Faculty members decry Kansas Regents policy in virtual ‘Defend KU’ town hall event with over 200 attendees
photo by: Screenshot of OneKU's "Defend KU" virtual town hall
A group of University of Kansas faculty hosted a virtual town hall Thursday night to discuss a recent Kansas Board of Regents policy that one faculty member said would be “the beginning of the end of tenure” in higher education.
The group, called OneKU, is composed of faculty who consider themselves promoters and defenders of quality public higher education and advocates for KU’s mission as a research institution dedicated to the creation of knowledge for the public good. The group’s event, which was called “Defend KU,” gathered over 200 attendees on Zoom.
As the Journal-World has reported, the recent policy adopted by the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) gives university CEOs more power to suspend, dismiss or terminate employees — including tenured faculty members — in light of the financial crisis many universities face. As of Thursday night, 1,003 KU faculty and staff members and 6,795 organizations and individuals signed statements calling on the university not to pursue the policy. Out of Kansas’ six public universities, KU is the only one that hasn’t said it won’t adopt the policy.
KU’s provost said in a Jan. 26 campus message that although KU hopes it will not have to use the policy, it will build a framework for it to give the university the option to use it.
Nick Syrett, a professor in KU’s Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies department, was one of the founding members of OneKU, which formed in the summer of 2020.
“As you will hear tonight, the reason that the KBOR policy scares so many educators is that it could well point the way for public universities across the country in how to eviscerate shared governance and tenure,” he said. “We do not want this to be the University of Kansas’ claim to fame.”
Syrett previously told the Journal-World that the loss of tenure protection would be harmful to scholarship, as tenure protects scholars whose research is considered controversial.
The event featured eight panelists, who all spoke individually for a few minutes at the beginning of the event and then answered questions from the attendees at the end. The panelists were: Lua Yuille, a professor of law and president of KU’s Faculty Senate; Sarah Deer, a university distinguished professor with joint appointment in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the School of Public Affairs and Administration; Shannon Portillo, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration; PhD candidate Neill Kennedy, undergraduate student Azja Butler, KU alumna Quaram Robinson; Betsy Esch, an associate professor of American Studies and Syrett.
Yuille outlined the KBOR policy and what the group considers the policy’s biggest issues. She stated that the policy would allow the chancellor to terminate — “essentially in the chancellor’s sole discretion” — faculty with tenure and other teaching faculty with job security.
“Why do I say that this is the core thing that this policy did?” Yuille asked. “The chancellor already has that right with respect to every other category of worker. The institution of tenure and the job security that exists for other teaching faculty who don’t have tenure are specifically designed to create a level of job security that folks in other roles…do not enjoy. And this policy takes that away.”
The policy also takes that security away not in the “very controlled manner” that already exists in KU’s present policy, Yuille said, but in a manner that eliminates secondary review at the university level and places the burden of proof on a terminated employee seeking an appeal.
As the Journal-World has reported, an employee terminated by a university CEO is able to submit an appeal. The state’s Office of Administrative Hearings would then have an hearing, and the only grounds the office would use to reverse the decision would be that the CEO’s decision was inconsistent with the university’s decision-making framework, was the result of unlawful bias or discrimination or was “otherwise unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious,” the policy states.
The policy also states that the terminated employee has no right of discovery.
“(You) have no right to get any of the information…not even frankly, your employment file, in order to build your case. So you somehow have to convince people that you were wronged under this policy with no ability to show it and to gather the information that you need,” Yuille said. “This is largely the opposite of how things run today, and this is what has happened with this policy.”
Esch, the associate professor of American Studies, said the policy is a “big deal,” and if KU were to implement it, it would undermine KU’s stature as an institution where creative work happens and where ideas can be explored safely.
“What we do matters — And it matters because it will be the first major domino to fall, the beginning of the end of tenure, at a flagship and research state university,” she said.
Ani Kokobobo, the chair of the department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages & Literatures, answered a question about how the proposed policy might affect staff members. She said the implementation of the policy would make KU a lesser institution and that staff members would likely lose their jobs as a result of that. She said that this is not a tenure-specific issue, but that tenured faculty are some of the only ones who feel capable of speaking up at this time. Earlier in the event, Kokobobo read a statement prepared by teaching faculty and lecturers who did not want to speak openly out of fear of termination.
In response to a question about what community members and KU alumni can do to voice their concerns, Yuille, the Faculty Senate president, called on the need to expand advocacy to a larger audience than the university.
“If we narrowly focus our advocacy on the chancellor and the provost, I think we miss their bosses, because their bosses sit in the regents and their bosses sit in the Legislature,” Yuille said. “We have not adequately reached outside of our institution for our advocacy.”