Conditions for Academic Freedom and Shared Governance at St. Edward’s University “Abysmal,” Says AAUP Report

Today the AAUP released an investigating committee report on the dismissals of two tenured faculty members and the nonrenewal of a tenure-track faculty member at St. Edward’s University (SEU) in Austin, Texas. The AAUP investigating committee found credible the claims of all three faculty members that their criticism of administrative decisions led to actions against them.

The investigating committee concluded that, in its action against the three professors, the SEU administration violated basic tenets of the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and derivative procedural standards set forth in the Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The committee also concluded that current conditions for both academic freedom and shared governance at St. Edward’s University are abysmal and that the administration’s heavy-handedness has created widespread fear and demoralization among the faculty.

The two tenured faculty members, Shannan Butler and Corinne Weisgerber, both associate professors of communication who also happen to be husband and wife, were in their twelfth year of service at the institution when the acting vice president for academic affairs summoned them to a meeting. At that meeting the chief academic officer presented them with nearly identical termination letters before having them escorted from campus by a university security officer. The investigating committee found that the SEU administration had dismissed Butler and Weisgerber without providing them with academic due process. Instead of being afforded hearings before a faculty body in which the administration demonstrated adequate cause for dismissing them, they were permitted only to appeal to a secret committee partly constituted by the president, with the burden of proof on them to show that the university had violated its own policies. The investigating committee also found that their dismissals were plausibly the consequence of their “persistent outspokenness about administrative decisions and actions.” Although the administration claimed to have followed the university’s policies in dismissing Butler and Weisgerber, the investigating committee concluded otherwise—that administrative officers had failed even to follow the egregiously deficient provisions in the faculty manual.

Katie Peterson was a tenure-track assistant professor in her fifth year of service in the teacher education department when given notice that her appointment would not be renewed beyond the 2017–18 academic year. The report noted her account that in 2015, she had filed a complaint of sexual harassment against an associate dean. When the objectionable conduct did not cease, she filed additional complaints. The investigating committee concluded that Peterson had credibly alleged that the decision not to renew her appointment was, to an extent, the consequence of her having lodged complaints of sexual harassment against an administrative officer and thus based on considerations that violated her academic freedom. She was also not afforded an opportunity to contest the nonrenewal decision through a procedure consistent with the Recommended Institutional Regulations.

At its June meeting, the AAUP’s 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.

AAUP investigating committees are appointed in a few select cases annually in which severe departures from widely accepted principles and standards on academic freedom, tenure, or governance have been alleged and persist despite efforts to resolve them. Investigating committees are composed of AAUP members from other institutions with no previous involvement in the matter. If, in academic freedom and tenure cases, the investigating committee’s published report finds that serious violations have occurred and an appropriate resolution cannot be achieved, the AAUP may place an institution on its censure list, which informs the public and the academic community that conditions for academic freedom at the institution are unsound.

Click here to read the report

Publication Date: 
Thursday, October 25, 2018