Unacceptable Conditions for Academic Governance at Vermont Law School

The AAUP today released a report of an investigation of issues of academic governance at Vermont Law School (VLS), the state’s only legal education institution. The investigation was launched in response to the VLS administration’s action to “restructure” the faculty in order to address what the administration said were severe financial challenges. The investigating committee found that the administration’s actions violated the principles and standards set forth in the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which was jointly formulated by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The Statement on Government famously affirms that institutional decision making should be conducted jointly by the board, administration, and faculty and that the faculty should have “primary responsibility” for decisions about the curriculum, academic policy, and faculty personnel matters. This mode of academic governance is often referred to as “shared.” 

The report details the restructuring plan imposed on the faculty in May and early June 2018. It included lowering salaries, reducing the number of full-time positions, and effectively eliminating the tenured status of three-fourths of the institution’s highest paid faculty members. Fourteen of the nineteen tenured faculty members were essentially turned into at-will employees —transferring the bulk of the teaching load to lesser-paid contingent faculty members and radically reducing the size of the full-time faculty. As a condition of their restructured appointments at VLS, affected faculty members were required to sign releases-of-claims and nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements (NDAs).

The report notes that VLS, like many independent law schools, faced severe financial challenges in the years following the 2008 recession, which brought about a decrease in legal job opportunities followed by a subsequent precipitous drop in enrollments. The investigating committee found that the school’s president and dean, Thomas J.P. McHenry, made clear during an October 2017 faculty meeting that VLS was in dire financial straits. At subsequent faculty meetings, the administration solicited suggestions from the faculty regarding possible measures to reduce the deficit. While many faculty members proposed ideas about balancing the 2019 budget, the administration neither responded formally to these proposals nor consulted key faculty committees. The report found that, as a result, the faculty played no meaningful role in analyzing, assessing, or most important, approving, a restructuring plan. The report cites Dean McHenry’s July 2018 statement to a local newspaper comparing faculty members to children being “handled” by the administration as indicative of the administration’s attitude towards the faculty role in shared governance. 

The report concludes that the VLS administration, by unilaterally eliminating fourteen tenured positions and thus undermining the authority of the faculty in areas of its primary responsibility, violated generally accepted principles of academic governance.

The AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance will consider whether to recommend to the AAUP’s annual meeting that the AAUP sanction VLS for substantial non-compliance with AAUP-supported standards of academic governance.

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 governance 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 sanction list, which informs the public and the academic community that conditions for academic governance at the institution are unsound.

Click here to read the full report

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, May 8, 2019