Losing Tenure Bids to a Budget

Stony Brook professors worry their budget is being balanced on the backs of junior faculty colleagues and programs in the humanities, risking curricular breadth and institutional integrity.

September 21, 2017
 
Stony Brook

Faculty anger is growing at the University of Stony Brook, where cuts designed to reduce a budget deficit are concentrated in the humanities.

In addition to planned reductions in non-tenure-track faculty lines, three assistant professors of cultural studies in good standing within their department have been told their contracts will not be renewed past 2018. Two additional faculty members in theater have received similar notices of nonrenewal.

That’s on top of previously announced plans to cut humanities programs within the College of Arts and Sciences. Specifically, the departments of European languages, literatures and cultures; Hispanic languages and literature; and cultural studies and comparative literature will be combined into a single department of comparative world literature. The move involves suspending a number of undergraduate majors and graduate degree programs within those departments. The undergraduate major in theater arts also is suspended.

Meanwhile, Stony Brook is adding 13 other tenure-track faculty lines, mostly in the natural sciences.

Thousands of people, including many professors, signed a student-led petition against the cuts earlier this year. Some faculty members lashed out at President Samuel L. Stanley at a University Senate meeting Monday.

One of the most vocal professors at the meeting, according to faculty accounts, was Mireille Rebeiz, an assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature since 2014. She declined an interview request but confirmed that she was one of the nonrenewed tenure-track professors.

At the meeting, Stanley also announced that balancing the budget will entail a 3 percent decrease in academic personnel, a 6 percent decrease in administrators and a 10 percent spending cut across other areas.

Edward Feldman, a clinical associate professor of behavioral medicine and chair of the University Senate, said of the mood on campus, “The faculty are upset, and I understand why they’re upset.” At the meeting, he said, “several faculty made the point that we’re not a technical school -- we are a major university and we have an obligation to provide a high level of education across the board.”

Of course, he said, “What that looks like to different people is a different story.”

Stony Brook blames its nearly $35 million budget deficit, in part, on the SUNY 2020 Grant Challenge. Passed in 2011 by the New York Legislature, the $140 million initiative enabled Stony Brook and other campuses to hire faculty members and make additional investments. Revenue has since declined, however, creating a shortfall.

Some faculty members say they wonder how Stony Brook finds itself in a bind that other grantee SUNY campuses don’t. They question, for example, the university’s commitment to football and a major recent branding campaign called “Far Beyond.”

Peter Manning, a professor of English who has been at Stony Brook since 2000 and in academe for decades longer, said he’s “not seen morale on a campus as low as it now is here -- not even when we were being teargassed by [then California Governor Ronald] Reagan at Berkeley.”

The current administrative mantra, he said, “is that ‘No institution can do everything well, and we have to concentrate on areas in which we can excel.’” But if the natural sciences, technology, math and engineering are the campus’s traditional strengths, and if overinvesting in them via pricey start-up packages for their labs has contributed to the “crisis,” he said, then the university is “doubling down on a losing strategy.”

The “ground failure is a failure of imagination,” Manning said, in that “the administration cannot see that what they view as building on strength produces weakness when the vitality of campus intellectual life is diminished.”

The student petition says that comparative literature Ph.D. program has a high placement rate, that Hispanic languages and literatures has a strong track record of academic and community achievement, and that the theater department is a pillar of the campus culture. It also says that in suspending and eliminating programs and departments "with the most international scholars and students and who, thus, tangibly support diversity and global initiatives, the Stony Brook administration is endorsing a divisive brand of American exceptionalism that is championed by the current White House officials. This proposal goes against every principle contained in the university’s diversity plan."

In July, chairs of the departments within the College of Arts and Sciences sent a letter to their dean, Sacha Kopp, expressing their “categorical opposition to any plan that would deny renewal or promotion to tenure to faculty on programmatic reasons.” In other words, they said, citing legal and ethic concerns, the budget shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of faculty members in good standing who came to Stony Brook not as visiting assistant professors but as assistant professors working toward tenure.

Some on campus have been in touch with the American Association of University Professors over the issue. Anita Levy, a senior program officer at the association, said Wednesday that nonrenewals for budgetary reasons outside of financial exigency are rare. In such cases, she said, widely followed AAUP standards indicate that faculty members should take the lead on reappointments and non-reappointments. The association would call for additional due process protections if these faculty members were terminated midcontract, she added.

Robert Harvey, chair of comparative literature and cultural studies, said he approved all three affected assistant professors in his department for renewal and that he’s never seen such recommendations overturned. He called departments like his -- those with relatively low numbers of majors but an outsize cultural impact -- “soft targets” for metrics-based programs assessments.

“For some obvious reasons, we’re the weakest and poorest part of the university,” Harvey said, “but by tradition or conviction, [institutions generally] decide to support the humanities and the arts."

While a number of critics of the administrative plan for the humanities have expressed concerns about shared governance, Feldman said that the plan to collapse the language and literature departments did undergo faculty review through several University Senate committees. The senate is merely advisory, though, he said. And while Feldman said he did not think that the cuts were meant to target the humanities, he spoke to his dean about how the appearance of such targeting could affect the institution's reputation down the line.

Lauren Sheprow, a university spokeswoman, said via email that like many research universities across the U.S., Stony Brook is “faced with some new and unanticipated budget constraints. We are working to minimize the impact on our core mission of teaching and research, continuing to strive for the excellence and quality for which Stony Brook is known.”

All academic and administrative areas across the university have been asked to review their programs and budgets, Sheprow said. She noted that new fall 2017 enrollments in the reduced academic programs were low and that all current students will be able to finish their studies.

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