Astiz v. Canisius College, No. CA 23-00928 (N.Y. Sup Ct.—4th App. Div. 2024)

On March 7, 2024, the AAUP filed an amicus brief in the Fourth Judicial Department, Appellate Division, of the New York Supreme Court, in support of four tenured professors who were terminated due to their college’s purported financial difficulties.

The plaintiffs were tenured professors at Canisius College prior to their termination. The college’s faculty handbook specifically stated that it “is a part of the contract of full-time faculty of the college” and expressly incorporated language from the AAUP’s 1940 Statement pertaining to tenure and financial exigency. Specifically, the handbook stated that faculty “should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause, … or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies”; that “[t]ermination of a continuous appointment because of financial exigency should be demonstrably bona fide”; and that the guarantee of tenure includes a guarantee of “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability,” explaining that “economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.” In July 2020, the college notified each of the plaintiffs that their employment would be terminated due to expected budget deficits. It is disputed whether a genuine financial exigency existed at the college, but it is not disputed that the college, in imposing the terminations, did not fully consult with the faculty nor did it allow for input or appeal of the individual termination decisions. The professors sued the college alleging breach of contract, but the trial court rejected their suit, ruling that the college was not required to declare financial exigency in order to terminate them and discounting the procedures required by the 1940 Statement.

The AAUP’s amicus brief argues that when the college granted plaintiffs tenure, it “bound itself as a matter of contract law to not terminating plaintiffs’ service except under certain narrow circumstances recognized by the longstanding custom and practice of the academic community.” The brief explains that AAUP statements provide authoritative guidance as to the contours of that custom and practice and notes that courts routinely recognize that the AAUP is a leading authority on the meaning of tenure and related principles vital to the academic profession. As the 1940 Statement and several later AAUP statements explain, a tenured faculty appointment may be terminated “under extraordinary circumstances because of a demonstrably bona fide financial exigency.” Substantively, this requires “a severe financial crisis that fundamen­tally compromises the academic integrity of the institution as a whole” and that “cannot be alleviated by less drastic means” than the termination of faculty appointments. Procedurally, faculty terminations due to financial exigency require processes that safeguard basic due process rights and that maintain respect for the principle of shared governance by ensuring meaningful participation by the faculty. At a bare minimum, the brief emphasizes, such processes “must feature meaningful involvement by the faculty in assessing whether the claimed financial exigency actually exists and whether it necessitates faculty terminations, as well as faculty participation in questions concerning the implementation of any truly necessary terminations.”

The brief urges the court to recognize that close adherence to these substantive and procedural requirements is essential to the preservation of tenure, which in turn safeguards academic freedom and thereby ensures that colleges are able to fulfill their purpose of furthering the common good. Leaving decisions regarding the termination of tenured faculty appointments due to “financial exigency” to the unfettered discretion of college administrations would render tenure a meaningless guarantee and would have disastrous consequences for higher education. In the case of Canisius College, the college never adequately demonstrated that its purported financial difficulties met the exacting requirements necessary to justify the plaintiffs’ termination. In addition, the college failed to respect basic procedural requirements before terminating the plaintiffs, including by failing to properly declare and demonstrate the existence of a bona fide financial exigency.

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