• August 29, 2014

AAUP Censures 3 Louisiana Universities and Rebukes U. of Virginia

Members of the American Association of University Professors unanimously voted at the organization's annual conference Saturday to censure the administrations of three Louisiana public universities for alleged violations of their faculty members' rights.

Members of the organization, nearly 350 of whom were on hand for its meeting, also adopted by unanimous voice vote a resolution expressing "deep concern" over the manner in which the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors recently obtained the resignation of Teresa A. Sullivan as that institution's president. The resolution expressed "dismay that due process for President Sullivan and the legitimate interests of the UVa faculty have been ignored" and called on the board to "reconsider its decisions."

In the cases of the Louisiana institutions, the group voted to censure the administrations of two, Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University, based on its conclusion that they had violated the rights of tenured faculty members whose appointments were terminated last year during budget-cutting

Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana, which are part of the University of Louisiana system, directed requests for comment on the AAUP censure votes to the system's administration, which has previously challenged the report of the AAUP panel that investigated the two institutions. The administration said the report was riddled with factual errors and failed to prove that the universities had eliminated the positions in a manner inconsistent with its handbook, management board rules and policies, and state law. On Saturday, the system responded to the votes with a statement in which Randy Moffett, its president, reiterated those complaints and said the AAUP had "blatantly ignored the dire financial situation" that prompted the two universities to take such actions.

The administration of the state's flagship public university, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, was censured by the AAUP for allegedly violating the due-process and academic-freedom rights of two faculty members: Ivor van Heerden, a nontenured hurricane researcher who clashed with his supervisors and lost his job in 2009 after criticizing the levees that failed to protect New Orleans from flooding after Hurricane Katrina, and Dominique G. Homberger, a tenured biology professor who was suspended from teaching a course in 2010 following complaints that she had graded students too harshly.

Michael V. Martin, Louisiana State's chancellor, said in a written statement issued Thursday, in anticipation of the AAUP votes, "We have done our best to get to the bottom of these issues and have handled them appropriately." He argued that in both cases the AAUP "did not speak to me at all and can't know all of the details," but he declined to discuss the specifics of either case, citing pending litigation in the disputes and concern for employee confidentiality.

Downward Mobility

The AAUP investigation that led to censure of Northwestern State University came in response to that institution's decision last year to terminate the appointments of 16 tenured professors as it moved to discontinue, without any declaration of financial exigency, 25 programs, minors, or concentrations that graduated relatively few students.

In a statement recommending censure of the university, the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure argued that Northwestern State's administration violated AAUP principles by showing "utter disregard for tenure" and by disregarding the judgment of faculty "in virtually every aspect" of the process though which it discontinued programs.

"Decisions central to the educational mission of the institution were made behind the scenes by chief administrative officers, and determinations of program discontinuance were formulated by an administration-appointed committee with minimal faculty representation," the committee's statement said.

The university's administration, it said, placed no priority on the protection of tenure rights, chose to avoid honoring tenure commitments even where the quality of education was likely to suffer, terminated the appointments of tenured faculty members before those of untenured faculty, and did not give the affected professors hearings before any sort of faculty panel. The university's administration also failed to make reasonable efforts to relocate the affected professors in other suitable positions and "left some tenured professors with no alternative to taking contingent untenured positions with increased teaching loads and at drastically reduced salaries."

Farewell to French

The AAUP's investigation of Southeastern Louisiana University came in response to its decisions to terminate the appointments of three tenured professors of French in discontinuing two majors dealing with that language. Committee A's statement calling for censure said the university violated AAUP principles by making the termination decisions "absent any consultation with the appropriate faculty bodies" and by denying the professors "the basic elements of academic due process."

The Committee A statement said a Faculty Senate panel that heard appeals by two of the French professors called for the administration to leave the professors' department, jobs, and tenure intact, noting that the university continues to offer many French courses. But the administration, which had refused to tell the professors why they had been singled out for termination, rejected the Faculty Senate panel's recommendation without offering any rebuttal. The administration offered the two professors only contingent, untenured positions with increased teaching loads and drastically reduced pay, the statement said. (The third professor whose appointment was terminated chose to retire.)

Southeastern Louisiana's administration justified the appointment terminations as necessary cost-savings, but the AAUP's investigation concluded that any financial savings achieved through the terminations "were grossly offset" by the costs to the university in terms of resulting litigation, damage to French-American relations in Louisiana, and a loss of faculty confidence in the administration, the Committee A statement said. It said the AAUP panel that investigated Southeastern expressed "grave concern" that a growing number of faculty members there said they feared retaliation for taking stands against the administration.

Margaret Marshall, an AAUP member and one of the French professors who lost their jobs, responded to the censure vote by thanking those who had cast it and accusing Southeastern's administration of replacing the dismissed professors with instructors who were much less qualified. "What they did was so terribly unfair, and compromises not only the system of tenure but the quality of education," Ms. Marshall said.

President Moffett's statement in response to the AAUP's votes to censure the two universities in his system argued that being placed on the organization's censure list "has little, if any, practical implication" because the organization "holds no authority over higher education" and represents only a small fraction of the nation's instructional staff.

"If the AAUP wants to be a relevant organization," Mr. Moffett said, "its efforts would be better served by working with higher education in advocating for adequate funding of institutions, thus mitigating the need for universities to close programs and associated faculty positions."

Pressure From the Top

Committee A's statement recommending censure of Louisiana State described the cases of Ms. Homberger, the biology professor who was removed from the classroom after giving her students low grades, and Mr. van Heerden, the hurricane researcher who lost his job after criticizing the New Orleans levees' construction, as "different in the administrative officers involved and in the matters under dispute but alike in putting core issues of academic freedom to the test."

Louisiana State violated Ms. Homberger's academic freedom to teach and her right to assign student grades, and denied her due process by suspending her from teaching without affording her a faculty hearing, the statement said.

In summarizing the case of Mr. van Heerden, the Committee A statement accused Louisiana State's administration of violating his academic freedom and denying him due process by taking steps to restrain his public activities, distancing itself from those activities, and deciding not to renew his appointment in response to his criticisms of the levees. The administrators were worried that Mr. van Heerden was offending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which the university was looking to for financing and assistance in its coastal restoration projects, by placing blame for the levees' failure on flaws in their construction, which the corps had overseen.

Sudhir Trivedi, a professor of computer science at Louisiana State and vice president of the AAUP's Louisiana state conference, responded to the censure vote by urging the organization to consider speaking out against the Louisiana Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education in that state. He argued that "academic freedom is being destroyed" there because "the current government of Louisiana wants do to that."

Cavalier Attitude?

The AAUP's decision to take a stand on the upheaval at the University of Virginia came at the urging of the organization's Committee on College and University Governance. Its resolution endorsed and echoed the position that the executive council of the University of Virginia's Faculty Senate has taken on the matter, arguing that Ms. Sullivan's performance during her two years in office "was strongly supported by the university's academic community."

The resolution accused the university's Board of Visitors of violating AAUP principles by seeking Ms. Sullivan's resignation "reportedly without previous or subsequent explanation to her, to the other chief administrative officers, and to the university's faculty and student body, of the specific grounds for its displeasure with her performance." The Board of Visitors has said little about Ms. Sullivan's resignation other than that it was mutually agreed upon.

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