Kansas universities have more leeway to fire tenured faculty. Will they use it?

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • A temporary policy approved by the Kansas Board of Regents last week is catching flak over concerns it makes it easier for its six state universities to fire tenured faculty.
  • The decision gives the universities an optional alternative process for suspending, dismissing, or terminating employees that don’t require them to declare financial exigency. In making the decision, the board cited the need for flexibility to address steep pandemic-related budget cuts.
  • Many colleges nationwide are cutting programs and positions in response to massive revenue losses from the pandemic, but some fear shared-governance processes are getting overlooked.

Dive Insight:

Any university that chooses to use the new policy has 45 days from its adoption by the board to give regents a framework for how officials would make decisions under its terms. The policy expires in December 2022. Those decisions could be based on factors including performance evaluations, teaching and research productivity, revenue reductions, or low enrollment, according to a draft version of the policy posted online by the University of Kansas. Kansas’s six state universities are bracing for the possibility of more than $33 million in budget cuts. They’re not alone. Public and private colleges across the country are responding to pandemic-related revenue losses with steep budget reductions, in some cases gutting programs and departments.

Kansas universities

Some observers, however, worry schools are using the losses as justification for more significant changes than those needed to address the pandemic. Kansas’s new policy highlights a particular concern: institutions will end protections for tenured faculty. According to the American Association of University Professors, financial difficulty is one of three conditions administrators can lay off tenured faculty under. The others are for cause or because a program is being discontinued for educational reasons as determined by faculty.

“We set the threshold at exigency to protect the institution of tenure,” said Mark Criley, program officer in the Department of academic freedom, tenure, and Governance at AAUP. He continued that schools that reach this point indicate their financial woes are so severe that their academic integrity has been compromised and cannot be righted by less-drastic means. AAUP policy calls for schools making decisions about cuts under necessity to give a critical role in the deliberations to a faculty governance body. But Criley said the Kansas policy “seems to allow for terminations and suspensions to happen without this kind of faculty involvement.” Schools may have other reasons for avoiding distress, such as restrictions from accreditors, consultancy EAB notes.

AAUP is investigating several schools over how pandemic-induced threats to shared governance could be impacting tenure and academic freedom. Julie Miller, the regents’ general counsel, said during the live-streamed board meeting Wednesday that Kansas’s policy was “just one piece in a puzzle” and “a first step,” emphasizing that schools need to determine how they’d use the policy and submit that proposal to the board for approval.

Demetri Morgan, a higher education professor at Loyola University Chicago, is wary of such language. Although the administration is presenting the option as one more tool to help universities address the anticipated budget cuts, he said, it could be used to fire faculty with unpopular research agendas or who have been critical of the administration.

Morgan, who studies higher education governing boards, notes that they are increasingly involved in policymaking rather than just regulation. “We’re seeing that same thing here, where they are trying to create policy opportunities that are shaping how institutions are acting,” he said, noting that Kansas’s regents have a “pretty active role” in the matters of their schools. He added that reversing such policies can be challenging, citing the weaker tenure protections adopted in Wisconsin a few years ago after they were stripped from state law.

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