AAUP Sanctions 2 Universities and Censures Another

June 12, 2011

Members of the American Association of University Professors unanimously voted on Saturday to sanction Idaho State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for alleged violations of shared-governance principles, and to place Bethune Cookman University on its censure list for actions that violated the association's academic-freedom standards.

In votes taken during a business meeting at the group's annual gathering here on Saturday (see a related article), members also removed two New Orleans institutions from the censure list, an action that allowed the association to close the files of its Special Committee on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities. The special committee, created in 2006, investigated the various post-Katrina actions of universities that ran afoul of the group's guidelines on academic freedom and tenure.

The vote to sanction Idaho State followed a report by an AAUP investigative committee on the State Board of Education's move to suspend the institution's Faculty Senate in February at the behest of the institution's president. The administration held elections for a provisional senate, which met for the first time in early May but has been prohibited from meeting during the summer, the AAUP's recommendation to sanction Idaho State says.

Idaho State is the largest institution on the association's sanction list, which now consists of six institutions.

Philip L. Cole, who was chairman of the since-disbanded Faculty Senate and who was chosen to lead the provisional faculty group, said that he is "profoundly grateful" to the AAUP for its "fair-minded investigation" into the suspension of the previous senate. Mr. Cole, an associate professor of physics, also acknowledged that the AAUP's move to sanction his university was a "severe action," but said he hopes it will "help to set Idaho State on the proper path for realizing its full potential."

An Idaho State spokesman, Mark Levine, said in a written statement that AAUP's sanction is "meaningless." The university's governing board, the State Board of Education, is the entity that determines how institutional governance should function at Idaho State, Mr. Levine said.

"There is no evidence, either empirical or otherwise, to suggest that institutions that make the AAUP list suffer any negative impact," Mr. Levine said. "One should keep in mind that AAUP represents less than 3 percent of the nation's faculty. Idaho State University will continue to attract the brightest and best faculty and administrators."

The recommendation to sanction Rensselaer accused trustees and administrators there of failing to "provide a compelling reason for their action to suspend" that institution's Faculty Senate in 2007. The suspension took place after the senate failed to follow a board directive to amend its constitution to keep librarians, full-time non-tenure-track professors, and retired professors out of the faculty body. A transitional senate structure, handed down by administrators, has been in place since then.

In May, professors at Rensselaer approved a new constitution that, among other things, would give full-time non-tenure-track professors, librarians, and others a voice on the senate, but not a vote. The faculty-approved constitution is still under review by administrators. The AAUP's recommendation to sanction the institution says administrators were wrong for "rejecting out of hand" the Faculty Senate's proposal to expand the voting membership of the group.

Attendees at the business meeting gave a round of applause to the faculty at Rensselaer, none of whom were present during the vote, for having the courage to speak out against administrators there.

A spokesperson for Rensselaer could not be reached for comment.

The vote to censure Bethune-Cookman University was based on a recommendation accusing that institution of ignoring due process when it dismissed seven professors in 2009. Four of them were men who were fired after students made sexual harassment allegations against them. Two of the seven, however, were fired to save money, the recommendation for censure notes, and the university didn't declare financial exigency first as the AAUP requires colleges to do. The other professor was terminated after 11 years of service because his graduate credentials fell short of accrediting-agency standards. The recommendation says, however, that the institution had been reaccredited during that professors' tenure.

Bethune Cookman's president, Trudie Kibbe Reed, said in a statement that the college regrets that the AAUP "decided to pursue this action after we provided clear and convincing evidence to them supporting our actions in terminating the four professors." Ms. Reed also said that under a previous president and administration the professors exhibited the same behavior for which they were dismissed, and that three of the four professors were reprimanded on similar charges of sexual conduct after hearings before their peers.

"I am a former tenured professor, and tenure is very important, but tenure does not supersede our obligations to our students," said Ms. Reed, who noted that the institution followed the guidelines in its handbook. "We stand behind our actions."

The two New Orleans institutions that were removed from the censure list were the University of New Orleans and Loyola University New Orleans.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, administrators at the University of New Orleans had come up with a plan to cut programs, faculty, and staff, and ultimately discharged 18 professors. A recommendation to remove the University of New Orleans from the association's censure list said the institution had resolved problems that the AAUP had with the university's regulations on financial exigency that paved the way for the dismissals.

Loyola University New Orleans had terminated 17 professors whose programs were eliminated in the years following Katrina. Its removal from censure stemmed from its president's "affirming the university's commitment to academic freedom and tenure."