Developments Relating to Association Censure

The Association’s staff has prepared the following brief accounts of significant developments during the past year at colleges and universities on the Association’s list of administrations censured for departures from principles of academic freedom and tenure. Members of the staff, acting on behalf of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, communicate annually with the administrations of listed institutions, offering the staff’s assistance in taking the steps necessary for removal. For information about the current status of other institutions on our censure and sanction lists (printed elsewhere in this issue), please contact the Association’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance at [email protected].

Clarkson College (Nebraska), 1993

Censure followed an investigating committee’s report that found that the administration terminated the services of four faculty members who had attained the protections of tenure through length of service while affording them scant notice and no opportunity to contest the action. The report also found that the college’s policies failed to afford minimal protections of academic due process (the college has no provisions for granting tenure). Three of the cases that led to the censure were resolved in 1995, and the fourth professor died in 2003, thus rendering moot the question of redress. In 2017 the college’s new president contacted the AAUP’s staff to inquire about removing the censure. The staff informed him that, as redress was no longer an issue, what chiefly remained to be accomplished were revisions to the faculty handbook that would address the procedural deficiencies that led to the censure. The staff’s letter proposed adding the following sentence to the faculty handbook: “Once a full-time faculty member has completed six years of service, subsequent reappointment is presumed unless cause for dismissal is demonstrated in a hearing before an ad hoc committee of the faculty senate.” The staff’s letter, however, received no answer.

In February 2020, the college’s vice president for academic affairs contacted the AAUP’s staff on behalf of a newly appointed interim president to convey the good news that, under the interim president’s leadership, the faculty senate had been reviewing the amendment to the handbook proposed in the staff’s 2017 letter. Following a conference call with the AAUP in which the president, the vice president, and three faculty senate leaders participated, the president wrote to inform the AAUP that within the next few months the faculty senate would vote to add the AAUP-proposed sentence to the faculty handbook. The president further informed the staff that the college would welcome a visit from an AAUP representative this spring to assess current conditions for academic freedom.

University of the Cumberlands (Kentucky), 2005

The basis of the censure was an investigating committee’s report on the coerced oral resignation of a tenured professor and the nonrenewal of the appointment of a tenure-track professor. The action against the tenured professor followed his creation of a website highly critical of the university administration. The action against the tenure-track professor followed his refusal to adhere to administration directives regarding the tenured professor, whose department he chaired. The report found in both cases that the administration had failed to afford minimal safeguards of academic due process, failed to afford adequate notice or severance salary, and violated the professors’ academic freedom.

The AAUP staff’s regular communications with the university’s president, the same officer whose actions led to the censure, were largely ignored. A new president took office in 2015, and in February of this year, a staff email message to him on censure removal elicited a response from the university’s provost, who initiated a telephone conversation. With respect to redress to the subject faculty members, she informed the staff that the university had presented one of them with an alumni service award at the opening convocation for the current academic year. As a step toward addressing deficiencies in the university’s policies on academic due process, she sent the staff the university’s regulations on reappointment and tenure. The staff reviewed these policies and recommended two revisions, informing the provost that if these revisions were adopted and if a gesture of redress were made to the other subject faculty member, the AAUP’s staff would identify an AAUP representative to visit campus to assess the current climate for academic freedom and tenure. The staff awaits a response.

Virginia State University, 2005

The report of the investigating committee concerned the dismissal of two tenured faculty members, after each had undergone post-tenure review. The committee found that the administration’s implementation of post-tenure review made no provision for peer involvement, permitted one unsatisfactory evaluation to stand alone as grounds for dismissal, and placed the burden of demonstrating fitness on the faculty member. In so doing, the committee found, the administration acted in violation of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the companion 1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings.

Staff conversations with various VSU administrations about effecting removal began in 2006. By spring 2007, removal seemed imminent, with settlements reached in both cases, AAUP-recommended revisions adopted by the governing board, and a visit to campus by an AAUP representative scheduled. The AAUP visitor, however, identified additional concerns regarding policies in the School of Business that precluded Committee A from recommending removal.

Efforts by the local AAUP chapter brought further discussions, including a staff member’s trip to campus in February 2013 for a meeting with chapter and administrative officers. In a follow-up letter to the administration, the staff member identified at least four policy issues that still needed addressing, but no action was taken.

Discussions resumed in summer 2017, initiated by the university’s new provost. At his request, the staff reviewed the current edition of the faculty handbook and provided specific suggestions for changes. The staff also consulted with the newly revived AAUP chapter, whose president quickly took a leadership role in addressing the policy issues that remained, working closely with the provost and with the faculty handbook committee, which she had agreed to chair. In spring 2018 it seemed possible that the necessary changes to institutional regulations would soon be adopted. Positive developments came to a sudden halt, however, when the chapter president took an unanticipated leave of absence. In April 2019 a new chapter president contacted the staff to express interest in continuing her predecessor’s efforts, and in October the former chapter president reemerged. In a telephone conversation with the staff, she expressed her renewed commitment to facilitating the handbook changes necessary for censure removal, which she said the president supported. The staff offered its assistance to her, the chapter, and the faculty handbook committee in the hope that these changes might be adopted by fall 2020.

University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 2018

The investigating committee’s report concerned the administration’s suspension of a sixth-year doctoral student appointed as a part-time lecturer in the Department of English. She had participated in a demonstration protesting an on-campus recruitment table for Turning Point USA, a right-wing organization that opposes what it views as a liberal agenda in US higher education. The undergraduate student staffing the table recorded the lecturer’s actions on her cell phone, and the recording was widely disseminated online, generating negative publicity that resulted in threats against the lecturer and the university. The administration initially removed the lecturer from her teaching responsibilities, allegedly for her own safety, but then refused to reinstate her, even in the subsequent semester. The investigating committee deemed the action of the UNL administration to be tantamount to a summary dismissal, stating that “the conclusion seems inescapable that the basis for [the lecturer’s] dismissal was related to the political content of her speech and thus may have violated her academic freedom, a conclusion that stands unrebutted absent the affordance of a dismissal hearing.” Censure was imposed by the 104th Annual Meeting.

Ongoing efforts to remove the censure, undertaken by the faculty senate and the local AAUP chapter with the assistance of the Association’s staff, have not moved through the various stages of administrative review as expeditiously as supporters of the removal had hoped. As a result, proposed changes to the institution’s regulations that would bring provisions on faculty suspensions into conformity with Association supported standards may not receive approval from the board of regents before the summer. On January 1, 2020, a new system president took office. During an open forum in the fall 2019 semester, prior to his official appointment, he had expressed support for the efforts to remove the censure.