Kansas Board of Regents endorse policy to speed university staff, tenured faculty dismissals

Step follows financial damage from COVID-19, governor’s budget cuts

University of Kansas chancellor Doug Girod and Gov. Laura Kelly chat during a recent groundbreaking ceremony at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
University of Kansas chancellor Doug Girod and Gov. Laura Kelly chat during a recent groundbreaking ceremony at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Board of Regents voted to endorse a two-year policy making it easier for state universities to suspend, dismiss or terminate employees, including tenured faculty members, without initiating the process of formally declaring a financial emergency.

The extraordinary proposal unanimously adopted Wednesday was based on financial damage to the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and the four other state universities by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another issue motivating development of the policy was Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision in June to cut higher education appropriations by $35 million and her recommendation last week to the Kansas Legislature for a $27 million reduction in state aid to the universities. The Board of Regents asked the governor to restore the $35 million and hold the line in the new state budget.

“This is obviously a substantive policy that will create a lot of discussion and concern,” said Shelly Kiblinger, a Cherryvale member of the Board of Regents. “Certainly, this outlines a much better process for how this would unfold should a university need to put this in place.”

Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, a Wichita State University professor and representative of the university faculty senate organizations, said the policy effective through 2022 was troubling. There are ways for universities to deal with financial struggle without eliminating tenured faculty, he said.

A subcommittee of the Kansas Board of Regents unanimously agreed to forward to the full board a proposal that would create a one-year policy defining an alternative process for universities to terminate employees across the board, including tenured faculty. (Screenshot of Board of Regents meeting/Kansas Reflector)
A subcommittee of the Kansas Board of Regents unanimously agreed Wednesday to forward to the full board a proposal establishing for one year an alternative process for state universities to terminate employees, including tenured faculty. (Screenshot of Board of Regents meeting/Kansas Reflector)

“I do want to express a lot of grave concern about this policy,” he said. “I believe it will make it difficult to recruit tenure-track faculty in the future. It potentially could open us up to lawsuits for discrimination or harassment.”

The six state universities — including Emporia, Pittsburg and Fort Hays universities — have been spending down reserves and drawing upon federal emergency assistance during a pandemic that forced closure of many campus subsidiary businesses, including dormitories, and interrupted operation of athletic programs. The pandemic-inspired transition to a mixture of online and in-person instruction at universities contributed to erosion of student enrollment and tuition revenue.

The Board of Regents’ policy would apply to university employees across the board. However, universities wouldn’t be forced to pursue the alternative approach to reducing payroll.

“This at least gives them the option,” said Cheryl Harrison-Lee, a Gardner member of the Board of Regents. “As we are in these unprecedented times, to give our CEOs an option to look at their organizations and just see what they need to do.”

Each participating university would submit to the Board of Regents for review a framework for implementing the policy. Individuals given notice of termination would have an avenue to appeal to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings. A hearing officer’s decision would be final and anyone reinstated would receive back pay and restoration of lost benefits. Built into the policy proposal are deadlines for employees and officials engaged in challenges to an ouster. The policy wouldn’t automatically trump contracts with university employees.

Jon Rolph, another member of the Board of Regents’ subcommittee endorsing the idea, said steps must be taken to deal with indiscriminate termination, dismissal or suspension of university employees at all levels.

“Protecting against witch hunts and things like that, or feeling that is happening, is important,” said Rolph, of Wichita. “Obviously, there’s a lot to balance here and a lot to consider. We all want the strongest regents system we can.”

Under existing Board of Regents’ policy, a state university must formally recognize a financial exigency that required elimination of nontenured positions and operating expenditures. With the declaration, the universities could move ahead with reductions in tenured faculty positions.

The budget proposal outlined by the governor, which serves as starting point of discussion during legislative session, would slash state aid to the six universities by $27 million in the fiscal year starting July 1. Kelly set aside funding for raises to state agency employees, but suggested a $10 million block grant to the Board of Regents to utilize at its discretion.

Doug Girod, chancellor at the University of Kansas, said the budget submitted by the governor would equate to a $13.6 million reduction for KU’s main campus in Lawrence and the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas.

“As a percentage, this would be the largest cut to KU since 2010. As a total dollar amount, this would be the largest cut to KU in history,” Girod said.

He said KU was facing an estimated revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year of $74 million that “will require us to eliminate programs and departments, reduce services, and implement furloughs and layoffs on a large scale. A reduction in state funding would necessitate these measures be even more drastic, causing irreparable harm to KU and further diminishing our ability to serve Kansans.”

Richard Myers, president at Kansas State University, said the financial hit of the governor’s recommendation to the Legislature would total $9.5 million at KSU. He said the  proposed 5.5% reduction applicable to Kansas State would be the most significant cut since 2009.

“The current fiscal year has been difficult as we are in the midst of a belt-tightening unlike any in recent history,” Myers 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.”

The KSU president said the disinvestment in higher education in Kansas didn’t bode well for the future of the state, nor the health of its universities. The return on investment for higher education has been demonstrated time and again, this trend must be reversed if Kansas is to see economic growth and a more prosperous citizenry, he said.