Tenure under threat as US university mulls department closures

Financially troubled institution suggests senior faculty vulnerable

September 4, 2019
Source: Getty

Academics at the US’ leading historically black university fear for their futures after managers confirmed that their tenure was tied only to their departments – which are at risk of closure – rather than the institution itself, and drastically cut other employment protections.

Years of budgetary struggles and the need to renew campus-wide accreditation have led Washington-based Howard University to launch a “programme prioritisation” exercise that is widely expected to result in the closure of some academic units.

The threat has grown more ominous after administrators clarified that tenure protections existed only within the department that conferred them.

“It was made clear that nothing is ruled out,” said Marcus Alfred, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Howard, who serves as chair of the faculty senate.

A university spokeswoman said tenure protections at Howard had never had institution-wide effect, and Dr Alfred said that that may technically be accurate, but that it had been less of a factor until this summer, when Howard issued the first update of its faculty handbook since 1993 and emphasised the departmental limitation.

Howard is not the only institution to have such a policy. But the American Association of University Professors said that it opposed such policies and urged that any use of them be done in a way that is clearly not punitive.

AAUP standards, said Gregory Scholtz, director of the association’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, required universities to make “every effort” to help tenured faculty find a new position within the institution if their department is eliminated.

“And, if that proves to be impossible, [universities should] provide training and assistance in order for the faculty to secure another suitable position elsewhere,” Dr Scholtz said.

Howard’s new handbook does commit to making “every reasonable effort” to find new positions for tenured faculty affected by financial exigency.

But additional policies announced by Howard administrators have added to academics’ concern, Dr Alfred said. They include cutting severance pay from 12 months to 120 days in the event financial exigency is declared, ending the faculty right to initiate a grievance process if terminated in such cases, ending faculty senate authority to review matters relating to probationary appointments, and giving administrators new powers to initiate disciplinary actions against faculty.

Howard also announced that it is ending its adherence to the AAUP’s longstanding principles for protecting academic freedom and tenure, Dr Alfred said.

Howard, which Dr Alfred said has about 900 tenured and tenure-track faculty, did not address questions about the institution's reasons for those changes.

The university’s recent financial troubles have included a scandal reported last year in which it fired six employees of its financial aid office accused of fraud. Later in the year, it was placed by the US Education Department on a list of institutions subject to heightened cash monitoring – a move likely to have increased its borrowing costs.

With the autumn term just getting under way, Dr Alfred said he hoped to soon get a sense of faculty reaction to the university positions on tenure, academic freedom and salaries. But he also said that he knew the likely answer.

“They’re not going to be happy about this,” he said.


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