Arbitrator Orders Florida State U. to Rescind Layoffs of Tenured Faculty Members

November 05, 2010

[Updated on November 6 at 5:40 p.m.]

An independent arbitrator on Friday ordered Florida State University to rescind layoff notices to several tenured faculty members and slammed how administrators there had decided which jobs would be cut.

In a major victory for the state's faculty union, Stanley H. Sergent, a Sarasota-based lawyer picked by the university and the union to arbitrate the dispute, held that the university had failed to clearly justify its choices to eliminate certain positions, and had violated a provision of its faculty contract calling for it to try to protect the jobs of those faculty members who had continuously worked there the longest.

In his 83-page decision, Mr. Sergent wrote that the only reason the university had declared certain departments "suspended" was "to allow the effective layoff of all faculty and the selective recall of certain faculty," apparently for the sake of creating a subterfuge to avoid having to comply with a contractual requirement that it lay off tenured faculty members last. Mr. Sergent characterized the reasoning used by a dean in eliminating one faculty member's job as "arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable."

The arbitrator's decision applies only to 12 tenured faculty members who belong to the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, and does not cover nine other tenured faculty members who do not belong to the union and also received notices of pending layoffs last year.

Nevertheless, Eric J. Barron, president of Florida State, announced in a written statement issued in response to the arbitrator's decision that the university would rescind all of the layoff notices sent to tenured faculty members. "Although not required by the ruling, the university believes strongly that we should treat all tenured faculty uniformly," Mr. Barron said.

"Florida State University has experienced enormous financial stress over the past three years, with the loss of $85-million in state appropriations," Mr. Barron said. "There are no good outcomes when a university budget is cut by 25 percent." He said the university "believes strongly that it did the very best to protect program quality while being forced to balance its budget," but "we have always recognized that these decisions were difficult, especially for those directly affected."

'A Win for All Faculty'

Mr. Sergent's decision was cheered by officials of the faculty union that had filed grievances over the layoffs.

Jack T. Fiorito, a professor of management who is president of the university's chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, called the ruling "a win for all faculty," given the importance of tenure in protecting academic freedom and shared governance. "If faculty members feel like even the tenured people dare not speak up, then the nontentured faculty members certainly are not going to speak up," Mr. Fiorito said.

The United Faculty of Florida's president, Thomas Auxter, accused the university of having failed to make the case that the layoffs were necessary for budgetary reasons, and of having decided, "with no due process, to simply cherry-pick through faculty and fire quite a few tenured faculty members."

In rejecting how the university had chosen what to cut, Mr. Sergent said it had erred in trying to eliminate certain academic "programs," because it used the term "program" too vaguely and its handbook does not even define a program as a distinct organizational level.

The arbitrator sided against the union on the question of whether the university had given proper notice of the pending layoffs. And his ruling did nothing to help more than 40 nontenured faculty members who had been informed their contracts were not being renewed at the same time the layoff notices were sent to their tenured colleagues.

Bruises Remain

Dean Falk was one of three anthropology professors who were informed in June 2009 that they would lose their positions. She is not a union member, so she was not covered by the arbitrator's ruling. But because of Mr. Barron's announcement on Friday, she expects to receive a formal notice soon that she can keep her job.

In an interview on Saturday, Ms. Falk said that the arbitrator had correctly seen that Florida State administrators had failed to use clear and consistent standards when they selected faculty members for layoffs. If the administration had cleanly closed entire departments, she said, that would have been one thing. But arbitrarily laying off some tenured professors in a department and keeping others is not acceptable, she said.

"These decisions were personal," she said. "They were cherry-picking."

In a letter to Florida State's Faculty Senate in September, Ms. Falk wrote, "If sacrifices of professors are called for, it is crucial that the process for allocating the grief be beyond reproach—especially if one accepts the debatable argument that it is better to make deep cuts rather than to spread the pain laterally via furloughs. This is no time for paybacks, for settling old scores, or for letting department chairs select whomever they wish to terminate."

The bruises from this experience might not heal quickly, Ms. Falk said. "This has been extremely disruptive," she said. "I've moved my lab to New Mexico" (to the School for Advanced Research, in Santa Fe, where she has been appointed as a senior scholar). "I'm living in a hotel in Florida. I sold my house because I had to anticipate not having a salary. For them to say, 'Oh, never mind, now it's all better'—that's not how it works."

David Glenn contributed to this article.