Kansas Regents approve temporary policy allowing university CEOs more power to dismiss, suspend or terminate employees

photo by: Screenshot/Kansas Board of Regents

The Kansas Board of Regents met via Zoom on Jan. 20, 2021.

Updated at 9:28 a.m. Thursday

State university CEOs will soon be able to suspend, dismiss or terminate employees — including tenured faculty members — due to a temporary policy approved by the Kansas Board of Regents in light of the financial crisis many universities face.

The policy states that CEOs must create frameworks for decision-making prior to suspending, dismissing or terminating employees under the new policy. These decision-making frameworks may include factors such as performance evaluations, teaching and research productivity, low service productivity, low enrollment, cost of operations or reductions in revenues for departments and schools, the policy states.

“This is something that we do not take lightly at all,” Regent Shane Bangerter said. “These are extreme measures in extreme times.”

Bangerter called the policy “dramatic,” but said that when facing the types of shortfalls Kansas’ public universities are facing, “it takes extreme measures and it takes extreme steps that none of us like to see and none of us want to implement.”

The policy was not included on the Regents’ meeting agenda. The Board Governance committee reviewed the proposal Wednesday morning and Regents Chair Bill Feuerborn added it to the discussion agenda during his Governance Report Wednesday afternoon.

The policy states that these changes were recommended in light of “the extreme financial pressures placed on state universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, decreased program and university enrollment, and state fiscal issues.” Last week, Gov. Laura Kelly released her budget proposal, which included a $27 million cut for higher education.

The policy, which the Regents unanimously approved, includes a procedure for how suspensions, dismissals or terminations would occur.

Following the Board of Regents’ approval of the policy, university CEOs have 45 days to present the Board a framework that would be used for any suspensions, dismissals or terminations under the provision.

A CEO must provide at least 30 days’ written notice of the suspension, dismissal or termination to the affected employee, as well as their reasoning. Any affected employee then will have 30 days to submit an appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings, which is a separate entity from the Board of Regents.

The burden of proof in any appeal will be on the employee, the policy states.

If an employee submits an appeal, a university CEO then has 30 days to respond in writing to the appeal. The Office of Administrative Hearings will then have a hearing “based on the standards stated in this policy and in the university’s Board-approved framework,” the policy states.

The only grounds the Office of Administrative Hearings would use to reverse the decision of a university CEO would be that it 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 decision of the hearing officer will be final, the policy states. Employees who win their appeal would be entitled to reinstatement, back pay and restoration of lost benefits.

Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, a Wichita State University associate professor, represented the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents during Wednesday’s meeting.

“Unanimously, we believe that this policy basically suspends tenure for a year, and sets a dangerous precedent for doing so again in the future,” he said. “This policy will bring national attention to our university system and it will become more difficult to recruit talented new faculty to our universities.”

The policy, as written, is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2021. But Regent Mark Hutton proposed that the policy should not expire until Dec. 31, 2022, because “the financial challenges are going to continue, I believe, past 2021.” All Regents unanimously agreed to instill the policy, with the change that it will not expire until Dec. 31, 2022.

Sternfeld-Dunn said the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents believed the policy would do damage to faculty morale, “which is already struggling under the pressures of teaching during the pandemic.” That will bleed into the student experience, he argued.

“We also believe it will open up universities to potential abuses of power and could lead to numerous lawsuits around discrimination and harassment,” he said. “We believe that the policy as stated is really using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and we think there are far more positive ways to go about managing financial difficulties.”

Cheryl Harrison-Lee, vice chair of the Regents, said she was pleased that the policy requires the framework for the decision-making process to be reviewed by the Board of Regents. Harrison-Lee said this condition would ensure transparency and equity. She also expressed the value and impacts that faculty and staff make on the next generation.

“But we are at a point where we must be lean, we must be efficient, and we must be effective,” she said. “And I think by granting this opportunity to our trusted CEOs, it allows us to build the best possible case-scenario that we can build in these unprecedented times.”

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In other business:

• The Regents approved a request for KU to pursue accreditation for its Bachelor of Science in Interior Architecture.

• The Regents received a presentation from the president of Georgia State University, who shared his university’s success improving enrollment, graduation rates and eliminating student achievement gaps.

• University presidents expressed concern and disappointment that Phase 2 of the state’s vaccine distribution plan includes K-12 employees, but does not include higher education employees.


Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that Gov. Laura Kelly’s budget proposal included a $27 million cut for higher education.


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