It just got easier to lay off full-time faculty members in Washington State, thanks to a declaration  of financial emergency last month by the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. But some faculty leaders say the board’s move is more about a power grab than saving money.
Either way, faculty members are worried about the possibility of layoffs. And some observers say other cash-strapped states could try similar maneuvers.
A Washington law enacted in 1981 enables the board to declare a financial emergency if the state’s contribution to the two-year system is reduced compared to the previous budget. (Washington operates on a biennial budget cycle.) The declaration allows districts that oversee Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges to empower the campuses to dismiss tenure-track faculty members more quickly and easily -- essentially the same way the colleges can currently lay off adjuncts. Tenured instructors make up about half of the system’s faculty members, teaching roughly 55 percent of credit hours.
“These are extraordinarily challenging times, requiring us to make many difficult decisions, including this one,” said Sharon Fairchild, the board’s chair, in a written statement.
This isn’t the first time the board has dropped the fiscal emergency bomb; it did so in the previous budget cycle. The system’s faculty unions contested that move, too, arguing that layoffs were unnecessary and not likely to occur.
“The faculty just fought this tooth and nail the first time,” said Sandra Schroeder, president of the Washington State chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “We told them that nobody needed it.”
Only one college laid off full-time faculty members after that ruling. Schroeder said colleges don’t need the flexibility this time around, either, and that the board has used the financial emergency declaration as a weapon in ongoing faculty contract negotiations. “It destabilizes the bargaining table,” she said.
However, she said the possibility of layoffs is more real now, and that the threat does not appear to be empty. There is a growing disconnect between faculty members and the board, Schroeder said; she called them “two groups of people talking completely different languages.”
Charlie Earl, the board’s executive director, said presidents of the 34 institutions had strongly recommended that the board declare a financial emergency.
“The presidents don’t know for certain how they’re going to meet these reductions,” Earl said. “They’re really out of options.”
One thing the faculty unions and board agree on is that the system’s budget situation is dire. Two-year colleges have absorbed a cut of $165 million since 2009, a 22-percent reduction in state funding. And the future looks bleak.
The board first discussed the financial emergency ruling  in June, but tabled it to see where the budget crisis might head. The news wasn’t good. Earl said they received word of another 10 percent cut in August, and that a reduction of as much as 29 percent is looming as the possible result of a legislative session next month.
Other states have sought to eliminate tenure at community colleges. Virginia’s two-year system did away with it in 1971. More recently, Kentucky struck down tenure  for new faculty hires in 2009, drawing a rebuke  from the American Association of University Professors. Florida’s Legislature has considered similar legislation, but that effort appeared to die  in April.
Steve Prescott is a law instructor at Wake Technical Community College, in North Carolina, and a vice president of the North Carolina Community College Faculty Association. He says layoffs of tenured faculty at community colleges have been rare in the past. But that may change.
“The action in the State of Washington is more likely to prove to be a harbinger of things to come than an outlier,” Prescott said in a written statement. “Given the huge budgetary deficits being experienced by approximately three-fourths of the states, I would not be surprised to see similar actions implemented, or at least considered.”
(North Carolina probably won’t be one of those states, as it lacks a tenure system for professors at community colleges.)
Washington’s two-year board has no intention of ending tenure, Earl said. Furthermore, he said the board empathizes with faculty member’s frustration over relatively low pay and increased workloads. But if the budget mess requires layoffs in the near future, speed can make them less painful.
“The faster they can move, the less severe you have to cut,” he said.
Under the new rules, layoffs can be achieved through a leaner, less complicated process. For example, Lyle Quasim, president of Bates Community College, said any faculty appeals could be heard by a judge at one time, in a group, as opposed to individual appeals by each instructor.
Bates was the system’s only institution to lay off full-time faculty members in the wake of the last financial emergency declaration, dismissing about six instructors. Fully 94 percent of faculty members at Bates are full-time, almost certainly the largest portion among the system’s colleges. So it wasn’t surprising that Bates was the first to act under the previous ruling.
“We have a different architecture,” said Quasim, who served on the system’s board until being named the president's college last year. Quasim voted for the presidents' joint proposal to support the financial emergency declaration. He said he remains a strong supporter of paying for full-time salaries and benefits, but the budget crisis in Washington makes that tough.
“When difficult times come, we have to do things differently,” he said.