Dissecting the Tactics of the University of Evansville’s Realignment

One university’s failure to adhere to AAUP-recommended standards and principles offers broader lessons.
By Robert Baines

What happened at the University of Evansville over the course of the 2020‒21 academic year followed a pattern seen at numerous other colleges and universities. Those familiar with the AAUP’s recent special report COVID-19 and Academic Governance will recognize in UE’s story strategies used by senior administrators across the country. Citing financial concerns exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the university’s president, Christopher M. Pietruszkiewicz, announced that UE would undergo a process of “realignment.” Of course, by this he meant that programs and personnel would be cut. In response to the president’s announcement, faculty joined together with staff, students, alumni, and other campus constituents and community members to create a coalition that spent much of the year fighting the proposed cuts.

Even though UE’s realignment process has been largely complete for months, it continues to exert a huge influence on every aspect of the institution. What makes that process more broadly significant, however, is just how unexceptional it was. The tactics used by UE’s senior administration are worthy of reexamination because they are the same tactics that were used at so many other colleges and universities during the last academic year. This article will consider how three of those tactics—provisional notices of termination, voluntary separation programs, and program closures—relate to AAUP-recommended standards and principles.

The Realignment Plan

The story of the University of Evansville’s realignment process began in August 2020, when President Pietruszkiewicz announced that he and his senior administrative team would be evaluating the university’s academic programs and that those evaluations would lead to the “sunsetting” of certain programs. This announcement spurred the creation of UE’s AAUP chapter. Over the months that followed, the chapter and the UE faculty senate both worked to gain a voice in the program evaluations. While senior administrators made numerous promises about the faculty’s involvement, those promises went unfulfilled; in the end, no faculty members were permitted to participate in the program evaluations conducted by the president and his team that fall.

In December, the president revealed the results of those program evaluations in his draft academic realignment plan. The plan called for the elimination of eighteen programs and of the entire departments of electrical engineering and computer science, music, and philosophy and religion. On the basis of these closures, the plan proposed terminating the appointments of thirty-eight faculty members, thirty-two in the College of Arts and Sciences and six in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. (For context, those numbers represented nearly a quarter of the university’s faculty.) Lastly, the president’s plan proposed to eliminate the position of dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science as part of a consolidation of the business school and the remaining engineering programs.

In describing his plan, the president repeatedly stated that it was just a draft. He also said that there would be a thirty-day window during which faculty members could submit proposals to the provost suggesting how the plan might be revised. However, in releasing his plan, the president also gave preliminary details of a voluntary separation program “for faculty members in the programs impacted.” Furthermore, the following week, all of the faculty members targeted by the draft academic realignment plan received, to use the president’s term, “provisional notices of termination.”

A comparison of the president’s draft academic realignment plan with the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure quickly reveals a major problem. UE’s senior administration sought to achieve its faculty cuts through program closures, but the means it used to determine which programs to close was in no sense reflective of Regulation 4d, “Discontinuance of Program or Department for Educational Reasons,” of the Recommended Institutional Regulations. The proposed program cuts contained in the draft academic realignment plan were certainly not “determined primarily by the faculty as a whole or an appropriate committee thereof.” Had the senior administration pushed through the proposed program closures and then terminated faculty appointments as a result of those closures, the terminations would clearly have violated AAUP standards. This would have been a serious matter, not least because the UE faculty manual states that the university “adheres to” certain AAUP guidelines, including those set forth in the Recommended Institutional Regulations.

Ultimately, however, there were no terminations of faculty appointments. Instead, in March, following a faculty campaign opposing the austerity measures and the unilateral process through which they were developed, the president unveiled a final institutional realignment plan. This modified plan called for cutting three programs—art history, philosophy, and religion—and for instituting one-year admissions “pauses” in the electrical engineering and computer engineering programs. The plan resulted in twenty-two faculty departures: nineteen faculty members enrolled in the voluntary separation program and three agreed to phased retirements. The only university employees whose appointments were terminated were four members of the staff and administration. The final institutional realignment plan also eliminated the position of dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

The Senior Administration’s Tactics

As there were no faculty terminations, the realignment did not violate Regulation 4d, “Discontinuance of Program or Department for Educational Reasons,” of the Recommended Institutional Regulations. Yet to acknowledge this is not to say that that process followed AAUP-supported principles and standards. A closer examination of the tactics used by the senior administration during the realignment sheds light on administrative practices that have become all too common during the pandemic.

The use of provisional notices of termination is one such tactic. On December 16, 2020, every faculty member targeted by UE’s draft academic realignment plan received a notice containing the following language: “This communication serves as notice pursuant to the Faculty Manual that, under the University’s proposed program realignment plan, your appointment would end effective May 31, 2022. Although the Faculty Manual requires the University to provide a maximum of 12 months’ notice (for those with two or more years of service), the University gratuitously is providing you with nearly 18 months’ notice to ensure you have ample time to transition should the University finalize the realignment plan and end your appointment pursuant to it.” The president had publicly used similar language several days earlier in an interview with the Evansville Courier and Press, saying, “First is, we have promised our faculty that if programs were going to be reduced or eliminated, that we would provide them with 18-months[’] notice. The (American Association of University Professors) guidelines require us to provide 12-months[’] notice. This is 18-months[’] notice.”

Two points should be made regarding these statements. First, Regulation 4d of the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations does not permit terminations on the grounds of program reductions. That regulation begins by stating that “termination of an appointment with continuous tenure, or of a probationary or other nontenured appoint­ment before the end of the specified term, may occur as a result of bona fide formal discontinuance of a program or department of instruction.” Second, when the president speaks of “12-months[’] notice,” he points to Regulation 8 of the Recommended Institutional Regulations, “Terminal Salary or Notice,” which states, “If the appointment is terminated, the faculty member will receive salary or notice in accordance with the following schedule: at least three months, if the final decision is reached by March 1 (or three months prior to the expiration) of the first year of probationary ser­vice; at least six months, if the decision is reached by December 15 of the second year (or after nine months but prior to eighteen months) of probationary service; at least one year, if the decision is reached after eigh­teen months of probationary service or if the faculty member has tenure.” The last section of this sentence shows the source of the president’s reference to “12-months[’] notice.” In looking at the start of the sentence, however, one can also see that the notice in question is notice of termination. The provisional notices of termination sent to UE faculty members on December 16 were not such notices. Rather, they were notices informing them that the university was considering closing certain programs and that the closures of those programs would result in the terminations of their appointments. The relevant AAUP regulation in such cases is actually 4d(2): “Faculty members in a program being con­sidered for discontinuance for educational considerations will promptly be informed of this activity in writing and provided at least thirty days in which to respond to it. Tenured, tenure-track, and contingent fac­ulty members will be invited to participate in these deliberations.”

Providing notice that programs are “being considered for discontinuance” is not the same as providing notice of termination. When senior administrators spoke of giving faculty members eighteen months’ notice, they were conflating these two forms of notice and therefore offering inaccurate information. The senior administration thus gave the false impression that the provisional notices of termination sent on December 16 were notices of termination. In short, while the UE senior administration sought to portray its provisional notices of termination as complying with AAUP-recommended standards, its descriptions of those notices included statements that do not reflect those standards.

The second tactic of the UE realignment that bears further examination is the voluntary separation program. When the president announced the draft realignment plan, he said that the university would be offering a voluntary separation program, and the day after that announcement, the president provided details about that program to the faculty. At that time, the election window for the voluntary separation program was scheduled to open in January 2021. Since the program was open to “all tenured and non-tenured full-time faculty members assigned, for academic year 2020–2021, to departments and majors selected for elimination or reduction as part of Program Realignment,” it made sense to finish the thirty days of faculty discussions regarding the draft academic realignment plan before opening the election window.

However, on January 8, the president announced that he would be “extending the comment, discussion, recommendation, and proposal period for the draft realignment plan until the end of February.” At the same time, he declared that the election window for the voluntary separation program would open on January 11 and close on February 26. Since the discussion period closed after the end of the election window, faculty members who were considering enrolling in the separation program had no way of knowing whether their academic programs would ultimately be retained or eliminated. This was important because the voluntary separation program had an irrevocability clause:

You can change your mind and withdraw your election to volunteer to participate, as long as you do so via email, any time up to the later of: (a) 5:00 p.m. Central Standard Time on February 26, 2021, the last day of the election period, or (b) the end of the seven (7) day revocation period after you sign the Release Agreement, not including the day you sign the Release Agreement. Once that time passes, however, your election becomes irrevocable, and you cannot change it, so if you are accepted for participation, you will be separated from employment on May 31, 2021.

According to this language, someone signing the document on February 26 would have had until March 5 to withdraw election to the program. Yet, while March 5 was after the end date for the faculty discussion period, faculty members considering enrolling in the voluntary separation program could not have known the date on which the university would announce its final decisions regarding program closures. As it turned out, that date was March 11, well after any faculty member could have revoked election.

At the end of the 2020–21 academic year, the UE AAUP chapter conducted a survey of departing faculty members, and many of those who had enrolled in the voluntary separation program voiced their disapproval of the scheduling of the election window. As they repeatedly observed, the fact that they had to decide whether to apply for the voluntary separation program before knowing which of the proposed academic program closures would be part of the final realignment plan made a difficult decision even more difficult. Despite this problem, several respondents to the survey also observed that voluntary separation programs, when conducted well, can provide employer and employee with a mutually beneficial means of parting. This is a fair point. When offered as part of a thorough and sincere exploration of ways to address financial concerns, voluntary separation programs can be beneficial to all. What matters is that they be designed and used in a manner that not only seeks to aid the institution but also honors the core principles of the AAUP by involving and respecting the faculty.

Given the importance of the details of such programs, not to mention their recent ubiquity, one might expect voluntary separation programs to be discussed in AAUP policy documents. However, while AAUP-recommended standards address resignations, retirements, and early-retirement packages, the Association as an organization has not directly discussed voluntary separation programs as they presently operate. While voluntary separation programs must, to some degree, be context- as well as institution-specific, a set of AAUP-formulated standards or best practices for such programs is nonetheless greatly needed.

The final tactic of the UE realignment that merits close consideration is academic program closures. Program closures became a central issue almost as soon as the president released his draft academic realignment plan. Just one week after the plan’s release, the faculty senate passed a resolution of no confidence in the draft academic realignment plan on the grounds that it proposed program closures without making any commitment to following the faculty manual’s program-closure policy. That policy reflects, as the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities puts it, the faculty’s “primary responsibility” over educational policy, because it mandates that all proposals for program closures must first be submitted to the faculty senate’s Curriculum Committee. On gaining that committee’s approval, such proposals are then supposed to go before the full senate, the president, and finally the board of trustees.

The president responded to the senate’s resolution by sending a letter to the faculty in which he argued that the program-closure process outlined in the manual did not apply to his proposed program closures because, as he put it, “The proposed academic alignment plan is not an educational policy decision, but an administrative decision.” The faculty response to this letter was predictably fierce, and in less than a month the president backtracked and promised that all program-closure proposals would be sent to the Curriculum Committee before their enactment.

Yet this was not the end of the matter. As noted above, the final institutional realignment plan included one-year admissions “pauses” for the electrical engineering and computer engineering programs  and the discontinuance of three others: art history, philosophy, and religion. In announcing those discontinuations, the senior administration stated that the programs in question “will no longer be offered as majors to incoming students.” And, following that announcement, the university did stop admitting incoming students to those programs. At the time of writing, admissions to the electrical engineering and computer engineering programs have resumed, but the senior administration has not yet provided the Curriculum Committee with proposals for the closures of the art history, philosophy, and religion programs.

The decision to temporarily stop admitting incoming students into the electrical engineering and computer engineering programs and the decision to permanently eliminate art history, philosophy, and religion as majors for incoming students were both principally educational policy decisions. That the faculty senate’s Curriculum Committee may in time review program closure proposals for art history, philosophy, and religion does not change the fact that the faculty should have had primary responsibility over these decisions.

As demonstrated above, a number of the tactics used by UE’s senior administrators during the realignment process did not accord with AAUP-recommended standards and principles. Indeed, some of those tactics did not even comply with the UE faculty manual. In acting in this manner, the UE senior administration was hardly alone. Since the onset of the pandemic, senior administrators at colleges and universities across the country have cited financial grounds as a justification for bypassing widely recognized norms of shared governance. At the University of Evansville, the faculty was able to call attention to the senior administration’s failures to adhere to the AAUP’s recommended standards and principles because chapter members attended AAUP workshops on the Redbook and worked with AAUP officials at the state and national level to learn how to interpret the policy documents it contains. Tactics like those discussed in this article can be countered only once they have been dissected, evaluated, and understood.

I would like to thank Mark Criley, senior program officer in the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, for his help with this article.

Robert Baines is associate professor of English at the University of Evansville. He is also the chief content officer of the University of Evansville’s AAUP chapter.