Why Idaho State’s Administration Fired Me

By Leonard Hitchcock, Professor Emeritus, Idaho State University

Idaho State University (ISU) is currently under sanction by the AAUP. Details of its case are available online, in one of the AAUP’s investigative reports for 2011 (pdf). My own case is essentially a footnote to that report.

I retired as a full professor in the ISU library in 2006 and was granted emeritus status at that time. I immediately began volunteer work in the Special Collections department of the library, working on the processing of manuscript collections. Near the end of 2011, the head of Special Collections had a severe heart attack and survived, but with serious brain damage. She eventually died in March. In January of this year I suggested to the Dean of the library, after some soul searching, that I would be willing to become the acting head of the department on a temporary basis. I was immediately hired for that position as a half-time, temporary staff member at an hourly wage equivalent to that of a beginning library assistant. On May 3rd, I was fired.

Shortly after my retirement I began writing a regular column for the local newspaper, the Idaho State Journal. One of the “beats” I began covering was the news from ISU. I attended the meetings of the faculty senate and soon discovered that the president of the institution, Arthur Vailas (who had arrived just as I retired), intended to make substantial changes. I eventually realized that I was witnessing the corporatization of what once was a more-or-less traditional university. Naturally, the president didn’t announce this as his intention. Neither was it clear for several years that the State Board of Education not only acceded to this change, but probably had urged it from the beginning.

The faculty fought back. There were faculty votes of disapproval of the reorganization of the colleges (one of the first changes demanded by the president), and votes of no confidence in the Provost (front-man for the changes) and eventually in the president himself. In my column, I took the side of the faculty, rather forcefully. The AAUP became involved when the president, disgusted with the recalcitrance of the faculty senate, requested that the State Board dissolve it, and it did. It was this affront to faculty governance was the final straw for the faculty and precipitated the vote of no confidence in the president.

Subsequent to the AAUP report, the State Board ordered the creation of a temporary, “Provisional Faculty Senate” (PFS) charged with creating a constitution for the university (it had always managed with a set of bylaws). The PFS, after months of labor, created a draft constitution that differed only slightly from those at the state’s other universities. The president refused to accept it, in large part because it continued to allow the senate a reasonable opportunity to conduct votes of no confidence, and also protected the faculty’s speech not just in the classroom and the laboratory, but in its “service” activities. As the academic year drew to a close, the president created his own constitution, terminated the PFS, saw to it that his particular enemies on the PFS would not be eligible as candidates for the next senate, and had the Board make his constitution the operative document governing the university.

A few weeks before the semester ended, the Dean of the library requested that I become a part-time faculty member with a year’s contract, at 60% time, with an hourly wage roughly twice what I had been receiving. On the Sunday before finals I published a satirical column summing up the year’s final events, making use of the conceit that the president was actually “King Arthur” and explaining his autocratic behavior as no more than what was natural for a monarch with restive subjects. The next day the Dean left on a vacation to Thailand. Three days later I received a call at home from the Head of Public Services at the library (my supervisor) telling me that the Provost had informed her I had been fired.

My assumption, and that of those who know the bureaucracy better than I, is that my initial hiring never came to the notice of the upper echelon of the administration. It was only when a change in my status was requested that the president learned that an abrasive critic of his administration was actually on his payroll. President Vailas has a reputation as a CEO who is annoyed by public criticism (or private, for that matter). A professor of engineering, Habib Sadid, engaged in such criticism a few years after Vailas arrived, and was summarily fired (against the faculty review board’s judgment that termination was not justified). Ironically, the Idaho Supreme Court, just a few months ago, affirmed, in a case brought by Dr. Sadid, that when a faculty member criticizes his or her administration in the press about matters of public concern, that speech is constitutionally protected. It is no concern of the court’s, of course, if a faculty member cannot afford to seek redress for a violation of that protection.

What is more troubling than the intrinsic illegality of my dismissal is the administration’s apparent confidence that it may engage in blatant acts of retaliation against faculty critics without fear of its governing board’s disapproval. Perhaps, in Idaho, the “fall of the faculty,” as Benjamin Ginsberg puts it, is already inevitable.

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