Investigation at St. Edward's

By Gregory F. Scholtz

Last month the AAUP published online the report of an investigation at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. The report concerns the dismissals of two tenured faculty members and the nonrenewal of a tenure-track faculty member. The tenured faculty members, Shannan Butler and Corinne Weisgerber, who happen to be husband and wife, were in their twelfth year of service at the college as members of the communication department. The tenure-track faculty member, Katie Peterson, was in her fifth year of service in the teacher education department.

In January 2018, Butler and Weisgerber, summoned to a meeting by the institution’s acting vice president for academic affairs, were surprised to receive almost identical letters notifying them of their dismissal for cause. The stated grounds were “continued disrespect and disregard for the mission and goals of the university” based on an alleged pattern of “unprofessional, intimidating, and bullying” conduct toward their department colleagues, and especially two interim chairs. Following the meeting, they were escorted from campus by a university security officer.

Despite the urging of the AAUP’s staff, the university’s president declined to afford the two faculty members—who sharply contested all the charges against them—an adjudicative hearing before a faculty body in which the administration would have to demonstrate that adequate cause for their dismissal indeed existed. Instead, they had to attempt to persuade an anonymous three-member faculty appeal body, one member of which was selected by the president, that the action taken against them was unlawfully biased, arbitrary, capricious, or violative of the faculty manual. Their appeal was not successful, nor was a similar appeal to the governing board.

Peterson had learned of her nonreappointment, ostensibly the result of financial constraints, in a meeting with the same vice president for academic affairs in December. She was afforded less than six months’ notice and not given an opportunity to appeal the decision to an elected faculty committee. Peterson thus did not have the opportunity to ask a faculty body to review her allegation that the real reason for her nonreappointment was that the dean perceived her as a troublemaker. In 2015 she had filed a complaint of sexual harassment against an associate dean in the School of Education, which did not, according to her account, result in a complete cessation of the objectionable conduct. As a result, she filed additional complaints. The new dean, she charged, seemed irritated by the complaints, spoke of them disparagingly, failed to support her tenure bid, and brought the associate dean (who had retired) back into proximity with Peterson.

The investigating committee found that, in dismissing Butler and Weisgerber without affording them academic due process, the university’s administration violated the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and dismissal standards set forth in Regulations 5 and 6 of the Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The committee also concluded that their dismissals were plausibly the consequence of their “persistent outspokenness about administrative decisions and actions.” In the absence of a faculty dismissal hearing, their claim that the dismissals were effected for reasons that violated their academic freedom remained unrebutted.

With regard to Peterson, the committee found that the administration, by failing to afford her an appeal process and to provide her with a year of notice, violated Regulation 2 of the Recommended Institutional Regulations. The committee also found credible her allegation that the nonrenewal was the consequence of her having lodged complaints of sexual harassment against an administrator, noting that the allegation stood unrefuted absent an appropriate faculty review procedure. General conditions for academic freedom and governance, the committee further concluded, were “abysmal,” with “fear and demoralization” widespread among the faculty.

At its June meeting, Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure will consider whether to recommend to the AAUP’s annual meeting that censure be imposed on the St. Edward’s University administration for substantial noncompliance with AAUP-supported standards of academic freedom and tenure.

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