Investigation in Louisiana

By Jordan E. Kurland

The past five years have witnessed the publication of three major reports on Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure investigations of Louisiana cases. The first of these, Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities, was an investigation of apparent violations of principles of academic freedom and tenure at five of the city’s universities. The administrations of four of the universities were placed on censure by the AAUP’s 2007 annual meeting. The first was removed by the annual meeting in 2008, the second in 2009, and the final two in 2011. The second major report, published in 2011, dealt with two distinctly different academic freedom cases at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. The first involved a well-known expert on coastal geography and hurricanes who was released in his eighteenth year on the faculty after he continued to dissent from the College of Engineering administration’s position on the cause of the failed New Orleans levees. The second involved a senior professor of biology who had volunteered to teach a section of the introductory biology course for nonmajors. Harsh grades that she assigned for the first test in the course prompted the dean of the College of Science to remove her peremptorily from teaching the course while it was still in process and to change her student grades without her prior knowledge or consent. The last of the three reports, involving institutions in the University of Louisiana System, was published online in April and will appear in print in the next edition of the Bulletin of the AAUP.

The University of Louisiana System, consisting of the public four-year institutions that are part neither of the flagship Louisiana State University nor of 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 eighty thousand. Authorization of the AAUP’s investigation resulted from actions on financial grounds to discontinue or consolidate academic programs with few students completing them, thus potentially leading to termination of faculty appointments in the affected programs.

The focus of the investigation was on the two institutions where tenure terminations have occurred: Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University. 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. At Southeastern, the only tenured faculty appointments terminated were those of 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 understandable basis for terminating their service. 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.

The investigating committee’s report, while roundly condemning the actions at the two institutions, finds considerable latitude within the system for interpreting and applying existing policies and does not find it appropriate to conclude that principles of academic freedom have been assaulted by the UL System administration as a whole. It does, however, say that what was done at the two institutions could not have been accomplished without the central administration’s assistance and that system administrations supportive of AAUP principles would function as a check on institutional administrations that disregard them.