Emporia State University awarded bonuses to 68 faculty after firing tenured professors
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. (Margaret Mellott/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Six weeks after Emporia State University fired tenured professors in a cost-saving move last fall, the university secretly awarded $137,741 in performance bonuses to select faculty members.
Kansas Reflector obtained financial documents confirming the bonus payments after filing a records request with the university. The documents show 68 faculty members received amounts ranging from $210 for a lecturer to as much as $3,887 for an associate professor who also serves as faculty senate president.
The payments were made against the backdrop of controversy surrounding the university’s “realignment” plans, which involved firing 33 faculty members, including tenured professors, under an emergency policy the Kansas Board of Regents unanimously approved. The university eliminated multiple programs and invested in new ones without disclosing research that supports the decisions.
Meanwhile, the university made plans to award thousands of dollars to dozens of remaining faculty members, including lecturers, instructors, professors, assistant professors, and associate professors. Four individuals — including a visiting professor — received less than $1,000. Five professors and two associate professors received more than $3,000.
“It gives the illusion, whether it’s true or not, that they are paying for your silence or for your support of the plan, even though we don’t really know how to articulate the plan,” said Emporia Mayor Susan Brinkman, a former ESU faculty member whose job at the university was eliminated in 2021.
ESU spokeswoman Gwen Larson didn’t respond to multiple inquiries Tuesday about the performance bonuses, leaving unresolved questions: What is the philosophy behind giving performance bonuses to faculty? How were faculty chosen for a bonus, and how were the amounts determined? Will the bonuses be awarded annually? Did the university ask faculty members who received a bonus to sign a nondisclosure agreement?
Kansas Reflector filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act on March 1 for records sufficient to identify the names and titles of faculty who have received performance bonuses during the current academic year, as well as the date and amount of those bonuses. The university asked for $700 to fulfill the request, claiming that the records would require 20 hours of staff time at $35 per hour. Kansas Reflector paid the fee after receiving an outpouring of donations from readers.
On Monday, the university provided 136 pages of documents and an $87.50 refund because the work was completed with 2.5 hours to spare.
General counsel Kevin Johnson forwarded an email from human resources director Ray Lauber that identifies the salary information included in the documents as performance bonuses. The documents show every bonus was awarded for the pay period that began Oct. 30.
At $3,887, Shawn Keough, an associate professor of business administration who also serves as faculty senate president, received the largest bonus. Most of the faculty members who received a performance bonus received between $1,700 and $2,900.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the university employed 227 full-time and 27 part-time faculty members in the 2021-2022 school year. That means roughly one-third of remaining faculty members received a performance bonus.
Mel Storm, an English professor who was among the fired tenured professors, said the university has “a long-established procedure” for awarding merit. In each department, faculty members select a committee that makes recommendations to the administration on tenure, promotion and merit. When money is available, raises are based on merit ratings.
“Merit is determined by carefully evaluating evidence of teaching, scholarship, and service,” Storm said, and the system ensures personnel decisions are not “subject to the whims of administrators.”
The decision to award “performance bonuses” in secret, based on undisclosed reasons, to a fraction of staff is unprecedented for the university.
“I’ve spent over five decades in university teaching, and in this corner of the workplace, admittedly a unique corner, a performance bonus is a new concept — at least to me,” Storm said. “To steal a line from, I think, Alexander Haig, it’s the most unheard-of thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Matt Keith, spokesman for the Kansas Board of Regents, responded to a question about whether any other state university has awarded performance bonuses by saying the board doesn’t track personnel information. The decision to award performance bonuses falls under the purview of each state university CEO, Keith said.
At ESU, the decision would be authorized by president Ken Hush.
Brinkman said she never experienced anything like a performance bonus in her 20 years of working for the university.
“It’s really unprecedented in higher education,” Brinkman said. “I think it’s a pretty common play out of the Business 101 playbook. When you’re making some radical changes within a business or organization, there are going to be staff that you identify that you want to keep, that you want to keep quiet, or that you want to be on your team shouting from the rooftops. And so they are awarded monetarily to do so.”
Brinkman, who owns the Bourbon Cowboy dance bar and pool hall in Emporia, said she is concerned about the university’s connection to the health of her community.
“With each piece of news that we receive, or don’t receive, in some cases, it just makes it more difficult for us to trust, to heal, or to figure out how to move forward,” Brinkman said.
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