AAUP Blasts U. of Southern Maine and Felician College for Handling of Faculty Layoffs

May 13, 2015

The American Association of University Professors is accusing both the University of Southern Maine and Felician College, in New Jersey, of making unnecessary cuts in their faculties in ways that violated shared governance and the instructors’ job protections.

In separate reports issued on Wednesday, the AAUP disputes the financial justifications offered last year by Southern Maine in cutting about 60 positions and by Felician, a Roman Catholic four-year college, in trimming 16. The reports argue that the institutions’ financial condition was not as dire as they said. The reports also characterize the academic considerations cited by the college administrations as pretextual.

The formal statements of findings set the stage for the association’s members to vote to censure the institutions at the AAUP’s annual conference, in June.

How the institutions will respond to such a vote is unclear, as the leaders of both have argued that the AAUP has no standing to investigate them. David T. Flanagan, president of the University of Southern Maine, responded last month to an earlier draft of the AAUP report by saying the University of Maine system is informed by, but under no obligation to follow, AAUP standards.

Edward C. Eichhorn, a spokesman for Felician College, on Tuesday issued a written statement that said the AAUP "has no formal affiliation with faculty on the Felician College campus and no jurisdiction for investigating our practices."

Both institutions challenged the AAUP reports in harsh terms. Christopher G. Quint, a spokesman for Southern Maine, issued a statement accusing the AAUP’s investigators of ignoring important facts. It called the report "unworthy of serious consideration" and said: "The AAUP is sadly out of touch with the current needs and realities of public universities, and its ill-founded financial analysis is a misleading attempt to paper over the urgency of the economic situation of our state higher-education system."

The statement issued by Mr. Eichhorn said the manner in which Felician had cut jobs was "fair and undertaken thoughtfully," with the involvement of the faculty members whose positions were being eliminated.

"We agreed to reinstate faculty members as our fiscal situation improved," he said. "In fact, over the past several months, we have reinstated faculty members as Felician’s enrollment has increased." Seven laid-off faculty members have been offered their jobs back, and five have agreed to return, he said in an email.

Jobs as Jetsam

The AAUP’s investigation of Southern Maine was a response to the campus administration’s decision last year to close four academic programs, while reducing or consolidating others, and to cut 60 of the university’s 250 full-time faculty positions. Administrators eliminated 26 of the positions under a retrenchment provision in its faculty union’s collective-bargaining agreement, and persuaded 34 other full-time faculty members to take early retirement.

University administrators had argued that they needed to cut the jobs because the institution faced a financial deficit from lower-than-expected enrollments that was "too deep to merely trim the sails." They characterized their academic reorganization as intended to position their institution as a "metropolitan university," offering an educational experience distinct from that provided by other colleges in the state.

The AAUP’s report argues that the administration was unable to show that its $16-million deficit projection had any real basis and never made a formal declaration of financial exigency — a requirement, under the AAUP’s guidelines, for any college wishing to cut tenured positions.

The report also challenges the administration’s stated rationale for academic reorganization — seeking to position Southern Maine as a metropolitan university. The AAUP argued that several of the eliminated programs, such as French and applied medical sciences, actually were distinctly geared toward serving the Portland area’s needs. It said that the reorganization had been carried out without faculty involvement.

One of the few things the report credits the administration with doing properly was offering 18 months’ pay, as stipulated in its collective-bargaining agreement with the faculty, to tenured faculty members who had lost their jobs in the retrenchment.

‘Palpable’ Fear

The AAUP investigated Felician College at the request of seven of the 16 faculty members that the institution laid off last year, in response to what the college said was a state of financial exigency caused by declining enrollment.

Sister Mary Rosita Brennan, the college’s provost, has said the college decided which positions to cut based partly on an academic-prioritization process that helped identify the strengths and weaknesses of various programs. The affected faculty members were unable to obtain from the administration details of how that prioritization process had culled their jobs, the AAUP’s report says.

The statement that Mr. Eichhorn, the Felician spokesman, issued on Tuesday said the college’s "commitment to placing students first requires us to make prudent decisions regarding the allocation of their tuition dollars to ensure a quality educational experience."

The AAUP’s report offers a different take. It says the college never demonstrated that it faced a true financial emergency in shedding the positions, which accounted for about 15 percent of its full-time work force. Administrators also failed to adequately involve the college’s faculty in such decisions, the report says.

Felician College does not grant its faculty members tenure, and their renewable contracts state that their positions can be cut in response to enrollment declines that render their services unneeded.

The AAUP’s report says, however, that six of the seven faculty members who sought the association’s help had been teaching full time at the college for at least 11 years, long enough to qualify under AAUP standards for the procedural protections associated with tenure. The seventh was not yet entitled to tenure protections because he had been at Felician only four years, but the report asserts that the college still violated the AAUP’s standards in summarily dismissing him.

"As to the climate for academic freedom at Felician College," the report says, "the fear of faculty members to communicate with the investigative committee or to be seen by the administration as dissenters was palpable."

The report says the AAUP panel was disturbed by the college’s denial of emeritus status to the only laid-off instructor quoted in news accounts of the job terminations. "Although the investigating committee cannot prove a direct connection," the report says, it is difficult to see the denial of emeritus status to him "as anything other than retaliatory."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.