KU pursuing policy that would allow dismissing tenured professors; provost says she hopes it won’t be necessary

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus is shown on Sept. 13, 2018.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday

The University of Kansas will put together a framework for a new Kansas Board of Regents policy that would give university CEOs more power to dismiss, suspend or terminate employees, even those with tenure, according to a statement from Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer.

Bichelmeyer said in a video message Tuesday that while KU was reserving the option of using the policy, she hoped that it would not have to.

Tenure has long been viewed in the academic community as a way to ensure professors’ academic freedom by preventing dismissal except for the most extraordinary reasons.

“As provost, I’m not yet inclined to say we will need the tool they provided, and I am ready to do the work necessary to avoid it, but I’m also not yet able to say we won’t need the tool,” she said.

As the Journal-World reported, following the Board of Regents’ approval of the policy on Jan. 20, university CEOs have 45 days to present the board a framework that would be used for any suspensions, dismissals or terminations under the provision for a two-year period.

Bichelmeyer said KU would be seeking input from leadership groups and working with faculty and staff leaders as it designs its response to the board policy during the next 40 days. She said KU’s fiscal health would depend on the incoming student population and retention this spring and next fall and on KU’s ability to find new revenue sources.

“Therefore, as we work on multiple fronts to create a better future for KU, we will engage in the exercise to identify criteria and put together a process for using this policy should it come to the point that we need it, and I certainly hope that we won’t,” she said.

More than 750 KU faculty and staff members have objected to the Kansas Board of Regents policy, and KU is the only institution among the state’s six public universities not to issue a statement saying it would not use the policy. On Tuesday, Emporia State University became the fifth public university to state that it would not use the policy.

One KU associate professor said that while it was heartening that the provost hoped not to use the policy, the message as a whole was not comforting.

“I think the message called us to work harder to help KU during a difficult time, but I think it is going to be understandably very hard for faculty to rally when everyone continues to feel precarious and frightened,” the associate professor, Ani Kokobobo, wrote in an email to the Journal-World. “And if participation is something that genuinely matters to our leaders, then the university could use processes in place for financial exigency that ensure faculty have a voice in our own future.”

Kokobobo is also chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures.

Nick Syrett, chair of KU’s Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies department, said he didn’t think further consultation about the policy with campus constituents was necessary when more than 750 faculty and staff members, as well as 57 department chairs and directors, have said they opposed it.

Syrett said the loss of tenure protection would be harmful to scholarship.

“Tenure is meant to protect scholars whose research is considered controversial or perhaps objectionable to one political faction or another. If those scholars feel like they must change their stream of research, then academic freedom (and perhaps freedom of speech) is stifled,” he wrote in an email to the Journal-World.

Syrett said that taking away tenure for two years would make it difficult for KU to hire faculty and that tenured scholars at KU might consider leaving. The school’s reputation would be hurt, there could be issues with accreditation and KU might be suspended from the Association of American Universities, “whose guiding principles for membership include things like academic freedom and faculty governance, both of which would be violated by this policy,” Syrett wrote.

In her message, Bichelmeyer said the policy approved by the Board of Regents was not the sole answer to the fiscal problems at KU. She included a list of current and future actions KU planned to take, including a voluntary separation program, a new travel policy, review of academic portfolios and the likely need to close some programs.

Berl Oakley, the Irving S. Johnson distinguished professor of molecular biology, said that KU was slated to receive about $23 million from the COVID-19 relief legislation former President Donald Trump approved in December. Of the $23 million, about $7.5 million will go to student aid and $15.5 million will go to the institution.

“I am hopeful that this aid will lessen the fiscal crisis and enable the administration to avoid the disastrous step that abolishing tenure would be,” Oakley wrote in an email to the Journal-World. “I note that there will likely be more funding for KU in the COVID relief bill currently being discussed in Congress.”

In her message, Bichelmeyer called on her colleagues to partner with KU during this “unprecedented moment in the history of higher education.” She asked that they recruit students and help current students progress, collaborate with one another to share resources and strive to be excellent in scholarship.

“As I listened to the board discuss the policy last week, it seemed to me they are providing this tool because they are concerned about our productivity, our relevance, and even the value we provide,” she wrote. “This is one way of challenging us to be as efficient and as effective as we can be in service to our state. I believe we are up to the challenge.”


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