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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?

The Roadmap to Nowhere

February 23, 2010

The college to which I belong recently issued what it called its “roadmap”.  This document outlines how the college’s priorities will be used to allocate money to departments in the future.   What the roadmap starkly reveals is that the college has only one priority, preserving the status quo.  That would be bad enough, but the college has now classified each department based on its potential to generate revenues from tuition and research.   In other words,  the college’s teaching and research missions have been reduced to their use or exchange value as is unequivocally illustrated in a table that relates teaching expectation (course loads) to research funding.    For each $50,000 in research funding, faculty course loads  are  reduced by one course per semester.  (Interestingly, you don’t have to buy your way out of teaching  courses if you bring in large amounts of research funding.  You automatically are entitled to a lower course load.)  If your discipline can’t generate enough research dollars, you are expected to teach more in order to generate revenue for the college.   The Mind and Body Shop is no longer a satirical novel.  It has become the college’s  roadmap.

The dismal table that is the college’s  roadmap reflects the negative impact of our new budget model on the college’s vision of itself.  Under our budget model,  tuition and indirect costs from grants are allocated by formulae to the colleges.  When the budget model was adopted, faculty (and the Faculty Senate) were repeatedly reassured that it would only be applied at the college level and not at the departmental level. This promise has clearly been broken. Departments and faculty are now being treated and judged as revenue generating centers and nothing more.

The roadmap stratifies academic subjects and faculty based on the exchange value of the knowledge that they posses, not to the wider society or even to students, but solely to the budget of the college. If you can’t bring in money through grants, then your only value to the college is to generate tuition revenue; other kinds of scholarship or service don’t count. Faculty in disciplines that cannot generate large amounts of grant dollars are being punished by being labeled as only good for teaching. This roadmap clearly has serious implications for tenure, especially for faculty trapped in the teaching intensive ghettos. When looking at this table, the word discrimination comes to my mind rather than vision.  This purely economic evaluation of  academic disciplines is the college’s equivalent of a practice long-condemned in the banking industry, redlining.

In short, the roadmap confirms what many had long feared — decision making by the college is solely driven by market imperatives. More specifically it seems to confirm that: (1) in spite of protestations to the contrary, all the college increasingly cares about is maximizing revenues, not improving the quality of its academic programs or the success of its students; (2) knowledge as an end or public good in itself is unimportant/irrelevant; and (3) the college is unconcerned about the increased narrowing of academic offering on students.  The latter has implications for students coming to a public university because it exacerbates socio-economic inequalities in our society.

Like so much of the planning around here, this roadmap was developed with little faculty input.  Not surprisingly, faculty reaction to it has has been decidedly negative.   What should the college look like in the future? Where are potential areas of growth? What can we do to improve the experience of our students? Answers to these and related questions require faculty input and ultimately faculty buy-in if they are to be used to set college priorities.  One-dimensional plans like the  proposed roadmap only undermine faculty confidence in the competence of the college’s administrators.

Pigs, Poker and Prisons

January 24, 2010

The university has a record number of students and a record level of external grant funding.  By any standards, the faculty have been doing an outstanding job.  Our reward for this exceptional performance is having our salaries and benefits cut and being threatened with layoffs.   University administrators, members of the board of regents, and local politicians increasingly talk as if the university were a business.  A business when it has record sales and profits rewards its employees and shareholders.  Our recent financial crisis illustrates clearly that we are, in fact, not a business.  We still depend on state appropriations for nearly half of our operating revenue.

In spite of the business rhetoric, the governor and legislature treat us as just another branch of state government like the prison system.   This is what has created the disconnect between the university’s reward structure and its performance.   The universities annually bring  hundred of millions of dollars of federal research funding into the state.  They bring thousands of out-of-state students who help to underwrite the cost of a university education for in-state students.  In short, unlike the prison system, the universities are major economic engines for the state.   Nevertheless, not only are the state universities likely to having their budgets cut again next year, but they may again be cut disproportionately in order to fund other state agencies like prisons.  Talk about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

In the last couple of weeks the universities have begun to take their case to the public, primarily in the form of an opinion piece by our president in the state’s major newspaper.  The public’s response to his opinion piece has been mixed, based on written comments on it.  It has, however, been well received by faculty and staff, and it has garnered us some support in the form of a positive editorial in the same paper.  Whether any of this translates into increased support for the universities in next year’s state appropriations to the board of regents  is uncertain.  In reality,  this is unlikely unless there is a significant improvement in projected state tax revenues.

The singer-songwriter Dave Moore once characterized the state’s economy as being based on the three Ps:  pigs, poker and prisons.  I doubt that this will change much in the near future, but it would be a significant turnaround in state educational policy if cutting  university budgets were no longer seen by politicians as a way to fund more pigs and prisons. (We already have more than enough poker.)  Perhaps they might even begin to realize that our universities are not businesses but an essential public service whose employees needs to be rewarded for their achievements.  Unless this happens, the universities will begin to lose their best faculty, and this will result in a significant decline in the universities’ ability to continue to bring in hundred of millions of dollars in research funding  and to attract thousands of out-of-state students.


January 19, 2010

I do not know if any administrator has begun to use crisatunity (pronounced CRY-sa-too-nity according to the New York Times) in their communications about our budget crisis.  I suspect, however, that it may be only a matter of time before one of our younger and hipper  administrators — there actually are a few —  will begin use it.   In the Twitter era, this mash-up of crisis and opportunity is a way to  capture an idea most recently promoted by Rahm Emanuel, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”

Crisatunity has already taken on an additional meaning best illustrated with an example.  When activist organizers are trying to raise public awareness  about some major problem like poverty, it can cause their target audience to begin to feel helpless and powerless if their messages are too general.  After all,  big problems like poverty are intractable  — as Jesus noted “You will always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7).  By focusing on a specific, local example of poverty, e.g., somebody in town unable to pay their medical or heating bills, you create a crisatunity.  This is a problem that can be solved.  By focusing on this tractable problem, people who are asked to help feel that they can be effective and they are more willing to contribute their money or time.  In this sense, a crisatunity is created by taking a big problem and breaking up it into small, component problems that can be understood and solved by individuals or small groups.

As it is presented by administrators  in emails and in public forums, our budget crisis is a big problem.  A problem so big that they admit that they are still trying to figure out how to solve it.   This leaves the faculty and staff feeling helpless and powerless.  If the president, provost and deans can’t figure out how to solve the budget problem, what can the faculty do?

To make matters worse, our administrators are trying to solve the budget crisis largely on their own and in secret.   The justification for the secrecy is that they do not want to needlessly frighten the natives by publicly discussing budget cutting scenarios that may never happen. This lack of confidence in the ability of the faculty and staff to be full participants in solving our budget crisis is both short sighted and insulting.  If there is any group that has the ability to analyze and solve problems, it is university faculty.  This is what they are trained to do, and this is a skill that they trying to inculcate daily in their students.

Can our budget problem be solved by breaking it up into a series of  smaller problems in order to create crisatunities?  Of course it can, but this requires making the faculty and staff equal partners in finding solutions.  The university needs to eliminate academic programs that are no longer attracting students and to replace them with new programs that will.  Faculty discussions about how to improve specific academic programs and how to reduce their costs will create  crisatunities.  All decisions  about the future of academic programs are ultimately the responsibility of the faculty.  Why not involve them from the beginning?

The paternalism of the administration is both unfortunate and counterproductive.  Instead of harnessing the creative energies of the faculty,  the administration largely ignores them, and in doing so, it has needlessly raised the level of institutional paranoia to unprecedented levels.  It is not what you know that you worry about, but what you don’t know.  Faculty and staff know very little about the potential solutions to the budget crisis that are being discussed by administrators behind closed doors.  Consequently, they are very worried.

In short, the budget crisis is frequently touted by administrators as a way to refocus the university.  Refocusing the university will require the cooperation of the faculty and can best be done by using the faculty’s problem solving skills.   Faculty are in the best position to  evaluate academic programs in order to determine which programs  should be eliminated or scaled back, which should be expanded, and which new programs should be initiated.  What is needed is a bottom up, not a top down, approach to solving our budget problem.  This is the only way to create crisatunities.


December 19, 2009

In response to the budget crisis, the administration has begun to have open forums.  I have been to two of them in the last week.  One was held by the president and provost and the other by the deans of two colleges.  The administration seems to believe that these events will result in the faculty being reassured that the administration is on top of things and that progress is being made in dealing with the crisis.  Unfortunately, it did not work out this way.

The president tried to reassure tenured faculty that their jobs were not in jeopardy.  He essentially said that no tenured faculty member would be fired, but that every other class of faculty could be terminated if that was required to balance the budget.  He hoped, of course, that it would never come to that. The provost then added that untenured, tenure-track faculty would also be protected.  Given that the president and provost had spent the first part of the their presentation outlining the size of our potential budget deficit and the need to make vertical cuts in order to reduce expenditures,  their combined messages left their audience confused.  If no faculty were going to get the ax, how were they going to reduce expenditures?

A few days later, the deans had their open forum.  They showed many of the same PowerPoint slides that the president and provost had used to illustrate our financial fix.  We are a self-proclaimed, green university and recycling is being strongly encouraged.  The deans are evidently on board.  In any case, faculty know that repetition is a good way to get a message across to students. Although most of our administrators do not spend much time in the classroom these days, they evidently have not forgotten this basic bit of pedagogical wisdom.

The deans admitted that they did not have any plan to deal with the budget crisis.  This surprised many faculty.  They had come in droves expecting to get some answers about what was going to happen to them, their departments, and their academic programs.  What they got was mostly buck passing.  The deans blamed the central administration for sending mixed signals about what they could do.  One dean actually referred to the president’s and provost’s open forum and wondered what message they were trying to send about terminating faculty.  Could no faculty be terminated?  They also admitted that their initial plan had been to close departments, but that this had run into problems.  (This admittal reinforced the worse fears of some tenured faculty that their jobs were still on the line in spite of the president’s reassurances.) This forum ended with a plea from the deans to send them our ideas for how to deal with the budget crisis.

The deans’ forum left many faculty even more confused.  Why hold an open forum if you have nothing to say about what your plans are for dealing with the crisis?  How inept is our administration that they still have no coherent plan or even policies for dealing with the crisis?  Why are we paying these guys the big bucks when all they do is continue to ask for our suggestions?  They have been doing this for the better part of a year after every single forum or dear university/college letter. We have multiple Websites where faculty and staff can send money-saving ideas and suggestions.  What ever happened to all those previous ideas and suggestions?  We have definitely reached the bottom of the idea/suggestion barrel as was evidenced by some of the suggestions for making money proposed at this meeting.  (There is a whole blog there.)

What is wrong with the way the administration is dealing with the crisis?  They are claiming that the crisis as an unprecedented event, but they are continuing to conduct business as usual and mostly behind closed doors.   In short, it is complacency and secrecy that are the problems.  Instead of setting up a highly visible, university-wide committee to deal with the crisis, they continue to try to solve it themselves.  To quote George W. Bush, they see themselves as “the decider[s]” who will “decide what’s best.” They are not engaging faculty and staff leaders in a meaningful way in order to build a consensus about what should be done.  Instead, they continue to plot behind closed doors.  Their decision to do everything in secret has raised the level of paranoia of faculty and staff to unprecedented levels.  Rumors abound, and they, in most cases, will prove to be much more extreme and damaging than anything that is likely to happen.

So far the administration‘s open forums have left many faculty and staff even more confused than before.  It is time our administrators  tried something different, like treating the budget crisis as a crisis that we collectively have to solve.  We need to have administrators, faculty and staff working together for the good of the university and its students.  We need to do this in a way that is visible and transparent to everyone at the university.  We need to have a process for dealing with the crisis that everyone trusts and supports.  We need a solution, not more confusion.


December 13, 2009

We all live in a world of myths and illusions.  Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize this, and they believe that their myths and illusions are actually truths.  The ramifications of interacting groups holding different beliefs can be found in any newspaper on any given day.  They range from local debates about “controversial” books in  school libraries between social liberals and conservatives, to never-ending debates between evolution deniers and biologists about what should be included in high school biology curricula, and it culminates in deadly serious debates (wars) between fundamentalist religious groups (Jews vs. Muslims in the Middle East, Hindus vs. Muslims in India,  Protestants vs. Catholics in Northern Ireland, etc.) or between groups with different political philosophies (communists vs. capitalists).  In short, it is not hard to offend  some group, by making factual statements that threaten or contradict their beliefs.  “Don’t confuse me with the facts” is a common modus operandi.

Universities are places were people study all kinds of movements, phenomena, ideas, people, and events.  Although university faculty have their own myths and illusions, their training is designed to enable them to recognize their beliefs for what they are and to rise above them.  The goal of their research is to discover the facts – to strip away myths and illusions in order to reveal the truth.  How successful they are at this is much debated, even among university faculty.

As noted, the problem for university faculty is that most people don’t want to hear the truth. Hence university faculty who make statements that offend some group in society are routinely threatened with dismissal by politicians who are trying to appease their irate constituents.  What saves us from dismissal, of course, is tenure.  Tenured faculty cannot be dismissed, except for a just cause.  Tenure is the foundation of academic freedom.

Although university administrators routinely state that they consider tenure to be essential and that they will do everything in their power to defend it, during a financial crisis, tenure becomes a problem for them.  The majority of a university’s budget is tied up in faculty and staff salaries.  Not being able to fire tenured faculty greatly constrains what an administrator can do to reduce expenditures.  Trying to circumvent or curtail tenure becomes a great temptation, and administrators sometimes succumb to this temptation.

Some of our administrators are clearly being tempted.  Specifically, some of them are claiming that faculty are tenured within a given department.  This strikes the faculty as completely nonsensical (ludicrous, ridiculous, inane, etc.).  A faculty member does not get tenure as a result of a departmental action.  Nor is this position supported by any historic precedents.  Lots of reorganizations of departments, and even colleges, have occurred over the years, and in no case did anyone lose tenure because a department or college was eliminated.   I have been involved in two different departmental reorganizations, and the department in which I was originally hired no longer exists.  I did not lose tenure, nor was it even suggested that this could happen.  If a faculty member could lose tenure as a result of an administrative reorganization, the university would never be able to restructure administrative units again.

Why do some administrators want to push this absurd position?  Why are they scouring the faculty handbook for any sentence or phrase that can be  misconstrued to support it?  Desperation?  Ignorance?  Hubris — the illusion that they know best?  Who knows?  In any case, the long history of attempts by university administrators to circumvent tenure typically results in lawsuits and lots of embarrassing publicity for the university.  It would become very difficult for the university to hire new faculty if the institution was to be censured by the AAUP for trying to fire tenured faculty without just cause.

In the literature on how to deal with university budget cuts, administrators are routinely warned not to tamper with or threaten tenure in any way.   For example, the American Council on Education’s publication, Faculty in Times of Financial Distress, has a section appropriately titled “Ideas That Can Backfire.”  One of these is eliminating tenure:  “…stripping tenure from current faculty members may lead to breach of contract litigation, difficulty in future faculty recruiting, declines in student and alumni loyalty, and possible accreditation problems.”

The belief of some administrators that they can selectively terminate tenured faculty by closing departments is a dangerous illusion.  If they act on it, it can have only negative consequences for them and for the future of the university.  The sooner they recognize this, the better.  If they don’t, then conflict between the faculty and administration becomes inevitable.  This will make dealing with the university’s budget problems much more complicated and difficult, and this is in no one’s best interests.

The Dear University Letter

December 6, 2009

Letters are sent for many reasons, and thus there are many epistolary genres: e.g., the “Dear John” letter and the “I am fine, please send money” letter, just to cite a couple with which many us are familiar.  A new epistolary genre has arisen in response to the ongoing financial crisis, the “Dear University” letter.  This is a letter sent to the entire university community by the president to bring us up to date on the current state of the budget crisis and what is being done to cut expenditures in response to revenue reductions.  The December 4, 2009 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education has a front-page story on this “new brand of communication from the top.”  We even have a our first anthology of these letter that can be found on the Website of the Association of American Universities.  Needless to say, we recently received our latest Dear University letter.

I spent most of our Thanksgiving break at the American Heritage Center (AHC) at the University of Wyoming.  This Center is one of the major repositories of manuscripts, correspondence, rare books, photographs, etc. dealing with the American west.  As part of an ongoing research project, I went there to examine the correspondence of one of the most influential of early American ecologists, Frederick E. Clements.  Most of Clements’ correspondence is in the AHC collection.  I was specifically interested in the origins of some of Clements’ ideas about the nature of vegetation.  Most of my time was spent reading Clements’ letters, thousands of them.  Trying to discern the intended meaning of a letter has become an important focus of my academic life.

As many post-modernists have repeatedly pointed out, a text has a life of its own.  Its interpretation is highly contingent on the experiences, beliefs and biases of the reader.  It seems to me that this is often ignored by letter writers.  This was made very clear to me while reading both sides of the correspondence in the Clements files. Clements routinely  assumes that the intended meanings of his epistles are obvious.  Their meanings did not turn out be so obvious to some of his readers.  This occasionally resulted in serious misunderstandings and hurt feelings among the people who worked for or with him.

In the case of Dear University letters, they are undoubtedly scrutinized by many members of the senior leadership team, including the university’s legal counsel, before they are sent.  Unfortunately, this prepublication review rarely includes any of the intended audience for the letter, the faculty and staff.  The administrators may understand the intent of the letter and endorse its message, but that does not guarantee that the faculty and staff will get administration’s intended message.

An examination of our recent Dear University letter illustrates the problem.  It is a doom-and-gloom letter.  After a perfunctory sentence thanking the faculty and staff for their hard work and dedication in these difficult times, the letter then goes on to describe our cumulative budget cuts and possible future budget cuts.  Message – we are in big trouble.  Problem – faculty and staff already knew that, after all we have mandatory furloughs and have had our benefits cut.  In fact, the letter fails to point out how an increase in tuition rates this year significantly reduced the impacts of smaller state appropriations and that this could happen again next year.  Why is the president overstating his case?

The letter makes only two specific points.  One, the provost is being asked to begin planning strategic budgeting for the next fiscal year.  Reaction of many faculty – what the (their favorite expletive deleted) have they been doing for the  last year?  Two, we are going to downsize or eliminate departments, programs, and activities (?).  The second point increased faculty and staff paranoia about the future of their jobs and departments.  Because of rumors already circulating that the university was planning to close departments and to fire everyone in them, faculty and staff who believed this just had their worst fears confirmed.

Our Dear University letter failed to address the real concerns of faculty, staff and students.  It failed to reassure faculty and staff that everything would be done to preserve their jobs. It failed to reassure students (and their parents) that our academic commitments to them would be upheld.  It failed to provide any kind of principles or guidelines for strategic planning.  As pointed out in the Chronicles article on the Dear University letter, universities are not businesses:  “they’re places of intellectual discovery and transformation” as President Crow of Arizona State University puts it.  The most important goal of university planning during this financial crisis is not financial solvency for it own sake. The closest our letter came to articulating a future vision of the university was that we must direct our “resources” more effectively to maximize the “success” of the university in the future.  This is the academic equivalent of being in favor of apple pie and motherhood.  It is not much on which to base a “strategic” plan.

Increased miscommunication is one of the inevitable consequences of any crisis or conflict.  Everyone with a stake in the outcome is filtering every statement, letter, email, etc. by assuming the worst intentions of its originator.  After all, your job may be on the line: it is better to be safe than sorry.  Miscommunication in Dear University letters can be avoided, or at least minimized, by issuing joint statements that are endorsed by administrators and faculty and staff leaders. This would be a simple way to demonstrate to the campus community that we are really in this together.