Illustration by The Chronicle
By Emma Pettit
Kansas’ Board of Regents voted unanimously on Wednesday to create a process by which the state’s six public universities can more expeditiously suspend and fire employees, including tenured faculty members.
It’s an extreme move, Shane Bangerter, one of nine board members, acknowledged, but one that he felt was “absolutely necessary,” given how Covid-19 has depressed higher education’s finances. The temporary change, which will expire in December 2022, gives greater flexibility to university leaders, other regents argued. It’s meant to be just one arrow in their quiver to deal with budget retrenchment.
Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, an associate professor of music at Wichita State University and president of its Faculty Senate, offered a different image. Approving the policy, he told the regents, is like cracking a nut with a sledgehammer.
It’ll harm faculty morale, hamper recruiting, and basically suspend tenure for the time being, he said. He and other faculty observers said they worried that the temporary policy would later become permanent, undercutting faculty stability well into a post-Covid era.
While the regents said they appreciated Sternfeld-Dunn’s position, his arguments ultimately did not sway the final vote, which was unanimous in favor of the new policy.
One regent, Mark Hutton, found Sternfeld-Dunn’s assertion that the policy change would threaten tenure unconvincing.
“Handcuffing our ability to ensure financial strength in the name of tenure is counter to its purpose,” he said, “and I believe it degrades tenure down to nothing but a jobs-protection program, which I don’t think anybody wants.”
No one wants layoffs, Bangerter said during the meeting. But, he said, these are “extreme times.” He called attention to Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget, which would deliver, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal, $33.4 million in cuts to the six state universities. That’s a 5.3-percent reduction in the state’s base appropriation for the University of Kansas, the flagship, and a 5.5-percent overall reduction for Kansas State University, the news outlet reported. (The governor’s budget is a starting point and will be negotiated in the Legislature.)
The University of Kansas already projects a $74.6-million shortfall for the 2022 fiscal year, which “will require us to eliminate programs and departments, reduce services, and implement furloughs and layoffs on a large scale,” the university’s chancellor, Douglas A. Girod, wrote in a recent letter to faculty and staff members, the Capital-Journal reported. Like many other institutions, Kansas universities have lost revenue during the pandemic. The text of the new policy singles out drops in program and university enrollment as a financial stressor.
Ultimately, said one regent, Cheryl Harrison-Lee, “we’re at a point where we must be lean. We must be efficient. And we must be effective.”
That argument did nothing to convince Lua Kamal Yuille, a professor of law and Faculty Senate president at the University of Kansas. “The way to relieve financial pressure isn’t to fire people,” whether faculty or staff, she told The Chronicle. Rather, it’s to advocate for better funding at the state and federal level.
No Need to Declare Exigency
Under previous board policy, a state university had to “formally recognize a financial exigency that required elimination of nontenured positions and operating expenditures,” the Kansas Reflector reported. Under those circumstances, an institution could reduce its tenured ranks.
Now, under the new policy, employees can be suspended or terminated even if a university has not declared financial exigency or begun that process. The policy does not specify how universities should go about making those reductions. Instead, each university’s chief executive officer needs to submit a plan to the board for carrying out the policy within 45 days. Such a framework may be based on factors such as “performance evaluations, teaching and research productivity, low service productivity, low enrollment, cost of operations, or reduction in revenues for specific departments or schools,” the policy says.
Mark Criley, a program officer at the American Association of University Professors, told The Chronicle that existing financial-exigency procedures are supposed to give faculty members an ample role in determining if that condition exists and whether there are less-drastic means of dealing with it than terminations. So it’s a concern, he said, if the Kansas policy cuts the faculty out of the equation.
Criley was also concerned that affected employees would get short notice of employment changes stemming from the policy. Universities’ chief executive officers are required only to give no fewer than 30 days’ notice of a suspension or a termination, the policy says. For tenured faculty members, Criley said, the AAUP advocates no less than a year’s notice.
A suspended or terminated employee would have the right to appeal the decision. That appeal would be heard by the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings, and the burden of proof would be on the employee. That, too, troubled Criley. The AAUP says faculty members should be guaranteed a full hearing before a faculty committee, and the burden of proof should be on the administration.
Universities are not required to make use of the new policy. Four of the six state universities — Fort Hays State, Kansas State, Pittsburg State, and Wichita State — have said that they won’t, at least for now. Girod, the Kansas chancellor, announced that he’d asked the provost and executive vice chancellor to reach out to administrators, faculty, and staff across the university to determine “if and how this policy may enable us to address budget challenges while prioritizing our mission.” (Emporia State University did not immediately provide a comment for this article.)
Meanwhile, Kansas State will “continue to address budgetary issues through the shared-governance model under existing policies,” Jeffery B. Morris, vice president for communications and marketing, told The Chronicle in an email.
“We have no plan at this time to utilize this policy,” Tisa A. Mason, president of Fort Hays State, told the faculty in an email. “Our budgetary and strategic planning remains focused on increasing enrollment and identifying new efficiencies.”
Fort Hays also faces another layer of complexity: One bargaining unit’s contract addresses reductions in force. That, plus Mason’s stance, insulates the faculty from feeling the effects of the new policy, said Janett Naylor-Tincknell, a psychology professor and president of the local AAUP chapter.
How the policy interacts with any existing agreements will be determined on a case-by-case basis, a board spokesman told The Chronicle in an email. Universities would still have to meet “all existing contractual obligations,” he said.
Though Wichita State and other institutions have said they do not intend to use the new policy, Sternfeld-Dunn, the Faculty Senate president, said he worries about potential abuses of power at institutions that do make cuts in this way. He could see a future in which an outspoken faculty member is dismissed under the guise of budget woes, he said in a phone interview. The policy also exposes a university to all sorts of lawsuits from terminated employees, he said.
Yuille, the Faculty Senate president at the University of Kansas, said that because it is a member of the Association of American Universities, faculty members must produce strong scholarship. That is accomplished, she said, when a university is committed to offering “real, meaningful tenure.”
Instead, she said, the policy transforms every member of the university’s instructional faculty into “the precariat.”
Emma Pettit is a senior reporter at The Chronicle who covers all things faculty. She writes mostly about professors and the strange, funny, sometimes harmful and sometimes hopeful ways they work and live. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaJanePettit, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.