany to threaten in a letter to a faculty committee that further commentary on the process could result in revocation of tenure.

"This is just without precedent," said Mary Catherine Sommers, a member of the budget committee who has taught philosophy at the university since 1987, told the Houston Chronicle.

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