‘Shooting Yourself in the Foot’

Citing budget issues, John Carroll University fundamentally alters tenure -- to the point that professors say it and academic freedom no longer exist.

March 5, 2021
 
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Numerous institutions have laid off tenured faculty members for budgetary reasons in the last year without declaring financial exigency, as their internal policies would typically require. The temporary workaround is COVID-19 and the financial precarity it presents.

John Carroll University, a small Jesuit institution in Ohio, already delivered terminal contracts to two tenured professors of art history and eliminated the department without declaring financial exigency. Now it’s going further, permanently lowering the bar for what constitutes the kind of budget problems that allow for tenured faculty layoffs.

‘Budgetary Hardship’

Whereas financial exigency means a budget crisis that threatens an institution’s survival, John Carroll now says it can fire individual tenured faculty members without cause in cases of “budgetary hardship.” This is defined as a projected -- not final -- annual budget deficit of 6 percent, plus two more years of foreseen challenges.

At the same time, John Carroll is denying faculty members the right to appeal these terminations. Faculty members still have certain protections under the more dire concept of financial exigency.

Even more ironically, at least to faculty members, is that John Carroll’s Board of Directors says it’s taking these steps to protect and strengthen tenure. It’s said so in numerous campus communications and in a public statement about the recent changes, which are now codified in the Faculty Handbook.

The longstanding handbook is “outdated, fails to promote fairness and equity, and is not consistent with best practices in higher education,” the board said. “Modeled after similar practices and language found at other universities, including a number of successful Jesuit institutions, the amendments prioritize the retention of tenured positions and the preservation of academic freedom, to which the board is fully committed.”

The board also has described budgetary hardship as a “scalpel”-like tool for dealing with personnel cuts, instead of the more blunt instrument that is financial exigency.

Brent Brossmann, professor of communication and Faculty Council president, called the board’s explanation “mind-boggling.”

Trying to Save Tenure

Whatever John Carroll says, tenure is effectively done there, he continued. “We’re at our wit’s end and we’re looking for ways to save it.”

John Carroll’s board approved the changes Monday. But the faculty has one last hope: that the board will vote on a set of alternative cost-cutting proposals from professors next week. Those include making it easier to temporarily lower faculty salaries -- even though the university already cut faculty salaries by 5 to 10 percent without professors’ approval in July. The faculty endorsed this suite of tenure-preserving proposals, 97 to 5, in October, and again last month, 122 to 11.

Also last month, according to faculty accounts, the university projected it would end this year in the black, with a $100,000 surplus, albeit after tapping its more than $220 million endowment for $2.3 million. Even with a surplus, this year’s budget would trigger the new budgetary hardship measure. It would not qualify as financial exigency.

Mike Scanlan, a spokesperson for John Carroll, said that the actions the university took this year to balance its budget are not sustainable. 

"As with other universities, John Carroll’s challenges in this environment require that we fundamentally address our cost structure," Scanlan said via email. "We are aware of about 12 universities that have a definition of financial exigency or some other term that is less strenuous than JCU’s, as well as a provision that allows the elimination of tenured faculty positions without eliminating entire programs/departments."

The changes aren’t just alarming to faculty members at John Carroll, however. The national office of the American Association of University Professors said in a letter to John Carroll’s AAUP advocacy chapter that “Our most serious concerns about the proposed amendments relate to their introduction of a second category of financial distress: ‘budgetary hardship.’ In our analysis of hundreds of faculty handbooks, this is the first time we have encountered this category.”

A declaration of budgetary hardship would “confer upon JCU’s board and administration sweeping unilateral powers to close academic programs and/or to terminate tenured faculty appointments within those programs,” the national AAUP said. “Under AAUP-supported standards and widely recognized academic norms, these are powers that may be exercised on financial grounds only through joint action with the faculty under conditions of bona fide financial exigency.”

Brossmann isn’t the typical faculty activist. Historically, he’s been more of a university cheerleader: he’s taught at John Carroll for 28 years, sent all four of his own children there and volunteers for, in his words, “this, that and the other.”

What Will Be Lost

But what the board wants threatens to change John Carroll forever, and not for the better, Brossmann said. That’s because the constant threat of budgetary hardship and faculty terminations means the end of the academic freedom that tenure protects.

“What we’re trying to explain is that nobody would want to stay here if they had other options,” he said. “Younger faculty will try to move elsewhere and older faculty may resign. How in the world are we going to recruit faculty? Because, ethically, you have to tell them, ‘By the way, you don’t really have tenure protections.’”

All who stay at John Carroll will have to limit the way they teach and do research to avoid putting targets on their backs, Brossmann continued. Even if John Carroll isn’t in budgetary hardship one year, he said, it could easily be so the next, opening up the door to politically motivated faculty terminations disguised as budget cuts.

Dianna Taylor, professor of philosophy and vice president of the campus AAUP chapter, said, “One of the most objectionable things about this is that violates a lot of the principles of Catholic pedagogy around issues of social justice and academic freedom and our ability to teach students as whole persons, as we are supposed to do.”

John Carroll’s holistic approach to education is why so many professors wanted to teach there in the first place, she said, as it means appealing to students beyond their intellect and sense of reason. It means asking them to think about their role in the world and “interrogate” -- not necessarily change -- long-held beliefs and values.

Taylor, for instance, teaches courses that involve discussions of love, sex and gender. Students are generally receptive; sometimes former students contact her years later to say that the ideas she’d presented finally make sense.

But it will be impossible to teach this way moving forward, she said, absent academic freedom.

“This is horrible for the faculty and it’s horrible for the students,” Taylor said. “It’s not fair to them. This flies in the face of the values this institution says it holds.”

The board said in its statement that six months ago, it proposed three amendments to the university’s Faculty Handbook “as one of several strategies aimed at helping JCU operate and compete more effectively in the fast changing and increasingly competitive world of higher education.”

‘Destroying the Brand of the Institution’

The faculty “rejected all three amendments,” the board said, including one providing a “process for academic savings when necessary during times of budgetary hardship.” This new budgetary hardship policy “will help to address structural cost issues in a less severe way than eliminating entire programs or departments, a harsher provision found in the current Faculty Handbook.”

The board said it incorporated “many faculty suggestions in revising the amendments over multiple meetings” and that it will “continue to comply with the provisions for amending the handbook and will continue to communicate with faculty going forward.”

The faculty is generally united in its disagreement with that account, however, and published a detailed timeline of what happened when. Brossmann, for instance, said that “since the summer we’ve tried very hard to negotiate something else in good faith, and we’ve been told that the board is willing to talk but not willing to negotiate.”

Simon Fitzpatrick, professor of philosophy and president of the campus AAUP chapter, said no one disagrees that John Carroll has long-term structural issues that need to be addressed. This is not the first time that the university had dipped into its endowment, for instance. But compromising on what John Carroll arguably does best -- teach -- is not the answer, he said.

“You don’t solve those problems by shooting yourself in the foot, by destroying the brand of the institution,” Fitzpatrick said. “We depend on our reputation for academic quality. That is John Carroll’s selling point. We offer a great education to our students.”

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