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November 30, 2009

Crises beget rumors.  The current financial crisis has generated lots of rumors about how our administration is going to “solve” our ongoing financial crisis.  Most of these rumors deal with ways that some administrator is going to reduce university or college expenditures.  Because I am president of the faculty senate, many faculty, and even staff, feel compelled to pass these rumors on to me.   They seem to be testing me to see if I know what is really going on behind the scenes.  They also want to know what the faculty senate is going to do.  These rumors range from closing down one of the colleges to firing some staff member in charge of a specific facility.  In spite of the fact that I serve on two university-wide budget advisory committees, most of these rumors have been news to me.  With the exception of some university-wide ways to reduce expenditures (furloughs and reduced contributions to retirement accounts), as far as I know, almost nothing else has been decided at this point.  What fuels the rumor mill is that there has been little public discussion to date about specific measures that are being considered to reduce expenditures.

It is always hard to know how much credence to give rumors. I judge the credibility of rumors using three simple criteria: (1) How likely is it that the person passing on a rumor has access to “privileged information”?  (2) Are there multiple sources for a rumor?  and (3) How realistic is the rumor?  The third criterion puts most rumors into the improbable category.  As the level of paranoia has risen among faculty and staff, the rumors reaching me are becoming more preposterous. Unfortunately, more preposterous does not always translate into more improbable.  Sometimes they really are out to get you.

One recent rumor is that the administration is going to suspend tenure.  This preposterous rumor unfortunately is coming from multiple, credible sources.  There have been a number of  variants of this rumor.  In essence, it goes  like this:  (1) The administration will dissolve some departments of their choosing and will fire all the faculty in these departments. (2) The administration will create one or more new departments.  (3) The administration will then rehire selected faculty from dissolved departments  into the new department(s).  In effect, this plan allows the administration to “cherry pick” the faculty that they want to keep and to reduce expenditures by firing the faculty that they think are underperforming.  For all faculty, but especially tenure-track  faculty, this is a frightening rumor.  Faculty believe that it is tenure that will prevent them from being fired without good cause.  This is undoubtedly some frustrated administrator’s fantasy (simple-minded?) solution to the complex and difficult problems created by our budget crisis.

After a six-year or longer probationary period, tenure is granted to faculty to ensure that they have academic freedom; that is, the right to comment on issues on which they are experts without fear of retribution from politicians, administrators or fellow faculty. Any plan to reduce expenditures that requires suspending tenure is not something that any university administration would (or should) consider lightly. (Think lawsuits and lots and lots of bad publicity.)  The faculty senate would resist the implementation of any such plan.  The senate represents the interests of the faculty, and it is not going to approve or concur with any plan that undermines tenure and faculty job security.   Although tenured faculty can be fired under very specific circumstances, these rarely occur, much to the frustration of some administrators.

Among the short list of reasons that tenured faculty can be terminated is financial exigency.   It is financial exigency that is the supposed justification for the rumored plan to close departments, to fire all their tenured faculty, and to rehire faculty selected by administrators into newly created departments.  Suspending tenure by declaring financial exigency is the academic equivalent of suspending civil rights by declaring martial law or suspending the claims of stockholders and creditors by declaring bankruptcy.  The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has a definition of financial exigency that is used by most universities:  an “imminent financial crisis which threatens the survival of the institution as a whole.”  All other ways to reduce expenditures must be exhausted before a university can invoke financial exigency so that it can begin to terminate tenured faculty.   For more detail on the AAUP’s position on financial exigency, see the report “Financial Exigency, Academic Governance, and Related Matters (2004).”

We are not in a state of financial exigency or close to it.   We are still hiring faculty and administrators.  We are far from exhausting all other ways to reduce expenditures.  Unfortunately, we do not use “financial exigency” in our faculty handbook to describe a financial crisis that is serious enough to consider suspending tenure.  I suspect that this is the reason that some administrators may think that they can suspend tenure so easily.  In our handbook “extraordinary financial crisis” is used instead of financial exigency.  An extraordinary financial crisis is not defined, and there are no criteria given for establishing if such a crisis exists.  This is a shortcoming of our faculty handbook that needs to be corrected immediately.  In the meantime, it is best for all concerned to assume that an extraordinary financial crisis is synonymous with a financial exigency.

Will a financial exigency actually be declared in order to  suspend tenure?  I have no idea, but I hope not.  It would be disastrous for faculty morale, which is already as low as I have ever seen it.  It would also be disastrous for all future discussions with administrators about how to deal with our budget crisis.  Faculty leaders would no longer have any confidence in administrators who would rather terminate tenured faculty than to cut subsidies of athletic programs, reduce administrative staff, impose a hiring freeze (or even a traveling freeze), etc.

Although rumors are often unreliable, rumor mongers are useful because they let me know that there are proposals being discussed to reduce expenditure of which I was unaware.   So keep those rumors coming. In the spirit G. K. Chesterton, anything that is worth knowing is worth knowing imperfectly.

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