When Good Professors Are Laid Off for No Good Reason

News and views from academia.
March 20 2014 5:04 PM

Blindsided by Layoffs

Should professors have input on whether they’re terminated?

academic meeting.
Professors want a seat at the table when the decision is made whether to keep them on.

Photo by Noel Hendrickson/Thinkstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Laying off faculty should be the last course of action for struggling institutions, and professors should play a role in determining whether those layoffs are necessary—and, if so, how those layoffs happen, according to recommended and common shared governance practices.

But faculty members at two institutions that have terminated otherwise well-performing professors in recent weeks say they’re still in the dark as to how those decisions were made and whether they were really necessary.

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Both institutions are private, and so faculty members lack the access to open-records or open-meetings requirements of public institutions.

“We’ve put our heads together but we just can’t find a commonality,” said Robert Ingoglia, a longtime professor of history at Felician College in New Jersey and one of 16 professors who recently were told they won’t be coming back next year. The Roman Catholic college doesn’t have tenure, but some of the terminated professors have been there for more than 20 years. “I was just up for retention and I got a [perfect] score.”

Ingoglia continued: “Some students don’t like me, but I’m fair and rigorous, and many of the students I interact with love me. I’m just really hurt by this, to say the least.”

In January, Felician sent an email to affected faculty members saying it was “facing the necessity to focus on its financial stability to ensure its future.” Due to declining enrollments, it could not maintain the number of faculty members “accrued” in the past several years, and, consequently, would not be renewing some contracts.

The college said it knew the professors would continue to serve their students “in a most professional way for the remainder of the semester.”

Another longtime professor who received a letter of termination but did not want to be identified by name said he was blindsided by the news and still had no idea why he was losing his job. There was a “reprioritization” initiative earlier in the year, he said, which resulted in the ranking of departments by various performance measures. But the goal of the initiative was never presented as targeting faculty to terminate, and affected faculty come from departments that ranked both high and low, he said.

“They’ve absolutely stonewalled as to why” and how the cuts were made, he said. “It isn’t clear to anybody on the faculty that there wasn’t a less brutal way of doing this, or sharing the burden somehow.”

Various faculty members have pointed to Felician’s three new sports programs, for example, as evidence that there may have been other ways to deal with a budget shortfall. Next year, Felician has announced, it will offer women’s outdoor track, women’s bowling, and women’s lacrosse.

Felician is struggling with declining enrollments. It’s at about 2,000 students this year, compared with a peak of about 2,400 in 2010. But it isn’t clear to faculty just how urgent the situation is. In its letter to faculty, the college didn’t declare financial exigency—the only standard by which the American Association of University Professors permits, by policy, the dismissal of tenured faculty or the dissolution of academic units (other than for sound academic reasons, such as curricular overhauls, which don’t apply in this case). Although Felician doesn’t offer tenure, AAUP maintains that nontenure-track professors who have been with an institution continuously for at least seven years should be afforded the same due processes as tenured faculty.

Last year, AAUP revised its policy on financial exigency because various colleges were determined to be laying off faculty or shuttering programs due to “festering” budgetary problems, rather than dire financial woes.

According to AAUP policy, elected faculty members should play a key role in discussions of financial exigency and even be privy to at least five years of financial statements. And when faculty are let go due to legitimate financial exigency, said Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure, and governance at AAUP, they should have a clear understanding of why and how. Although Scholtz did not have details of the Felician case, he said there seemed to be “egregious” violations of shared governance principles.

William Back, vice president for institutional advancement at Felician, said he also wasn’t exactly sure how the college had come to its employment decisions. But he said that the story was actually one of “good news,” in that the college was doing what it needed to do to stay solvent and successful. Affected faculty members will be the first to be offered jobs when the college rebounds, he said.

“Enrollments are up,” he added. Back did not immediately respond to the criticism that faculty members should have been more aware of or involved in the process.

Last week, Carroll University, a tuition-dependent liberal arts institution in Wisconsin, also sent shock waves through the faculty by laying off two well-performing assistant professors of history. Presidents of both of the university’s shared governance bodies, one of whom is the most recent head of the department, said they were unaware of the decision until the day it was announced.

Two other assistant professors in other departments were let go, following their annual reviews and not for financial reasons, according to information from the university.

“I was completely taken off guard, and particularly taken off guard because two of the faculty came from my program and they were not the most recent hires in the department,” said Kimberly Redding, who recently resigned from her position as history chairwoman for unrelated reasons. “They were seen as critical to [new programs].”

Faculty members said they knew the university was struggling and had even been strongly encouraged to help recruit students this year. But they had no idea the college was contemplating faculty cuts.

Kristen Lampe, chairwoman of the Faculty Executive Committee, a shared governance body, and a professor of mathematics, said feedback from colleagues was “emotional,” running the “gamut from anger to disappointment to fear, I think. Because they’re people we know and work with and esteem, it’s hard.”

In an email to faculty about the cuts, Carroll cited projected declines in enrollment and a need to “realign” institutional resources. But it did not invoke language of financial exigency.

Via email, a spokeswoman for the institution said: “Faculty in selected areas are well aware of enrollment declines and the risks that poses to their budgets” and that numbers of history majors had declined to about 40 from 80 over the past few years. But the institution overall remains “strong.”

“This was not a faculty decision,” she added.

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