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Four of the 20-some professors Canisius College recently laid off are suing the institution for violations of contract. In so doing, they’re pushing back on the pandemic-era trend of colleges and universities shedding faculty members due to COVID-19 without formally invoking financial exigency.

Maria Fernanda Astiz, Steven Maddox, Matthew Mitchell and Kathryn F. Williams, all tenured professors, were told in July that this academic year would be their last at Canisius, a small Jesuit college in Buffalo, N.Y. Canisius blamed expected budget deficits due to COVID-19.

The four professors allege that this violated the terms of their employment, as defined by the faculty handbook, called Norms of Faculty Status and Welfare. The document says that tenure, once granted, should be “terminated only for adequate cause, except in the case of retirement for age, or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies.” Elsewhere, the handbook says that compelling budgetary reasons for layoffs shall be documented by the College Budget Committee and reviewed by the Faculty Senate. The Faculty Status Committee will review the particular faculty members selected for release to determine if they’ve been chosen capriciously, the handbook stipulates. Affected professors also have the right to appeal the decision.

Yet according to the professors’ complaint, Canisius carried out their layoffs -- and others -- without declaring exigency and without input from the college’s Academic Program Board, the Faculty Status Committee or the full Faculty Senate. The college did not afford the professors any right to appeal, either, the complaint says.

Whether faculty handbooks actually constitute a binding contract is something of a legal gray area, and the shades vary by state. But the lawsuit says that by Canisius's own “express terms, the handbook constitutes a valid and binding contract between faculty members, such as plaintiffs here, and the college.”

Putting Up a Fight

The four professors, who stand to be out of work at the end of the semester, are seeking unspecified compensatory and economic damages, including lost wages, back pay, bonuses and benefits.

Jason H. Ehrenberg, the professors’ lawyer, said Canisius previously attempted to settle with his clients. Without specifying what Canisius offered, Ehrenberg said the deal was nowhere close to what the professors, who are in their early 40s, 50s and 60s, stand to lose in lost income in the years to come.

“They all wanted to stay and work at Canisius till their retirement,” Ehrenberg said of his clients, who referred questions to him. “These are four people who decided they wanted to stand up and fight for their rights and for their colleagues and future tenured faculty.”

Ehrenberg underscored that the handbook allows for the termination of tenured professors in some instances, including financial exigency. Yet Canisius followed none of those processes in this case, he said.

Canisius’s president, John J. Hurley, declined comment on the lawsuit. In September, Hurley told Inside Higher Ed that Canisius had cut 22 professors but had already reached severance agreements with most of them. That same month, Canisius announced the appointment of four new assistant professors and a dean.

Astiz, who has been with Canisius since 2002, is a professor of teacher education. Maddox, at Canisius since 2009, is an associate professor of history. Mitchell, a professor of theology, came to campus in 2008. Williams, chair of classics, started in 2006.

Ehrenberg said Williams, Canisius's last classicist, is now being asked to carry out the grim work of planning for current classics students who will still be at Canisius when she is gone. The college plans to discontinue majors in classics, creative and performing arts, human services, physics, religious studies, and other fields as part of a $2.5 million cut to academic programs and personnel. Canisius’s Board of Trustees in June directed the college to adjust its budget by $12.3 million to address an expected $20 million deficit.

"For Canisius, COVID-19 has exacerbated the college’s financial situation that has been stressed by major population declines and demographic shifts that have adversely impacted enrollment," Hurley said at the time.

Other institutions, including Ithaca College, have attributed faculty cuts to similar forces. They've also faced serious criticism -- especially from alumni -- for doing so.

The American Association of University Professors, which early on in the pandemic warned institutions not to use the emergency to skirt shared governance policies, is currently investigating Canisius and a group of other colleges and universities accused of academic governance missteps in 2020.

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