KU faculty, staff object to Regents policy that gives university CEOs more power to dismiss, suspend or terminate employees
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo
Hundreds of University of Kansas faculty and staff members are objecting to a new Kansas Board of Regents policy that they say circumvents professional standards and violates the university’s commitments as a member of the American Association of Universities.
On Jan. 20, the Kansas Board of Regents approved a two-year policy that gives university CEOs more power to suspend, dismiss or terminate employees — including tenured faculty members — in light of the financial crisis many universities face.
A statement signed by more than 550 KU faculty and staff members states that the policy violates two of the three core principles of the Association of American Universities: shared governance and academic freedom. It also bypasses established processes KU already had in place in the instance of declared financial exigency.
“The new policy gives a blank check to the chancellor to make sweeping changes,” the statement reads. “The regents have asked us to trust the chancellor in a time of crisis, but our financial issues predate the pandemic. This recent experience suggests that accountability is in order. To annul shared governance and transparency instead degrades the working conditions of the entire university and the learning conditions for all of our students.”
In addition to a faculty and staff statement, there is also a solidarity statement that colleagues, students, alumni, donors and supporters have signed to express their objection to the policy. As of Monday afternoon, more than 2,860 people had signed the statement.
Kansas’ public university leaders have until March 6 to present the Board of Regents a framework that would be used for any suspensions, dismissals or terminations under the policy, should they decide to use it. KU has not yet decided whether it will pursue the policy.
Thursday, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said in a campus message that he asked Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer and Executive Vice Chancellor Robert Simari to reach out to faculty, staff and administrators “to determine if and how this policy may enable us to address budget challenges while prioritizing our mission.”
“We will need your advice and expertise as we evaluate this policy and consider developing criteria and processes to submit to the Regents,” Girod wrote.
In his message, Girod also emphasized KU’s budget challenges, noting that KU is facing a projected shortfall of $74.6 million for fiscal year 2022. That projected shortfall could increase, Girod noted, if Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget — which includes a $7.6 million cut for the Lawrence campus and a $6 million cut for KU’s medical center — is not changed. As the Journal-World has reported, Girod said in a Jan. 19 message that KU’s projected shortfall would likely lead to the elimination of programs and departments, the implementation of furloughs and layoffs and the reduction of services.
“With your assistance, together we will determine how this new Regents policy may help us address financial challenges while prioritizing the level of excellence demanded of an Association of American Universities institution,” Girod’s Thursday message ended.
Other Kansas universities have declined policy
Four out of Kansas’ other five public universities, however, have already stated they will not be pursuing the new policy. They are Pittsburg State University, Wichita State University, Kansas State University and Fort Hays State University.
Richard Myers, president of Kansas State University, said his institution would “continue to address our serious budgetary issues through the shared governance model under existing policies.”
Wichita State University’s interim president, Richard Muma, said his institution has implemented an early retirement program, spending cuts, hiring freezes and increased oversight and reduction of purchases. It has also enhanced its strategic enrollment management to grow enrollment and revenue.
“We plan to continue many of these measures going forward and will also work to identify other strategic cost-saving measures,” he said.
President Steve Scott of Pittsburg State University said his university would continue following its normal processes to make decisions, and President Tisa Mason of Fort Hays State University said the university had no plans “at this time” to use the new policy.
A spokesperson from Emporia State University said the university president, Allison Garrett, had not yet issued a statement about the policy.
Faculty and staff concerns
Nick Syrett, chair of KU’s Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies department, wondered why the Regents implemented a policy that so many of the state universities have already declined. The fact that KU has not yet declined the policy makes him wonder whether KU was the “point of origin” for it, he said.
Syrett, who authored a letter signed by 57 department chairs and directors, also expressed concern that the way the Regents’ policy is worded “disempowers” the terminated faculty or staff member.
“It places the burden of proof on the employee to prove wrongful termination at the same time that it denies them access to discovery of any documentation related to their termination, all while their pay has also been suspended,” the letter states. “This sends a chilling message to all of KU’s employees.”
The letter also states the policy could endanger KU’s position in the AAU, lead to difficulties with accreditation and affect the university’s ability to recruit and retain faculty.
“(Having) invested my time and effort to get tenure and make a home at KU, I am disturbed about the precedent this would set for public education, not only in Kansas but also in other parts of the country,” Ani Kokobobo, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures, said in an email to the Journal-World.
Berl Oakley, the Irving S. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology, said that abolishing tenure, even if it’s done temporarily, “damages your reputation.” Oakley noted that the Regents’ policy has already made national news in publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.
But that national news has also brought solidarity to KU faculty and staff members who are against the policy. Betsy Esch, an associate professor in the Department of American Studies, said that in her field of study, signees of the solidarity statement such as Vicki Ruiz, Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant and Angela Davis “are just a few of the world-renowned scholars whose eyes are all on Kansas.”
“What is clear from the breadth of the support we are getting is that the Board of Regents and Chancellor Girod have made a terrible decision and they must back down from it now,” she wrote in an email to the Journal-World. “Violating one of the most foundational commitments of a research university — and the central basis of its excellence in winning grants, publishing pathbreaking research and teaching students — can simply not be how the Regents and KU map a path to fiscal stability.”