Emporia State University racks up $18K bill for fired professors’ appeals

By: - July 24, 2023 11:27 am
Enrollment in the Kansas Board of Regents system of public universities and colleges this fall grew by 2% despite the 12.5% enrollment collapse at Emporia State University. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

As of March 30, the Office of Administrative Hearings provided $17,761.75 in services to Emporia State University for handling the appeals of fired professors. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Emporia State University has accrued almost $18,000 in service fees to the Office of Administrative Hearings for the appeals of professors fired in September 2022.

In October 2022, ESU president Ken Hush signed an interagency agreement between the university and OAH outlining financial arrangements for the services provided by the office and that its director would assign presiding officers for the cases.

“That’s a lot of money for a university that supposedly is in such financial distress that they had to fire all of us to pay,” said Rachelle Smith, a former ESU English professor who was fired as part of the restructuring that allowed for the termination of 33 faculty members.

The agreement outlined a service bill of $115 per hour with a tenth of an hour minimum charge. As of March 30, $17,761.75 had been accrued in payments.

Kansas Reflector obtained billing information from OAH through an open records request.

In June, Gwen Larson, spokeswoman for ESU, said the university had not received a billing statement. She did not respond to a request for comment for this article. 

After the faculty members were fired, a number of them appealed the termination with OAH. Of those who appealed, five were reinstated because the university failed to provide a specific reason for firing them. ESU responded with petitions in Lyon County District Court seeking to reverse the orders and rule in favor of the university.

When they were fired, the professors were given a list of factors contributing to the decision, including cost of operations and reduction of revenue for specific schools or departments.  

“Once they spent this money, when the decision didn’t turn out the way they thought it should, they’re spending more money to sue in another venue to get the outcome that they want,” Smith said. “This isn’t what a state government should be doing.”

The office upheld the firings of two professors and has not released a decision on four others. Three professors decided to drop their appeals and retire, including Smith. 

Of these retirees was Mel Storm, a former English professor who taught at ESU for 52 years and was named Roe R. Cross Distinguished Professor in 1985. Storm said that in his notice of retirement he made clear that he was not retiring voluntarily, but because he had to or be fired.  

Turning 80 only days after his final day as a faculty member of the university, Storm said he had no intention of retiring and wanted to continue teaching as long as his health allowed. He said he was probably as resentful as other faculty members because he had given so much of his life to ESU. 

“The university is taking a substantial pot of money that seems to grow, that could have been put into the strengthening and continuation of academic programs, and using that money to defend the results of some very bad decision making,” Storm said.

On July 12, 11 of the professors filed a federal lawsuit accusing ESU administrators, Kansas Board of Regents members and others of conspiring to fire tenured and “problematic” professors.

Phillip Gragson and Amanda Vogelsberg, the professor’s attorneys, declined to comment for this article.

With multiple appeals awaiting decisions by the Office of Administrative Hearings, the interagency agreement has been extended for another year, expiring June 30, 2024, said Loren Snell, acting director and public information officer. He said the office doesn’t expect proceedings to last the entire year.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year Mel Storm was named Roe R. Cross Distinguished Professor.

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Sam Bailey
Sam Bailey

Sam Bailey graduated from Emporia State University in 2023, where she majored in communication and was the managing editor for the ESU Bulletin, the campus newspaper. She was named Kansas Collegiate Media Journalist of the Year for four-year Kansas schools in 2023. She also won Journalist of the Year in 2021 for two-year schools when she was editor for the Hutchinson Community College student newspaper. She has won awards for her investigative reporting and has covered issues that include student debt, a university presidential search and the firing of 33 professors in 2022.