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Nonrenewal and Termination

March 5, 2010

Because I was out of the country, I missed the last meeting of the faculty senate.  At this meeting a proposed revision of our policies on the nonrenewal and termination of faculty appointments was introduced.  Senate committees had been working with representatives of the administration on revising these policies for months.  Because of all the rumors about departmental reorganization and elimination of academic programs, many of our faculty are expecting the worst, to lose their jobs.  Consequently, they are legitimately worried about the implications of any change in nonrenewal and termination policies.  Since getting back, I have had lots of feedback from faculty about the proposed revisions to our policy, a lot of it negative.   The most common objection to adopting the revised policy is that we do not need it or, at least, one part of it, the section that deals with the possibility that appointments of tenured faculty could be  terminated if the academic program with which they are associated was eliminated.   Although this is long-standing AAUP policy, there is nothing explicitly in our faculty handbook that addresses this contingency.

The argument that a number of faculty have sent me goes like this: because  our current policies on nonrenewal and termination do not have any explicit provisions for terminating tenured faculty appointments, if either departments or academic programs are eliminated, it is impossible to terminate tenured appointments if either happens.  A more simplistic version of this argument goes:  if I am tenured, I have a job for life.   This version of the argument misses the point that tenure is designed to ensure academic freedom.  Tenure guarantees only that you have a job, if your job continues to exist and you do it at least satisfactorily.

In reality, even without an explicit policy on elimination of faculty because of program elimination, our administrators were considering two different mechanisms for terminating tenured faculty appointments:  (1) linking tenure to departments and eliminating departments by administrative fiat, and (2) declaring a “extraordunary financial crisis”  and giving “selected” tenured faculty one-year notice of termination of their appointments.

By linking tenure to departments, it was argued that eliminating a department would automatically result in the termination of all its tenured faculty appointments. Elimination of departments is largely an administrative decision with only advisory input from faculty and the Faculty Senate.  Administrators spent a lot of time scouring the faculty handbook looking for language to support this mechanism and believed that they had found it. In fact, no such language is found in our handbook, and there is no past precedent for such an interpretation. (I have been in three different departments because of departmental reorganizations and have never been threatened with the loss of my appointment because my department had been eliminated.)  Nevertheless, this mechanism was being seriously considered by some colleges and still seems to be favored by some deans.  Deans who favor this approach would like to  close departments that they do not want for whatever reason and to establish new departments that they could staff with faculty “cherry picked” from the closed departments.   It is an administrator’s dream solution for solving her budget problems.

For reasons that are unfathomable to me, our faculty handbook does not use financial exigency to describe so dire a financial situation that it threatens the survival of the university.  Instead we use “extraordinary financial crisis”  and allow tenured faculty appointments to be terminated if it is declared.   Extraordinary financial crisis is not defined in the handbook, or anywhere else that I can find. This is not the term used by our board of regents, the AAUP , or our sister institutions in the state:  they all use financial exigency. Nor does the handbook indicate who has the authority to declare that there is an extraordinary financial crisis.   Some of our administrators, of course, interpreted our current budget cuts as creating an extraordinary financial crisis.   This is setting the bar for an extraordinary financial crisis very, very low.  We have record enrollments and levels of external research funding, and the worst case scenario predicts only about a 5% budget reduction in next year’s budget.   Needless to say, the revised nonrenewal and termination policy replaces extraordinary  financial crisis with financial exigency and stipulates that only the board of regents can declare a financial exigency.   Nevertheless, our past and current budget cuts may warrant the elimination of some small, under-performing academic programs.

Both the senate leadership and our senior administrators have recognized that our faculty handbook needs to be revised so that the university can deal rationally with the elimination of academic programs and, if absolutely necessary, with terminating the appointments of tenured faculty associated with them.  The latter could only be done after all good- faith efforts have been exhausted to find affected faculty alternative positions as required by the AAUP.  In spite of faculty arguments to the contrary, our lack of an explicit policy will not protect tenured faculty from having their appointments terminated.  If forced by circumstances to close down academic programs, our administrators would have used one of the two mechanisms that they believed were available to them.  They would have had no other choice.  To the credit of our provost and president, shared governance worked and a joint policy was developed by the senate and administration that protects faculty interests, especially tenure, and also allows the university to refocus its academic programs when needed.  One major questions now remains, can our faculty be persuaded that the new policy is in their best interest?

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