Amid Budget Crisis, Nevada Faculty Object to Proposed Rules for Layoffs

April 29, 2011

As the Nevada System of Higher Education braces for a potential $162-million reduction in state support, some faculty activists there are worried about related proposals to revise the system's governing code.

The proposed changes, which were released this month by a committee of administrators and professors, would codify the idea that "adverse economic conditions" can trigger curricular reviews that might lead to the dismantling of programs and the termination of tenured faculty members.

To critics, the "adverse economic condition" standard—which is more loosely defined than the traditional idea of a full-blown financial exigency—could allow administrators to use hollow pretexts to eliminate the jobs of disfavored faculty members.

"If you have an unscrupulous administrator, they could just say, 'Hey, we need to save a hundred thousand. Let's get rid of this person and that person and that person,'" says James Strange, a professor of mathematics at Western Nevada College who is a dissenting member of the committee that drafted the proposals.

But leaders of the system say the new language would actually give faculty members stronger due-process protections in the event that colleges try to shut down academic programs. The system has already drafted a long list of potential closures that it might pursue, depending on how steeply the Legislature cuts state subsidies. A biennial budget is expected to be passed in June or July.

"There is nothing about these changes that would make it easier to terminate faculty," says Bart Patterson, the system's vice chancellor for administrative and legal affairs. "That's not the intent of these provisions at all."

Redefining Tenure's Source

The intent, he says, is to provide more order and structure when program cuts are carried out. One provision, for example, says that if a campus wants to make a new hire in an academic field that has suffered layoffs within the previous two years, it must first offer any such job, with tenure, to one of the laid-off faculty members in the same subject area.

Another concern raised by faculty activists is that the proposed revisions would alter the understanding of a faculty member's "tenure home." The language does not appear explicitly in the revisions, but Mr. Patterson issued a memorandum in February declaring that tenure is issued by a faculty member's academic department, not by the college or by the Nevada system as a whole.

The implication is that if the department ceases to exist because of academic-program closures, the faculty member does not have a right to continued employment.

"These discussions need much more discussion in the light of national trends and legal standards," says Gregory S. Brown, a professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and vice president of the Nevada Faculty Association. "It's inconsistent with best academic practices to define the tenure home in the department as opposed to the university. It's not good law, and it's not good practice. It discourages creative reorganizations that might save money while preserving curricular opportunities."

Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Strange say they are hopeful that the proposed language will be improved before it is brought to the state's Board of Regents.

Mr. Patterson, whose office is soliciting comments until May 9, says he expects the proposals to change significantly in response to those comments.

The scope of the system's budget crisis during the past four years has been astonishing, Mr. Brown says. "It's in the hands of the Legislature for the next five weeks, as they close out this budget. They can preserve an opportunity for education and a different kind of future for this state. The alternative is to just dispense with it, and to continue with a 19th-century boom-and-bust economy in Nevada."

If the worst-case budget scenario comes to pass, Mr. Brown says, debates like the one about tenure home will seem beside the point. "Questions about how you carry out the dismantling," he says, "are almost secondary."