The country’s top organization of college professors is considering taking action against two Louisiana colleges with the possibility they could be put on “censure,” a formal rebuke considered to be the academic equivalent of dishing out a black eye.
The American Association of University Professors has indicated it intends to send a team of professors to Baton Rouge to investigate whether Southern University improperly laid off tenured faculty during the institution’s restructuring process.
The AAUP, which previously investigated the nine-school University of Louisiana System and issued a report highly critical of the cutting of French programs at Southeastern Louisiana University, could decide at meetings during the June 15 weekend whether to censure SLU.
Winding up on the AAUP’s censure list could make it tougher for a university to earn accreditation, attract faculty and land research grants.
In Southern’s case, the AAUP sent a letter to Chancellor James Llorens putting the university on notice that when the investigative team touches down in Baton Rouge, it plans on meeting with faculty, the university administration and the Southern Board of Supervisors as part of its inquiry.
Llorens declined to comment on the investigation.
He disputed claims that Southern has done anything inappropriate.
The letter came from the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. The letter’s author, Associate Secretary Jennifer Nichols, did not respond to five phone messages this week seeking comment on the makeup up of the investigative committee and when it might arrive in Baton Rouge.
The AAUP seemingly wants to keep its actions secret. In the letter to Llorens, Nichols wrote the investigative committee “will be instructed not to release on its own account any substantive information to the press.”
At issue is Southern’s Oct. 28 declaration of a financial emergency called an exigency.
Declaring a financial emergency allowed Southern’s administration more leeway to lay off tenured faculty and cut academic programs. So far, about 10 tenured faculty members have been let go.
Southern is in its fourth year with reduced funding from state government. The university has been affected by budget problems more than most colleges, because Southern also has lost revenue from declining enrollment.
Southern faculty member Sudhir Trivedi said the problem with declaring an exigency was Southern did not include faculty in the decision to make the declaration, a debate that played out over several months last year.
Southern, furthermore, didn’t lay out “well-defined, well-publicized, objective and transparent” criteria for the layoffs, nor did the university put in place a fair appeals process, Trivedi said.
Faculty members were not given the benefit of knowing how they were selected to be laid off, and were required to appeal to the same people who made the decision to let them go, he said.
An exigency, alone, is generally considered a serious stain on a university that could scare away current and potential employees and students. An exigency, coupled with placement on the AAUP’s censure list, would “be a disgrace” that would hurt Southern’s ability to attract faculty in the future, said Trivedi, who is also vice president of the AAUP’s Louisiana chapter.
Southern’s restructuring, including the layoffs and a furlough system in which all faculty and staff making more than $30,000 per year were required to take days off without pay, was done under guidelines set forth by the Southern Board of Supervisors.
“We had defined criteria, and we complied,” Llorens said. “We took the necessary actions to respond to a budget crisis. I hope the AAUP would understand that.”
The SLU issues are specific to the university terminating three tenured faculty when it axed its bachelor’s degree program in French, even though the university continues to teach many French courses.
Those three faculty members filed suit in May 2011, arguing the tenure rules were violated because the French program still exists as a minor and classes are still taught.
Two were offered lower-paying, less-protected instructor jobs.
Joe Mirando, a professor of communication at SLU, called the university’s actions “particularly heinous.”
Ending up on the AAUP censure list is a compounding problem that affects a university’s ability to attract students, and also puts professors in the position of having to answer “embarassing” questions at conferences with colleagues or when seeking grants, said Mirando, who is also the president of the AAUP chapter at SLU.
“Why would a philanthropic organization give a grant to an institution that disrespects tenure and academic freedom,” he said.
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