A Failed Race Against the Clock

A professor loses her job at SUNY Buffalo, and her advocates say she was denied not only a fair shot at keeping her position, but the ability to stay on health insurance while facing a life-threatening illness.

November 22, 2017
SUNY Buffalo

When a vote to censure the dean of the School of Architecture and Planning failed to pass the Faculty Senate this month at the University at Buffalo, of the State University of New York system, it was only the latest development in a dispute that has been brewing for more than a year. And while the dean avoided censure, and his decision not to renew a professor’s contract -- which was the impetus for the dispute -- still stands, some faculty and union representatives say they’re just getting started in seeking more policy changes.

What was a simple nonrenewal of a contract in 2016 has turned into a winding dispute, leaving the professor in question with a life-threatening illness and now -- after failed back-channel negotiations between faculty members and administrators -- no health-insurance support from SUNY Buffalo. The consequences are likely to go beyond the professor, as well, as faculty and union leaders lead a charge to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

In 2014, a professor was offered a tenure-track position -- with a six-year probationary period and an opportunity for renewal at three years -- at SUNY Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. Since she was let go in August 2017, her name hasn’t been released by the university, which cited privacy policies regarding personnel. But when the faculty member accepted the position, her understanding was that faculty input would help decide whether her three-year contract for the first half of her pre-tenure-vote employment would be renewed.

While that might be the typical procedure for SUNY Buffalo faculty members, however, it’s not in their contract. In June 2016, the professor was told that after finishing her contract in August 2017, she would no longer be employed by the university. A reasoning has not been announced -- nor is a reason required by the faculty contract.

The decision was made June 15, 2016, and came from Robert Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, as well as the interim department chair, Despina Stratigakos, and the department chair, Omar Khan, who was on sabbatical at the time. It was signed off by Provost Charles Zukoski.

A report from the professor’s mentoring committee -- composed of her colleagues -- wouldn’t arrive until a week later.

When outlining the narrative, Philip Glick, chair of the Faculty Senate, expressed frustration with what he said was a lack of support for pretenure faculty members, whose dismissal could come without reason, and -- as this case showed -- without adequate faculty input.

“Her process was violated,” Glick said. “It was very clear from all the information that was presented to us … in the future we need some sort of independent ombudsman, where disputes between the administration and the faculty can be resolved.”

Paul Zarembka, grievance officer for SUNY Buffalo's union, the United University Professionals North Campus chapter, said the process under which the professor was dismissed wasn't in violation of union standards, but it exposed a bad policy.

"The report itself did not in any way suggest she be dismissed or anything like that," Zarembka said. "But whatever it was, it didn't even arrive to the dean's office until the next week."

In May 2016, Glick said, the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate formed an ad hoc grievance committee to look into the dismissal of the professor. They called her to testify, as well as Shibley, the chairs of the mentoring committee and the department, and the interim chairs of both the mentoring committee and the department.

The only one who showed up was the professor.

Speaking on behalf of Stratigakos and himself, Khan said via email that a draft of the mentoring report was used in "part of our deliberation" regarding the professor, and contested the characterization that any due process was breached. In a letter to the Faculty Senate ahead of the censure vote, he criticized the ad hoc grievance committee for making a decision without all the evidence, but at the same time admitted that he declined to testify to the committee, citing the privacy policy surrounding personnel matters.

Khan said it was not uncommon to use a draft of a report rather than the report itself if the report had been delayed. He did not answer a follow-up question as to whether or not this report was delayed.

SUNY Buffalo contends that the committee was out of line in investigating the dismissal, since the contract was never breached.

“Within this context, the dean of a school or college, the provost and the president have the clear authority to make these judgments,” that is, dismissing a professor, university spokesman John Della Contrada said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. “The Faculty Senate, as an inseparable and vital part of [SUNY Buffalo], has no role in individual faculty personnel actions.”

The Faculty Senate, Della Contrada said, had “no standing” in the matter, per the union contract. Others agreed, writing in support of Shibley when the Faculty Senate eventually moved to censure him for his role in the dismissal in November 2017.

“The nonrenewal was based upon the recommendation of the Department of Architecture and then of the school,” Shibley wrote in a letter to the Faculty Senate shortly before the vote to censure him. “This action by [Faculty Senate chair] Glick is an unprecedented intrusion into the ability of the department to chart its destiny and review its colleagues on term appointments with recommendations to the provost in accordance with [the union], Employee Relations and [SUNY] Board of Trustees policies and procedures.”

Since the university didn’t violate the professor’s contract, Zarembka, the union's grievance officer, told Inside Higher Ed the professor wasn’t able to file a complaint with the union. He lamented the circumstances under which she was dismissed, and that the dismissal was allowed to occur the way it did. That’s why the Faculty Senate stepped in, Glick said, to carry out its duty to look into grievances, although he had his detractors in the Executive Committee as well, especially after the membership of the Executive Committee changed in August.

“She had every right to come to the Faculty Senate,” Glick said.

Illness and Negotiations

During the time that the ad hoc grievance committee was investigating the professor’s dismissal, the professor developed a life-threatening illness, Glick said. And come Aug. 15, she would be removed from SUNY Buffalo’s health insurance.

Glick’s solution was to ask the provost to reappoint her temporarily and have faculty members donate their sick pay so she could continue to receive a paycheck and benefits for six months, with the thinking that she would then transition to state disability services.

The university, however, found that would constitute an illegal use of public funds. The union countered with a legal opinion that the arrangement could have been legal.

The back-and-forth, however, never amounted to any sort of agreement. The professor was let go in August as scheduled and lost her health insurance.

A Vote to Censure

With the ad hoc grievance committee’s efforts to challenge the nonrenewal unsuccessful, the Executive Committee moved to introduce a resolution that would censure Shibley. While the censure of Shibley would be approved as a matter of public record, there would be no actual consequences.

By then, however, the makeup of the Executive Committee had changed. Although the resolution was approved, so was another resolution, which, if passed by the full Senate, would have the original censure be rescinded if it were to pass.

In the two months before the vote, Glick said he continued to press Zukoski, the provost, to reinstate the professor who was let go, in order to get her benefits back. He pledged to try to lobby the Faculty Senate to vote against the censure of Shibley as part of his bargain, he said.

No deal was reached. And after more than an hour of debate, the motion to censure Shibley failed anyway, by close to a three-to-one margin.

“The dean is a wonderful man; he’s done great things for the community and the university. But he was the person responsible,” Glick said. “And he didn’t really care whether policies and procedures were followed.”

The provost applauded the vote.

“I am pleased that the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly to support the dean and to recognize the established governing policies and procedures of the university and the SUNY Board of Trustees,” he said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.

‘Just Getting Started’

Glick said he learned valuable lessons from his unsuccessful campaign, and, with his position on the SUNY-wide Faculty Senate, he hopes to implement changes to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.

Glick hopes to guarantee legal representation for faculty senates in the SUNY system, he said, so that when administrations get legal representation, the faculty is entitled to similar counsel. While the union was able to assist in this case, he said, that doesn’t mean they can always be there, especially at smaller institutions.

Another change he’s seeking has to do with the actual contract, and the ability of the university to dismiss professors without giving cause.

“It seems ludicrous to me that in a higher education environment, where we’re dealing with really smart people … that pretenure and nonpermanent faculty can be dismissed without any reason or cause,” he said. The changes he’s seeking, he said, wouldn’t undercut the university’s authority to dismiss those professors, but would at least give them notice for why that decision was made.

In pushing back on the motion to censure Shibley, the university took issue with how much attention was being paid to that part of the contract, which falls under Article 32.

“If the Senate leadership’s goal was to pursue the prospects of amending Article 32 and other proposals, it should have done so in a more transparent and straightforward manner rather than the ill-advised censure resolution,” Della Contrada said. “This would have been more consistent with the values of the university and its faculty, and far more thoughtful than the attempt to discredit colleagues by censuring them for their compliance with existing policies.”

Glick, however, “has no trouble going to bed at night,” and hopes that he can continue fighting for what he says is more justice and representation for nontenured and nonpermanent faculty.

“The access to legal representation is just getting started, the Article 32 adjustments are just getting started, helping pretenure faculty is just getting started,” he said.


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