Emporia State University is about to suspend tenure. Here’s why you should care.

September 13, 2022 3:33 am
Emporia State University president Ken Hush, says financial realities compelled ESU to realign the budget through a process that includes employee layoffs and changes in academic programs.

Ken Hush, president at Emporia State University, said financial realities compel ESU to consider realigning the budget through process that could include employee layoffs and changes in of academic programs. (Margaret Mellott/Kansas Reflector)

I may be fired for writing this.

It would be an improper firing, a violation of my First Amendment rights as a university professor, an infringement of the ability to pursue my discipline and state the truth as I see it in the marketplace of ideas. The given reason might be restructuring, a need for change, a response to a crisis, or even “conduct.” But I fear the underlying reason for my firing, and that of my colleagues, would be that it’s a political maneuver to end tenure.

Outspoken professors like me would ordinarily rely on the protection offered by tenure, but shortly after you read this column, that foundational protection may have already been suspended at Emporia State University, one of six public universities in Kansas.

A plan to restructure the school and allow the firing of faculty members with only a 30-day notice is expected to be approved this week by the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education. If adopted, the “workforce management plan” would effectively suspend tenure for the fall 2022 semester.

A semester doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough time to wreck careers and burn down programs that have taken decades to build. It’s enough time to change an institution that has contributed to the common good in Kansas for more than 150 years to one that is dedicated to … well, we just don’t know yet.

There are few details in the draft “workforce management plan” presented to faculty just last Wednesday, no metrics by which to consider the closing of programs or the firing of instructors. There is a lot of hot air about being “forward focused and future ready.”

The draft is not a management plan, as observed by one professor at a faculty forum on Friday, but a blueprint to quickly terminate employees — and not just faculty, but classified staff, graduate assistants, anybody the university administration might want gone. The reasons for termination are so broad as to invite abuse, and range from program restructuring to employee conduct deemed disruptive of the work environment.

That could mean writing columns like this one, which are critical of university policy. I’ve never written much before about the university, at least not in column form, because I always considered it to be off tone. Self-serving.

But now is the time, and I do it not merely in my own self-interest, but to give voice to what many of my colleagues feel but cannot say for fear of reprisal.

The Emporia State University campus rests under a blanket of snow last year. (Lucas Lord for Kansas Reflector)

Nobody denies the university is under financial pressure caused by COVID-19, somewhat declining enrollments, and changes in state funding over the past 20 years. Just about everyone, including professors, agrees that tuition is just too damned high. But professors aren’t the cause of that and, in fact, the pay for most of us who teach at Emporia State hasn’t even kept pace with the adjustments given across-the-board to state employees in the last few years. There’s been a lot of talk by administrators about anticipated enrollment drops, and some programs — especially those in the humanities — have been cut time and again. But from 2017 to 2021, overall enrollment at ESU has dropped only about 2%, according to KBOR data. The university disingenuously provided a misleading “fever chart” graph that, by manipulating the scale, showed that slight drop in enrollment as not a molehill but a mountainous plunge.

It’s only one of things the administration has been less than truthful about. Just consider the announcement that came from president Ken Hush on Wednesday telling faculty the emergency framework had already been submitted to KBOR. It hadn’t. An email from the faculty president late that night said the statement was “misleading” because the draft had not been submitted and feedback from the faculty had not yet been gathered. We were given about two business days to provide that feedback, an impossible deadline.

The termination policy, to call it what it is, is a desperate attempt to dismantle tenure at a state school and establish a cultural beachhead upon which others can land. Would it save money? Sure, in the same way that ending school lunches or cutting funds to the local fire department would save money. But it’s not a wise strategy, especially if your goal is to make your community better for everyone — or just to keep the town from burning down.

Tenure is no ivory tower; it’s as essential to higher education as the fire department is to your community. At Emporia State, as at most colleges, tenure is hard won. It is awarded only after a person already has a sufficiently advanced degree, is hired as an assistant professor, and puts in five to seven years of probationary time during which they demonstrate their ability to research, teach and contribute meaningfully to the campus community. Tenure isn’t given automatically, and many hardworking individuals fail to achieve it. It is granted based on rigorous university and department standards, which include student and peer evaluations. Tenure is not the same as promotion, although gaining it typically comes with an advancement in rank, usually to associate professor.

There’s little doubt that the university’s move to end tenure is in response to pressure from the deeply conservative Kansas Legislature, and I’ve heard the former university provost Gary Wyatt say as much. Once, in a department meeting, he told us that legislators viewed tenured professors as “the enemy.” Then again, at a faculty address this fall, he said the campus would have to come to grips with the reality that we live in a state that is mostly Republican, with a legislature that is GOP dominated. How much clearer could he make it? To his credit, Wyatt is one of the few administrators willing to speak the truth on the issue.

This draft policy, aimed to please most Republican lawmakers, will be submitted under a COVID-era KBOR plan that would allow universities to create alternate paths to summarily fire professors instead of adhering to long-established rules that required the university to either declare financial exigency, meaning a crisis in which there is no option but to terminate appointments of tenured faculty, or to follow the lengthy established process for program termination. Passed in January 2021 by KBOR, the policy was meant to give universities a tool to deal with the financial stress of the pandemic, lower enrollments and tight budgets. None of the six state universities implemented the policy, although the University of Kansas flirted with it before an intense backlash from faculty and students.

The KBOR policy was slated to expire July 1 of this year, but in June the regents extended it for another six months.

After the official announcement of Ken Hush being voted the next president of Emporia State University, Hush spent time talking with the faculty, staff, students and community members who attended the event. (Margaret Mellott/Kansas Reflector)

The same week KBOR extended the “workforce management” policy, it also hired a new president for Emporia State: Ken Hush. An ESU alum and former college tennis star, Hush had served as interim president since November 2021. Hush is a former CEO of Koch Carbon and, according to the Federal Election Commission database, a contributor of tens of thousands of dollars to KochPAC, which predominately funds conservative candidates for Congress.

Hush’s appointment as president came as a surprise to campus because many assumed a presidential search would select someone from the outside with an advanced degree. Hush holds a dual major bachelor’s, in business and marketing, making him the least academically credentialed of the leaders of the six universities in Kansas.

The presidential search process, unlike all previous searches at ESU, was a closed one, veiled in secrecy. There was no announcement of finalists or opportunities for faculty, students and staff to evaluate them, whoever they were. The chairman of the search committee was another former ESU tennis athlete, Greg Kossover — and a major donor to the new tennis complex on campus.

The selection of Hush at first seemed an odd fit.

Although he had served on the Wichita State University board of trustees, he didn’t have a deep background in public service in a classroom setting. He had run a Koch company that specialized in bulk commodities of coal and petroleum coke, and contributed heavily to a PAC that funded candidates who were often climate change deniers.

The libertarian Koch brothers, of course, kicked off the current culture war during the Obama years with their support of the Tea Party. The university and KBOR both refused to release a resume or curriculum vitae for Hush, something that most schools share with pride.

Even before school started this fall, Hush put his foot in his mouth when talking to the editor of the campus newspaper, saying  “I laugh” at criticism of his decision to close a program that offered the only child care on campus. Such condescension seems a feature, not a bug.

It all makes perfect sense now, considering how devalued higher education has become. We are quickly moving toward an oligarchy where only money and power matter. What has traditionally been rewarded in higher education, merit in the form of academic achievement and expertise in a discipline, is sneered at because it doesn’t make it rain.

I've always believed higher education was mostly involved in making citizens. But I guess the laugh is on me. Those in power are looting the culture of higher education like somebody would after a fire or a tornado or any other disaster.

– Max McCoy

There is little recognition at ESU that a public university serves a broader good, to the community and to the state, than just providing workers. I’ve always believed higher education was mostly involved in making citizens. But I guess the laugh is on me. Those in power are looting the culture of higher education like somebody would after a fire or a tornado or any other disaster.

Or a pandemic.

It will be a loss for the students, for the community and for the state.

I’m not against change. Innovation is necessary. But one of the goals of tenure is to protect institutions from sudden and catastrophic change.

“Tenure promotes stability,” says the American Association of University Professors. “Faculty members who are committed to the institution can develop ties with the local community, pursue ongoing research projects, and mentor students and beginning scholars over the long term.”

Tenure also doesn’t protect professors from being fired for the kinds of things you would expect others to be fired for. Professors are subject to termination for chronic low performance or sexually assaulting a student, for example. That’s how it should be.

Tenure serves the public interest because society benefits when teachers and researchers are free of control by corporations, religious groups, special interests, and the government, according to the AAUP.

“Free inquiry, free expression, and open dissent are critical for student learning and the advancement of knowledge,” the association says. “Therefore, it is important to have systems in place to protect academic freedom. Tenure serves that purpose.”

Academic freedom is “of special concern to the First Amendment,” according to Justice William Brennan in a seminal 1967 Supreme Court decision, Keyishian v. Board of Regents. He wrote, “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely the teachers concerned.”

If that statement seems a little pie-in-the-sky for you, consider those countries that do not protect academic freedom, according to the Global Academic Freedom Index published by Education International. North Korea and China are among the worst offenders on the list.

“Academic freedom is part of the essential rights to maintain strong democracies,” according to EI. “High quality, independent research can serve as a sound basis for public decision-making and democratic debate. In recent years disinformation, often instantly and massively transmitted by social media, has distorted debate, spread hatred, and polarised opinion. A dramatic example is the spread of false information on global warming.”

What now for ESU?

Faculty members do not know.

But it just might be a country club for young fossil fuel entrepreneurs, each with a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” tucked beneath an elbow, drifting through an undergraduate “experience” complete with tennis courts and classrooms free of the inane nattering of humanities types like me.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category.