Layoffs at Two Louisiana Universities Violated Academic Standards

April 12, 2012 
For more information, please contact: Jordan Kurland

Faculty Fired, Then Offered Lower-Paying Jobs Teaching the Same Classes

Washington, DC—Administrators at two Louisiana universities used program discontinuances as an excuse to get rid of selected tenured faculty members, a new AAUP investigating report finds (pdf). The report focuses on Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University and was written by a committee of AAUP members with no previous involvement in the situation, chaired by professor Rebecca J. Williams of Central Arkansas University.

The AAUP authorized the investigation last fall upon receiving complaints of abuses at the two universities, both part of the University of Louisiana system. At both institutions, administrators discontinued or consolidated academic programs and arbitrarily selected certain tenured professors in the programs for termination of appointment.

This was “the worst situation the AAUP has encountered of using cutbacks in funding as an opportunity to select unwanted tenured professors for release,” says AAUP Associate General Secretary Jordan Kurland.

At Northwestern State, programs were discontinued in such fields as economics, journalism, political science, sociology, German, chemistry, and physics, and the investigating committee identified sixteen tenured faculty appointments that were terminated in disregard of AAUP-supported standards. The investigation revealed that the NSU administration created a special appeals procedure for terminations that denied faculty members the right to a faculty hearing, terminated tenured positions before untenured ones, and did not attempt to find suitable alternative positions for those affected. Especially egregious was that some faculty were dismissed from tenured positions and then offered short-term contracts teaching many of the same courses at drastically reduced salaries.  

The committee found that the administration “failed to consult the faculty in decisions that a financial crisis existed or was imminent” and “fell severely short of the expectations . . . of the UL System’s policy for academic program discontinuance.”

At Southeastern, the only tenured faculty appointments terminated were those of the university’s three professors of French. This happened in a state and in a local parish where French ranks with English as one of two official languages. The professors have outstanding academic records, and the investigating committee found no legitimate basis for terminating their services. The president took responsibility for the decisions to release them, yet he refused to give them any reason for his action and he has resisted all pressure to reconsider his position. In one case, as at Northwestern State, the administration rehired one of the laid-off professors as an instructor at less than half her former salary to continue to teach French and French Education courses.

Under AAUP-recommended standards, which are widely recognized in academia, tenured faculty appointments may be terminated only for financial exigency, a condition affecting an institution as a whole; for program discontinuance based on educational considerations, as determined primarily by the faculty; or for demonstrated cause.

The AAUP report concluded that, lacking chief administrative officers who respect tenure and due process, academic freedom at both Southeastern and Northwestern is and “will in all likelihood remain insecure.”

The investigating report also takes up the issue of what responsibility is borne by the University of Louisiana system central administration. It finds that the system’s policies are deficient in that they allow an institution to target specific programs as incurring unacceptable financial loss, allowing the termination of faculty appointments in those programs. It also finds that what was done at the two institutions could not have been accomplished without the system’s central administration’s assistance and that system administrations supportive of AAUP principles would function as a check on institutional administrations that disregard them. However, investigators also found considerable latitude within the University of Louisiana system for interpreting and applying existing policies and did not find it appropriate to conclude that principles of academic freedom have been assaulted in the UL system as a whole.

The University of Louisiana System, consisting of the state’s public four-year institutions that are neither part of the flagship Louisiana State University nor the historically black Southern University System, is the state’s largest, with eight component institutions during the events investigated and a total student enrollment in excess of 80,000.

Publication of the investigating committee’s report was approved by the AAUP’s standing Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which at its June meeting will formulate statements on the two cases that may recommend censure to the 2012 meeting of the Association a fortnight later.

This is the third major report in five years published by the AAUP as a result of investigations in Louisiana. The first of these, Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities was a 2007 report on the investigation of apparent violations of principles of academic freedom and tenure at five of the city’s universities. The second major report, published in 2011, dealt with two distinctly different academic freedom cases at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

A luncheon hosted by the Louisiana AAUP state conference will feature remarks by the three SELU French professors whose cases are a main feature of the report. The luncheon takes place on Saturday, April 14, 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at Tulane University, in the Lavin-Bernick Center,  Room 215 of the 1834 Club. Members of the media are welcome to attend. The SELU French professors, as well as state conference leaders and national AAUP president Cary Nelson, will be available to answer questions. Additionally, two other professors at the luncheon will be awarded the state conference’s annual Hamrick Award for academic freedom. Members of the media are welcome to attend.

The American Association of University Professors is a nonprofit charitable and educational organization that promotes academic freedom by supporting tenure, academic due process, and standards of quality in higher education. The AAUP has approximately 47,000 members at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

Media Contact: 
Jordan Kurland
Publication Date: 
Thursday, April 12, 2012