Inside Higher Ed: Tenured jobs saved

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

November 8, 2010

All 21 tenured faculty members at Florida State University who had been told that their positions were being eliminated will get to keep their jobs.

That’s the result of an arbitrator's ruling on Friday – and the university’s response to it. The arbitrator found that the university’s decision to eliminate the jobs of 12 tenured professors violated provisions of Florida State’s contract with its faculty union, the United Faculty of Florida, an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The university, while continuing to defend its actions, announced that it believed that all the tenured faculty members whose jobs had been eliminated should be treated the same way, and so rescinded the layoff notices given to 21 tenured faculty members.

The arbitrator, Stanley H. Sergent, a Florida lawyer, did not back all the union’s grievances, and largely found that the university was within its rights to eliminate various non-tenure-track positions. But in the cases of the tenured faculty members, Sergent detailed repeated, multiple violations of the rights of the tenured faculty members and described a decision-making process by the university that seemed to favour some professors over others, without regard to a collective bargaining agreement Florida State was bound to uphold.

That agreement had some provisions about tenured faculty members, but the provision that Sergent found in case after case to be violated was a measure requiring the university to consider the length of service of faculty members. The provision wasn’t written in a way to force that factor to be the single one to determine which jobs would be eliminated, but the university was required to consider years of service – a factor that would have worked in favour of the tenured faculty members, who had much more experience than some of those whose jobs were protected. But in many cases, the arbitrator found that the university completely ignored this requirement.

While the union and arbitrator did not contest the idea that Florida State faced deep budget cuts, the 83-page ruling repeatedly notes patterns of the university failing to meet obligations to which it had committed itself. University officials used the layoff process to “manipulate” decisions “to arbitrarily select who got laid off”, at times because of “personal judgment and relationships” and not established criteria, Sergent writes.

The Florida State ruling is a rare victory during the current economic downturn for protecting tenured jobs that have been eliminated. Long-standing tradition in higher education (based on the principles of the American Association of University Professors) requires that colleges protect the jobs of tenured faculty members unless the financial situation facing a college is so dire that “financial exigency” must be declared.

Even then, colleges are expected to involve faculty members in meaningful ways in the decision-making process and to do whatever is possible to protect tenured jobs. The economic downturn that started in the fall of 2008, however, has been notable for the extent to which colleges have eliminated tenured jobs without declaring financial exigency. While such actions have brought condemnations from faculty groups, the tenured faculty members at Florida State are actually going to keep their jobs.

While the arbitrator’s ruling at Florida State focused on the university’s refusal to consider factors such as years of service, the decision also highlights numerous instances in which the testimony of university administrators about how they selected people to dismiss was contradicted by the facts.

For instance, in the department of anthropology, one of those whose jobs were eliminated was Elizabeth Peters, who has 38 years of teaching at Florida State, giving her 20 years of seniority over some faculty members whose positions were retained. The arbitrator writes that since the university provided no evidence that it considered her seniority, that would by itself be enough to justify her reinstatement.

But the arbitrator also notes that the reason offered by the university – “teaching breadth” – couldn’t be supported. Peters, the arbitrator found, had taught more different courses than others in the department, had taught in three of the four anthropology subfields, and was the only faculty member consistently teaching the introductory anthropology course. Peters also teaches four of the anthropology department’s general education courses, which, the arbitrator notes, generate substantial tuition income for the department because they enrol non-majors. The justification offered by the administration “simply does not make sense”, the arbitrator writes, given that she has generated more anthropology credit hours in students taught than any other faculty member in the university’s history.

Furthermore, the arbitrator touches on an issue that has angered many faculty members in traditional liberal arts departments in this era of budget cuts: the idea that their departments are somehow evaluated as less financially viable than others that attract outside grants. The arbitrator uses anthropology – the target of cuts at Florida State – to challenge this thinking by noting, as many faculty members have, that its tuition revenue makes it financially strong (running a surplus in fact).

The finding compares anthropology (subject to deep cuts) with meteorology (which was protected), applying the administration’s stated goal of focusing on departments with high costs. Anthropology’s cost per degree awarded is $33,343, compared with more than $50,000 per meteorology degree. And anthropology’s net tuition earned exceeds that of 14 of the 17 departments in arts and sciences at the university. “It made no sense to eliminate anthropology from a budget standpoint,” the arbitrator writes.

The university’s statement did not discuss the details of the arbitrator’s ruling. But it summarised the university’s position the following way: “Florida State University has experienced enormous financial stress over the past three years with the loss of $85 million in state appropriations. There are no good outcomes when a university budget is cut by 25 percent. Florida State University believes strongly that it did the very best to protect program quality while being forced to balance its budget. We have always recognized that these decisions were difficult, especially for those directly affected.”

Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said via email that the decision illustrated the positive power that unions can bring to faculty members. “The arbitrator’s decision on behalf of a major research university faculty contract is an important confirmation of the power a union contract has to preserve faculty job security. It demonstrates why – in the current corporatized environment – faculty eligible to bargain collectively should promptly vote to do so. Even in those states that regard tenure itself as the equivalent of a contractual agreement, a legally enforceable union contract is still much more secure."

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