Firing professors in Kansas just got a lot easier

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Giving just one day’s notice to the faculty governance chairs at its universities, the Kansas Board of Regents voted this week to allow for emergency employee terminations and suspensions. Tenured professors are no exception.

All nine voting regents approved the temporary policy, which takes effect immediately and expires at the end of 2022.

“In light of the extreme financial pressures placed on the state universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, decreased program and university enrollment, and state fiscal issues,” any employee — including one with tenure — “may be suspended, dismissed, or terminated from employment by their respective university,” the policy says.

Previously, state institutions had to follow a specific process to declare financial exigency in order to shed tenured professors for budgetary reasons. This is consistent with norms established by the American Association of University Professors. Now through the end of next year, declaring exigency is not necessary. Universities only have to develop a policy framework for the board to approve. No existing campus policy hearing procedures need apply to these personnel decisions, either.

Kansas’s six state universities are reeling from a proposal by Governor Laura Kelly to slash state funding to higher education in 2022. The state universities face a 5.5 percent budget cut. This would be the most significant cut since 2009, Kansas State University president Richard Meyers wrote in a campus memo this week.

“The current fiscal year has been difficult as we are in the midst of a belt-tightening unlike any in recent history,” Meyers said. “We’ve seen budget reductions, furloughs and layoffs as revenues dropped precipitously and costs increased due to the pandemic. The full impacts continue to be felt throughout the university.”

Even amid these difficulties, it’s unclear to faculty members exactly what, or who, is driving the push to make it easier to get rid of tenured professors.

Not all institutions plan on suspending their typical personnel processes. Jeffery Morris, spokesperson for Kansas State, said Thursday that that institution has “no plans to use this option and will continue to address budgetary issues through the shared governance model under existing policies.” Kansas State will “continue to work together with our faculty and staff members to get through this trying time and emerge as a stronger university,” he added.

Aleks Sternfeld-Dunn, associate professor of music at Wichita State University and chair of the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents for all the regents’ institutions, said, “I think some executives felt that they needed this, but I wholeheartedly disagree that they need it.”

While the budget issues were “certainly amplified by COVID for some universities,” he said, “this is about years of declining state support [for higher education]. And maybe not-as-great financial management of institutions that put them in this position, though that’s speculative.”

These comments echo warnings from faculty groups that some institutions would try to suspend normal shared governance procedures in the name of COVID-19 to address long-standing issues. The AAUP is currently investigating what it has called the “crisis in academic governance that has occurred in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic” on a number of individual campuses.

Originally, the regents proposed the new policy as ending this December. But citing the uncertain economic environment and the ongoing pandemic, the regents amended the policy prior to voting to extend it another year, to December 2022.

Sternfeld-Dunn said he expected campus governance bodies in Kansas to begin speaking out about the changes. He said he’s been told Wichita State doesn’t plan to use this tool to deal with budget issues in the coming year, however. A spokesperson for Wichita State also said the university did not plan on acting on the new policy.

“Although we are not immune to the budget challenges that our Kansas institutions are facing, we have worked hard over the past year with faculty, staff and students to identify approaches to close budgetary gaps,” Wichita State said in a statement. “These measures have included implementing an early retirement program, pursuing strategic spending cuts, implementing hiring freezes, increasing oversight of and reducing purchases, and enhancing our strategic enrollment management plans to grow enrollment and revenue. We plan to continue many of these measures going forward and will also work to identify other strategic cost-saving measures.”

The University of Kansas may use the policy, however. Chancellor Douglas A. Girod published a statement about it late Thursday saying that the university will consult with campus groups, including the faculty, to “determine if and how this policy may enable us to address budget challenges while prioritizing our mission. We will need your advice and expertise as we evaluate this policy and consider developing criteria and processes.”

Matt Keith, spokesperson for the regents, said they wanted to allow state universities to create a “framework for reductions in staffing due to pandemic-related financial difficulties.” They considered the “increasingly strained budgets that universities are facing as a result of the pandemic,” along with the proposed cuts to state funding for higher education.

State institutions have about six weeks to present the board with a campus-specific process or framework to execute the provision. These frameworks are up to each university’s chief executive and may include criteria 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.”

Universities must give affected employees 30 days’ notice or more of the suspension, dismissal or termination, “including the reasons for the action,” the policy says. These employees have 30 days to appeal, not through their normal campus grievance channels but through the regents’ Office of Administrative Hearings. The only grounds for such an appeal are that the suspension or termination is “substantially inconsistent” with the university’s board-approved framework, the result of unlawful bias or discrimination, or that it was “otherwise unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious.”

The burden of proof in any appeal “shall be on the employee,” the new policy states. “There shall be no right of discovery. The review shall be based on the written submissions, and the hearing shall allow oral presentation to the administrative hearing officer by the employee and the university, each of whom may be represented by counsel.”

Decisions of the administrative hearing officer are final.

Ultimately, Keith said, the regents adopted the policy “to give state university CEOs flexibility to navigate their institutions through these financial challenges.”



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