National faculty group to investigate layoffs, finances and academic freedom at Emporia State

By: - October 20, 2022 4:28 pm
A statue of Corky the hornet stares down from wall

A statue of Corky, the Emporia State University mascot, is shown Sept. 9, 2022, at the university campus. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The American Association of University Professors says it will investigate the dismissal of tenured faculty members at Emporia State University, a move that could result in adding the university to a list of censured institutions.

The university in September took emergency action to eliminate the jobs of 33 faculty members, most of whom were tenured professors, and eliminated several programs as part of a strategic realignment. The Kansas Board of Regents endorsed the moves.

The AAUP investigation will examine whether the university’s financial condition was dire enough to justify the suspension of tenure, the faculty’s role in university plans, which programs were discontinued and general conditions for academic freedom.

A spokeswoman for ESU said the administration disagrees with allegations made by AAUP and won’t participate in the inquiry.

Michael DeCesare, a senior program officer for AAUP and a professor of sociology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said affected faculty at ESU aren’t convinced the university faced financial distress warranting the suspension of tenure.

The investigating committee, he said, will look at “the absence of any specific rationale in any of the termination notices.”

“From what we’ve seen so far, it appears there is no rhyme or reason for how these faculty members were selected,” DeCesare said.

ESU’s “framework for workforce management” identified numerous reasons for why employees could be dismissed, including low enrollment, cost of operations, current or future market considerations, realignment of resources, performance evaluations, teaching and research productivity, low service productivity, and employee conduct.

Faculty members were called to a mandatory meeting at an off-campus building, where they learned they were being dismissed. They weren’t given a specific reason.

Gwen Larson, a spokeswoman for the university, said “personnel decisions were based on the outcome of a comprehensive programmatic review.”

“Emporia State University does not agree with the allegations made by AAUP,” Larson said. “We respect AAUP’s wish to investigate, but firmly believe the facts will support that actions taken are in alignment with applicable university policy and the governing policy of the Kansas Board of Regents. ESU is committed to moving forward with strategic reinvestments that deliver elevated, best-in-class programs to today’s students and will ultimately benefit Kansas families and the Kansas workforce.”

After eliminating programs that include English, journalism, history and debate, the university has made a series of announcements about plans to increase investments in nursing, computer science, music and art. The new investments include 12 full-time staff members, including four tenure-track professors.

Larson said the new investments are part of a long-term strategy for expansion, based in part on “Kansas workforce needs.”

DeCesare said the new investments “seem to suggest that the university is certainly not in a demonstrably bonafide financial exigency condition, as our standards call for.”

AAUP sent a letter to ESU in late September asking the administration to rescind faculty layoffs. The letter said the actions have “grave implications” for tenure and academic freedom at the university.

The AAUP’s decision to launch an investigation into Emporia State, DeCesare said, “speaks to the severity and gravity of what seems to have happened there.”

“It also speaks to what appear to be inadequate conditions for academic freedom and tenure at the university,” DeCesare said.

He said tenure is “not kind of a gold star for being an excellent scholar or a great teacher.” Instead, he said, it’s a means to achieve academic freedom. If tenure can be taken away, he said, academic freedom doesn’t exist.

The AAUP investigation will involve two or three faculty members from institutions across the country who have no connection to ESU or the affected faculty. They will attempt to conduct interviews with administrators, including the ESU president and Board of Regents chairman, as well as faculty senate members.

Larson said the university administration won’t participate in the investigation because it is currently involved in the appeals process for dismissed faculty members. She said the university won’t retaliate against any faculty members who participate in the investigation.

DeCesare said the association relies on “moral suasion to try to get administrations to do the right thing — namely, adhere to our standards.” But that doesn’t always work.

The AAUP has placed 57 institutions on its censured list since 1969, including 14 in the past 10 years. Placement on the list could hurt ESU’s ability to hire talented professors or recruit students.

“It’s kind of a black eye for the institution, more than anything else, to be on this list,” DeCesare said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.