AAUP Criticizes NYU Over Treatment of Italian Campus’s Faculty

[Updated (5/3/2013, 2:11 p.m.) with NYU's official letter responding to the AAUP's criticism.]

The American Association of University Professors has sharply criticized New York University’s treatment of faculty members on its campus in Florence, Italy, declaring that adjunct professors there saw abrupt pay cuts and three longtime studio-arts professors were terminated, allegedly for trying to help form a faculty union.

The criticism, appearing in a letter addressed on Thursday to NYU officials in Florence and on its home campus, in New York City, asserts that the allegations, if true, would raise questions about NYU’s commitment to academic freedom and shared faculty governance, as required by both AAUP and international academic standards.

In a reply letter, Ellyn Toscano, executive director of the Florence campus, said that no staffing decisions had resulted from a faculty member’s support for unionization. Rather, the moves stemmed from changes last summer in Italian labor over the nature of the employment contracts that employers like the university could offer their staffs. “Far from sudden and drastic reductions and terminations,” the letter says, the university put faculty members on contracts that gave them a status comparable to tenure and enabled them to unionize, if they wished.

Moreover, the letter says, no faculty member saw a cut in compensation. Rather, “compensation was redistributed among benefits and take-home pay, in strict compliance with the law.” The letter also describes a “collaborative structure” of academic decision making that involves faculty members from both the Florence and New York campuses—not a system that violated AAUP or international standards of shared governance or academic freedom.

The changes on the Florence campus, according to NYU Local, a blog that covers the university, resulted from an effort to shift the campus’s emphasis from the arts to political science. As part of the changes, studio-arts classes were outsourced, and the affected faculty members apparently found out about the new direction suddenly, as they arrived for classes last fall.

In a response to NYU Local’s questions about the changes, Ms. Toscano said there was “no plan to eliminate the arts at NYU Florence” or to add social-science classes at the expense of the arts. John Beckman, an NYU spokesman in New York, told NYU Local that the abruptness of the announcement stemmed from a change in Italian labor law late last summer that affected the type of employment contracts the university could offer faculty members.

The AAUP’s letter appears to reflect the group’s increasing concern about whether American universities are respecting traditions of academic freedom and other faculty rights on the campuses they operate overseas. Thursday’s letter follows a similar message in December that questioned Yale University’s collaboration with the National University of Singapore to open a liberal-arts college in Singapore.

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