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County College of Morris Faculty Association members attend a meeting.

Photo via James Capozzi

Just days after the County College of Morris fired six tenure-track faculty members, the New Jersey community college's faculty union voted no confidence in the institution's president. The Faculty Association also filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission.

 The union representing department heads, the Association of Academic Chairs and Assistant Chairs, also voted no confidence in the president, Anthony Iacono.

The fired faculty members described getting calls around 3 p.m. on April 16 from administrators who, the faculty members said, read from scripts written by the college’s legal counsel. The dismissed professors were told the decision was not due to financial considerations and was based on declining enrollment, which the college expects to continue next year. The administrators said the college needed to reconfigure its ratio of tenured to nontenured faculty as a result of that trend. The decisions were confirmed at a Board of Trustees meeting April 20.

The college's fall 2020 enrollment did drop more than 10 percent, to 6,697 students from 7,488 in fall 2019, a decrease consistent with the national average for community colleges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Enrollment at County College has fallen more than 16 percent since fall 2015, when 8,026 students were enrolled.

The affected faculty members aren't buying the explanation that enrollment drops drove their dismissals. The professors all have one thing in common -- they were actively involved in the Faculty Association and several of them believe they were targeted because of their union activism. The faculty union represents 155 full-time faculty members, tenured and untenured, and includes all but a handful of professors. All six of the professors, plus one more who was notified of his termination in December, were union members; one was president and two were committee chairs. The union has seven leadership positions in total.

The terminated professors are being represented in their complaint with the state Employee Relations Commission by a lawyer appointed by the New Jersey Education Association, an umbrella organization for public education unions in the state.

James Capozzi, the union president and an assistant professor of English, said there was no other justification for the "rash of nonrenewals" of the teaching contracts of the affected faculty members.

“The college insists there is no financial exigency -- and it’s also not for performance reasons, because every one of them were high performing and received excellent evaluations,” he said of himself and his colleagues.

“What we want to do is to bring the administration back to the table to reconsider what they’ve done, enter into discussions with the association and reinstate these faculty -- all of them, ideally,” Capozzi said. “We’ve pressed the administration for any form of justification or documentation as to why they had to make this decision, as they insist they had to.”

A spokeswoman for the college rejected the accusation that the college was attempting to gut the union's leadership.

“We unequivocally deny the baseless allegations that are being made,” Kathleen Brunet, the college’s director of marketing and public relations, said in a written statement. “We have consistently complied with all our obligations under the collective negotiations agreement with the union and New Jersey law. The union has made an information request and the college is preparing a response.”

She did not make a college administrator available for an interview.

Capozzi is sympathetic to how hard the pandemic hit community college enrollment nationwide, but he and his colleagues see it as a flimsy cover for the terminations.

Anastasia Kilhaney, an assistant professor of biology and chemistry, said she has no doubt the college's administrators are trying to bust up the union. She said both the chair of her department and the dean of the School of Health Professions and Natural Sciences recommended her for reappointment. She noted that more junior members of her department, who are also untenured, were not let go. She also has never taught less than an 18-credit course load.

Kilhaney wonders if a personnel incident last year played a role in her dismissal. She asked a union representative to accompany her to a meeting with her department chairperson and dean last year when the chairperson raised concerns about her number of absences. Kilhaney has multiple sclerosis and said the absences were health related. She said the fact that those fired included someone who asked the union to help with an accessibility issue, as well as three union officers -- all with otherwise positive evaluations -- is proof the union is being targeted.

“I’m very concerned with where the administration is taking the college,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a direction that’s in the best interest of our students, and that’s always my main focus.”

Robb Lauzon, chair of the union’s communication committee, pointed out that the County College of Morris received $12.7 million in COVID-19 relief stimulus funding, money that could be spent on retaining him and the other faculty.

The enrollment rationale feels offensive to him, especially after supporting students through the pandemic and pushing through the crisis himself.

“Excuse my colorful language, but it feels like bullshit, I’m sorry,” said Lauzon, an assistant professor of communication. “Because I worked my ass off during the pandemic from sunup until midnight every night, Monday through Friday, trying to carve out weekends to spend with my little daughter. I feel like devoting all of this time to this and then being told at the very end of putting in all of this effort that they’re going to fire me … It doesn’t feel good. It’s depressed me.”

He worries about his job prospects. He stayed up until midnight reading through job boards after he was fired. With few openings available this late in the academic job cycle, he’s now also considering applying for nonacademic jobs.

Geoff Peck, an assistant professor of English and chair of the union’s grievance committee, wants to stay at County College of Morris, but he thinks the legal proceedings could realistically take a couple years. In the meantime, he needs a job.

He said the termination especially stings because he just developed a model English composition course that the college will continue benefiting from after he leaves.

“This suggests a very dark direction that our college is going if they’re going to gladly accept and profit off of my leadership, my ideas, my hard work, and in the same breath, tell me, the human being, I’m no longer needed at the college,” he said.

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