Emporia State University was authorized Wednesday to lay off employees, including tenured professors, for a variety of reasons, including “current or future market considerations.” Many faculty members there counter that the plan essentially suspends tenure. The cuts have already started.
The move was made possible by the Kansas Board of Regents. Last January, the regents approved a policy that allowed six state universities to suspend or fire employees, including tenured professors, even if the institution had not declared financial difficulties or initiated the process. The board wanted to give its institutions the flexibility they need to cope with the financial strain caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the regents said at the time.
For a year and a half, no university followed this policy. That changed this week. Emporia State presented the regents with a brief “workforce management framework” outlining the university’s criteria for reducing staff, some of which mirror the policy wording. Regents unanimously approved the framework at Wednesday’s meeting. Before the vote, board member Cynthia Lane noted that it “is a tool that should be used sparingly.”
University President Ken Hush, explaining why he thought the tool was necessary, told the board that the university has for years implemented traditional budget-cutting measures such as hiring freezes, spending caps and voluntary retirements. It’s been “death by a thousand,” Hush said. But “it just doesn’t work for us anymore, programmatically or financially.” Costs continue to rise, he said, as enrollment declines. (According to a university spokeswoman, campus enrollment declined 24 percent between 2017 and 2021.)
“So what’s the choice? Charge students more? We don’t want to do that,” Hush said. “It’s going to have an impact on Kansas families. Continue to cut costs – a method we know doesn’t work? Constantly putting the burden on the students is a failure of our – ESU’s – past strategies and is no longer acceptable. (Hush was named Emporia State’s president in June. He thinks it’s an unusual choice no higher educationAccording to the student newspaper, he was the interim president from November.)
According to the approved framework, the university may “suspend, fire or lay off” employees based on factors such as, but not limited to, low enrollment, operating costs, declining revenue for specific departments or schools, current or future market considerations, restructuring, realignment of resources, performance evaluations , teaching and research productivity and “low service productivity”. Affected employees may file a complaint with the state Office of Administrative Hearings. The burden of proof is on the employee and “no discovery will be permitted,” the document says.
About 7 percent of Emporia State’s workforce will be affected, Hush told the regents. Most of those employees will be allowed to stay at the university through May 2023 and will have the option to receive three months of severance pay, he said in a campus email. (Media Relations Director Gwen Larson said Chronicle in a written response to questions that since the regents’ policy expires on Dec. 31, so will the university’s framework. (He said all program review and termination policies, as well as staff and faculty termination and tenure policies, will remain in place.)
The restructuring of the university’s workforce has been going on for several months, Hush told the board, and involved many people and groups on campus, including faculty. In January, all faculty and staff were told the university was going to “evaluate every inch of how we operate today,” Hush said, adding that staff were asked for their insights on what would make the institution better.
But the Faculty Senate disagrees that professors were meaningfully consulted. The Senate Executive Committee announced that academics were given only two working days to respond to the draft framework. (Larson noted that the proposal is two and a half pages long.)
“I think all faculty members understand that higher education is changing,” said executive committee member Brenda Koerner. “I think a large number of faculty will admit that some of this change is painful. I think the biggest insult here is that faculty were not involved in the process at all. He added that faculty “are always willing to see how we can adjust our programs according to students’ needs.”
Many Emporia State professors also take issue with the termination criteria themselves, which the executive committee called “broad, vague and ill-defined.” “If terminating employees, especially tenured faculty, is indeed strategic, that strategy should be transparent,” the committee wrote in its response to the bill. Ultimately, this process forces good faculty to leave, “especially at a time when faculty morale is so low.”
Larson spoke Chronicle that the new framework “is a policy that provides guidance for determining the programs that we will move away from. To some, this may seem vague.
The framework appears to run counter to standards set by the American Association of University Professors, said Mark Criley, senior program officer there. If an institution is in financial crisis, Criley said, the faculty must first be involved to determine if it is bad enough that the educational mission is in jeopardy and if less drastic steps than terminations can be taken. If not, the faculty, because of their expertise, must have a “primary role in deciding the future of the institution’s academic mission.” A university that leaves faculty out of those decisions puts its mission at risk, Criley said.
Interim Provost Brent Thomas painted a picture of the process Emporia State used to consider faculty members. At Wednesday’s board meeting, he said “it would be unreasonable, counterproductive and frankly unethical to ask faculty to make decisions about people and programs across the university. We didn’t believe we should put our faculty in situations where they were forced to point to each other as targets for restructuring. He added, that the university values the important role of tenure in higher education, saying, “A successful long-term program cannot be built on the backs of adjunct faculty.”
It is not clear which programs will be closed or who will be let go. In a Sept. 7 email to the campus, Hush identified programs such as nursing, business and biology that the university is “aligning its resources.” Hush said in a campus email Wednesday that affected employees will be notified as soon as possible by Friday.
Shortly after Koerner, a tenured professor of biological sciences, got off the phone Chronicle, he received another call. He was called to a meeting with Interim Dean Thomas late Thursday morning. He already knew what was coming.
Koerner was told he wouldn’t have a job at Emporia State in mid-May. He was given a letter listing the factors behind the new policy.
Koerner isn’t sure what he’ll do next. He has worked at Emporia State since 2005. It was his first job after graduating from college. He said it was possible he would step down from the top job altogether.
Right now, she said in a text message, she feels undervalued and exhausted. He told his students that he would not be in class tomorrow. He’s taking the day off to process the news.