KU requests extension regarding implementation of Regents’ controversial policy on tenure
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo
Updated at 5:39 p.m. Friday
The University of Kansas is requesting an extension from the Kansas Board of Regents regarding the implementation of a controversial policy that critics say would imperil the tenure system at KU.
KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer wrote in a campus message Friday afternoon that the decision to ask for an extension came from “lengthy” meetings with KU leaders in administration and governance.
“While the Kansas Board of Regents temporary policy that allows workforce reduction offers the potential to reset KU’s (Lawrence) employment base, it also puts at risk the processes of tenure that protect those whose research and teaching are core to our mission,” Bichelmeyer wrote. “Rightly, the policy must not be used until it is clear we have exhausted all other options.”
As the Journal-World has reported, the recent policy adopted by the Kansas Board of Regents 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 Friday afternoon, 1,006 KU faculty and staff members and 6,795 organizations and individuals signed statements calling on the university not to pursue the policy. Kansas’ five other public universities have said they would not adopt the policy, leaving KU as the lone university considering it.
A spokesperson for the Kansas Board of Regents did not immediately respond to a question from the Journal-World regarding when the Regents will decide whether to grant the extension request. The policy, which was passed on Jan. 20, states that university CEOs have 45 days to present the Regents with a framework that would be used for any suspensions, dismissals or terminations under the provision.
If the Regents granted this extension, KU would be given 162 days to present a framework.
Nick Syrett, a professor in KU’s Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies department, called the university’s decision to ask for an extension “disheartening.” He said he had hoped that the university would disavow the policy altogether.
“I feel like the Provost sent a very long message that basically amounts to: ‘just wait five more months till I decide later,'” Syrett wrote in an email to the Journal-World. He said he worries that the additional months of conversation will not produce any meaningful change in the university’s position and will “simply exhaust the people potentially affected by the policy.”
Syrett is one of the founding members of a faculty group called OneKU, who gathered Thursday night via Zoom to decry the Regents policy.
Shannon Portillo, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration and also a Douglas County commissioner, likewise expressed disappointment in the announcement.
“Whether intentional or not, KU asking for more time to consider this policy creates a dynamic where faculty, students, staff and community members who are in opposition to the policy risk the activation of the policy by voicing that opposition,” she said. “This decision effectively turns the policy into a threat, hanging over our heads.”
In her message, Bichelmeyer wrote that the university’s fiscal challenges are the result of many circumstances, including cuts in state appropriations, changing student demographics and increasing health and technology infrastructure expenses. Bichelmeyer said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these financial challenges.
KU does not plan to declare financial exigency, Bichelmeyer wrote, because it applies to an entire institution, and the vast majority of the 2022 fiscal year’s projected shortfall stems from the Lawrence campus’ operations, affiliates and auxiliaries. Bichelmeyer said KU would prioritize increasing enrollment and revenue, as well as pursue cost-saving measures such as reducing operating costs and consolidating information systems.
“(We) will provide a comprehensive and detailed overview about these activities in the near future,” she wrote.
Bichelmeyer also said that the Lawrence campus would address academic operations by implementing revised academic workload policies and engaging in program reviews, among other strategies.
“Understanding that the university must meet its fiscal challenges and do so on a very tight timeline, we will work aggressively throughout the spring, within the spirit of shared governance, to engage in these activities while respecting tenure, addressing our responsibilities, and holding ourselves accountable to our various constituents and stakeholders,” Bichelmeyer wrote.
Syrett said he was pleased that KU did not want to declare financial exigency, “but the way that our policies are written currently, that is actually what would be necessary to dissolve departments and dismiss faculty. The KBOR policy is just a workaround that is obviously still on the table.”
Bichelmeyer ended her message by stating that KU will make “difficult decisions” this spring to address KU’s fiscal challenges and “right-size” and “right-fit” the organization.