AAUP Rebukes Universities for Their Boards’ Actions

The group censured or sanctioned flagships in Iowa and Missouri and kept Illinois on its censure list

June 19, 2016

Whitney Curtis for The Chronicle
The firing of Melissa A. Click at the U. of Missouri at Columbia this year earned that institution a spot on the AAUP’s censure list, even though it was the system’s board that fired her. Frustration with boards was a common theme in several of the group’s votes on Saturday.
Leaders of the American Association of University Professors described many of its members as under assault by neoliberal, bottom-line-focused college governing boards as the group voted on Saturday to denounce several institutions for trampling faculty rights.

"The attacks are not going to stop," Howard J. Bunsis, chairman of the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress, warned here at the association’s annual conference. The threat to tenure, shared governance, and academic freedom, he said, "mostly comes from those boards of trustees who come from different worlds than we do," representing business interests rather than academe.

Frustration with boards’ disregard for AAUP guidelines was a common theme in several of the group’s votes to censure or sanction college administrations. Some of the association’s members voiced frustration that its bylaws require it to direct such votes at institutions rather than the boards that oversee them.

For example, in unanimously voting to censure the University of Missouri at Columbia for the firing of a controversial professor without adequate due process, the AAUP noted that she had been dismissed by the University of Missouri system’s Board of Curators, under pressure from state lawmakers. Similarly, in unanimously voting to sanction the University of Iowa for a lack of faculty involvement in its presidential search, the AAUP noted that its rebuke was "primarily directed against the Iowa Board of Regents," which picked the new president. The board also oversees Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

Distrust in the University of Illinois Board of Trustees prompted the AAUP to put the brakes on an effort to lift a censure imposed on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last year over its treatment of Steven G. Salaita. Its decision to pull back came after Harry H. Hilton, president of the AAUP chapter on that campus, warned from home, in a statement relayed by an Illinois colleague, that lifting censure too quickly would remove any incentive for the trustees to adopt new faculty protections proposed by the campus’s University Senate.

In other votes, all unanimous, the AAUP censured the College of Saint Rose, in New York, for violating the academic freedom and tenure rights of 23 professors it laid off last year. The association imposed a sanction — its penalty for violations of basic principles of shared governance — on Union County College, in New Jersey, for curtailing faculty involvement in decisions made there.

And in what it and the colleges involved heralded as welcome developments, the AAUP unanimously voted to lift censures imposed long ago on Grove City College, in Pennsylvania, and Metropolitan Community College, in Missouri, as well as a sanction it had imposed on Lindenwood University, in Missouri.

The association shelved a member’s proposed resolution calling for colleges to divest from their endowments and retirement funds any stake in fossil-fuel industries, and opted instead to establish a committee to draft a more carefully worded statement for consideration at the AAUP’s annual meeting next year.

The AAUP’s leaders ended debate on a controversial, late-in-the-day proposal to vote to endorse Hillary Clinton for president after determining that too many of the group’s delegates had left the room for it to have a quorum. Several AAUP members had stepped to microphones to warn that taking such a stand could hurt campus and state affiliates’ efforts to win faculty support and work with state lawmakers.

Threats in Missouri

The AAUP’s vote to censure of the University of Missouri at Columbia came in response to the firing of Melissa A. Click, an assistant professor of communication, over her highly publicized clashes with student journalists during last fall’s protests on her campus. An AAUP investigation concluded that the board had denied her sufficient due process by terminating her without a faculty hearing, and should have given her at least one year’s salary or notice rather than cutting off her pay immediately after her appeal of her dismissal was rejected.

Ms. Click, who had been videotaped calling for "muscle" to have a journalist removed from the campus quad, has been the subject of threats of violence, and the AAUP’s investigators who handled her case similarly faced death threats and had to check into a local hotel under assumed names, said Henry F. (Hank) Reichman, chairman of the association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The AAUP statement calling for censure said state lawmakers had unduly interfered in her case, using threats of negative consequences such as budget cuts to get the University of Missouri system’s Board of Curators to vote to fire her.

The Missouri board responded to the censure vote by reiterating its position that it had afforded Ms. Click sufficient due process and that her dismissal was in the best interest of the university and its students.

Layoffs at Saint Rose

The AAUP censured the College of Saint Rose based on a finding that the private college had laid off 23 tenured or tenure-track professors without sufficient financial or educational justification. The job cuts were part of an effort to shrink or eliminate 27 academic programs in response to what the college described as long-term enrollment declines.

Kathleen Crowley, a professor of psychology at Saint Rose and president of her campus’s AAUP chapter, choked up on Saturday as she described how several older professors there had offered to retire early to save younger professors’ jobs. Arguing that the college had essentially abandoned shared governance and tenure, she said, "We want to embarrass and shame our administration at every turn."

Carolyn J. Stefanco, the college’s president, has denounced the AAUP’s investigation of her institution as biased. In a statement in response to the censure vote, the college said it "has never adopted AAUP’s policies and has no obligation to follow them now," and it characterized its actions as in the best interest of the college and its students.

In Iowa, a Faulty Search

In sanctioning the University of Iowa for violating its shared-governance principles, the AAUP declared that the statewide Iowa Board of Regents had disregarded overwhelming faculty opposition in appointing J. Bruce Harreld, a business consultant and former corporate executive, as that institution’s new president. It argued that the board had engineered its search to favor a figure from the business world who was less qualified than other candidates.

The University of Iowa referred requests for comment on the AAUP’s sanction vote to Thomas Vaughn, president of the University of Iowa Faculty Senate. In a statement issued on Saturday, he said the Senate "is disappointed that the AAUP has chosen to sanction the University of Iowa for the Board of Regents’ conduct of the presidential-search process." He called the sanction against the university "both unfair and wholly unjustified," saying the AAUP investigators’ report "did not contain a single factual finding showing any wrongdoing by anyone at the university."

Attack on Governance in N.J.

The AAUP’s vote to sanction Union County College came in response to the group's finding that the college had in recent years used state limits on its faculty union’s bargaining powers as an excuse to mount a much broader attack on shared governance and academic freedom.

The call for sanction, drafted by the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, said conditions for shared governance and academic freedom at Union County College had deteriorated even further since the association published the results of its investigation, in November.

Union County College responded to the vote with a statement in which Victor M. Richel, the chairman of its Board of Trustees, stood by the actions taken by its administration "to transform our college into one that is truly student-centered."

Censure Retained: U. of Illinois

Mr. Reichman blamed miscommunication for the proposal to begin the process of lifting the censure imposed on Illinois for withdrawing a tenured-faculty appointment from Mr. Salaita over his inflammatory criticisms of Israel.

Since last year’s censure vote, the university has reached a legal settlement with Mr. Salaita and campus administrators have taken various steps to try to protect academic freedom and the faculty’s role in hiring decisions. Committee A, in proposing to begin the process of taking Illinois off the censure list, had been aware of such developments but not of faculty efforts to get the trustees to adopt additional faculty protections. The association overwhelmingly voted down the proposal after Illinois professors expressed fears that such efforts would be undermined.

Barbara J. Wilson, the interim chancellor of the flagship at Urbana-Champaign, issued a statement that said she was disappointed with the vote because "we believe we have addressed the AAUP’s concerns."

Punishments Lifted: 3 Older Battles

Grove City College, which was removed from the AAUP's censure list, had been on it longer than any other institution. It was censured in 1963 for failing to follow due process in firing Larry Gara, a professor of history and an outspoken peace and social-justice activist.

The leadership of the Christian liberal-arts college had refused to work with the AAUP until 2013, when administrators there became more cooperative. Last summer Richard G. Jewell, a former president of the college who had served long after Mr. Gara’s termination, drove to the retired professor’s Ohio home to personally apologize to him for his treatment. In March the college adopted a policy that would prevent any of its instructors from being treated in the same way.

In a statement welcoming the AAUP’s vote, Paul J. McNulty, the college’s current president, called being on the censure list for 53 years "not representative of what we are as a faith-based institution" and said his college has had a "longstanding commitment to fairness and respect for our employees."

The AAUP voted to lift a censure it had imposed on Metropolitan Community College, in Kansas City, Mo., in 1984, over the termination of eight tenured faculty appointments. The college had argued at the time that it needed to eliminate the jobs in response to financial exigency and declining enrollments, but the AAUP had concluded that enrollments had stabilized, that no state of financial exigency existed, and that the college’s real motive had been to reduce the number of full-time faculty members.

The AAUP voted to lift the censure because the college had made amends to the affected faculty members and had adopted new policies intended to protect faculty rights.

The institution removed from the AAUP sanction list, Lindenwood University, was the first college ever placed there. The AAUP had sanctioned the institution in 1994, when it was Lindenwood College, based on a finding that an administration in place at the institution since 1991 had stripped the faculty of much of its power and declared an end to tenure.

The AAUP motion calling for the sanction to be lifted said two subsequent administrations at the college had brought about drastic improvements in shared governance and academic freedom, and the faculty there now reported playing a meaningful role in making decisions.

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