LSU’s Violations of Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

The following is an expanded version of a letter to the editor published last week in the Louisiana State University Daily Reveille.  The author is LSU Professor of Physics and Astronomy A.R.P. (Ravi) Rau, who serves currently as President of AAUP’s Louisiana Conference and is a former president of the LSU AAUP chapter.  The text is posted with Professor Rau’s permission.  For more background on the case of Associate Professor Teresa Buchanan see the AAUP’s supplementary report, released on September 2, and my own post to this blog of September 6. 

I have been on the LSU faculty for nearly 42 years. I am distressed over where we are headed. We face obvious external problems with a populace that sees universities as no more than for job training, and governors and legislators who fail their responsibility for funding higher education. But my concern here is internal, of failing our own core principles of honesty, a principled search for truth, openness in inquiry, and a fair treatment of views and people. A faculty not sufficiently engaged in governance and the broader workings and values of our academic world, coupled with an increasing business and managerial style of our administration, give cause for concern about the state of our institution.

The immediate trigger for my writing is the recent unjust firing of a faculty member, the fact and the manner in which it was done, and LSU administration’s actions since. The usual excuses of confidentiality in personnel matters and possible litigation are held out to give no explanation to the person involved or the faculty as a whole. But, they seem not to stand in the way of selectively issued Press Releases that distort the record while advancing new, even exaggeratedly intemperate, allegations.

This culminated last week at the Faculty Senate’s first meeting (Sept 2) of the academic year where a Resolution was to be introduced on the matter. After months of silence, LSU released two Press Releases that very morning. And, already at the beginning of the meeting, the chancellor-president launched an attack on the faculty member who was not notified to be present to defend herself. He read what was in the Press Release, prefacing it with “he was asked to” and to say no more.

There is here a spiritual and moral coarseness and failing beyond the issues involved, a failing of basic fairness, leave alone due process, and our own core values mentioned above, our very “soul” if you will. There is an enormous imbalance in power between a chancellor-president (who has just fired her!) and a single faculty member. The Senate is a faculty body, and is there not a broader social stricture about a guest not fouling his hosts and their premises? While true that any faculty member, and he is one, can attend a Senate meeting, asking provosts and chancellors to speak at the beginning as honored guests is a courtesy extended to the positions they hold. Wednesday’s performance transgressed common decency while exhibiting the abuse of authority, the lack of respect towards the faculty, and an ignorance of our values on the part of his staff who authored these remarks and on him for seeing fit to make them.

Now to the case itself and other recent ones. A core principle of US universities is shared governance between the administrators and the faculty, especially on all academic matters involving courses, curricula, and the hiring and promotion of faculty. On this last, LSU’s two most important Policy Statements are PS-36 (hiring, promotion, and tenure) and PS-104 (revocation of tenure).

Actions under both these PS occur only after other committees and PS proceedings prepare the ground, and thus have long lead times, as appropriate to the gravity of those decisions. Senior faculty members from across campus are involved at various levels of the process to give carefully deliberated recommendations. This is a safeguard against local biases, in either direction, that may affect individual recommendations, especially from a small unit. While, occasionally, a recommendation may be overturned by the upper administration and the Board of Supervisors (BOS), good practice and health require in such instances a justification to the individual involved, the faculty of the unit, and faculty as a whole. To avoid arbitrary exercise, even abuse, by a single authority such as the chancellor-president, that justification should have sufficient merit to convince at least many faculty members.

Increasingly, however, LSU’s administration seems to be weighting decisions on personnel towards its own appointed lawyers and officers in the Human Resources (HRM) office (who often have little or no academic credentials to judge issues involved), ignoring or overruling even unanimous faculty recommendations, while claiming no explanation is necessary. If these were wise decisions, that might appear as not a bad outcome but, sadly and inevitably, it is not so. The millions spent on litigation and court settlements, the censures drawn from prestigious national organizations such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the discredit this brings to LSU are serious costs to all of us as the administration blunders from one to the next. And it does so with no accountability of the administrators and their staff involved. In many cases, a different attitude of actively seeking and taking heed of the wisdom, institutional knowledge and dedication in the faculty voice, especially of those who have served LSU for decades, might lead to better outcomes.

In this recent firing, LSU by-passed it own well-prescribed policies, leave alone the tenets of proper due process. When allegations were made against a person whose record over 18 years was unblemished, indeed had glowing recommendations internal and external for promotion, it was not for HRM to make its own investigation and come to a judgment. PM-35 and PS-109 detail roles for the Chair, Dean, and fellow faculty to prescribe remedial measures when needed and, if not successful, a referral to a PS-104 Committee on revocation of tenure.

Instead (it may be relevant that at least some of the allegations constituted external pressure from a school superintendent), the administration made up its mind and, seeking post facto backing, went straight into a PS-104 hearing. But, after a full 12-hr hearing of the allegations from HRM and LSU lawyers, its own examination of witnesses and of the facts, this body of five senior faculty members not only dismissed some charges as unfounded but ruled unanimously against dismissal. Far from giving pause that their evidence could not convince such a panel representing decades of service and experience, the chancellor-president proceeded to recommend to the BOS dismissal, citing the HRM investigation (considered and found wanting by the PS-104 panel) but not explaining to the PS-104 panel, Faculty Senate or any body the grounds for overruling that unanimous finding.

The administration has instead tried to influence the public with Press Releases (always with the words that LSU will not say any more) that selectively distort the record, including of the findings of the PS-104 panel. They throw in new allegations that, for all their exaggerated words, have no backing or evidence. It is like a prosecutor who has struck out with a jury trying the case now through the media. All the while, LSU claims due process was given; astonishingly, an example given is the 3 minute public comment slot in which the faculty member could address the BOS at the meeting that endorsed the chancellor-president’s dismissal decision.

While this is the most recent and egregious example, there are sadly others in this pattern of LSU’s HRM and lawyers (ill-)advising and directing, and a chancellor-president going along compliantly, with no basic fairness, due process, and awareness of academic values. They also show incompetence and poor judgment. Research faculty, who do not have tenure but have served for over a dozen years, with good standing in their field and external funding from state and private sources, have not had their annual contracts renewed by what can only be seen as arbitrary decisions by a higher authority. Reasoned appeals by other faculty in that or other units, even that graduate students are affected and grant funds will have to be forfeited, are met with a pro forma response that a non-renewal requires no explanation. While legalistically correct, this does not speak well of LSU. Professionals with long years of dedicated service deserve an explanation, however slight, not a dismissive refusal to do so.

The authors of LSU’s Press Releases also show little good sense, academic or otherwise, in attacking the AAUP, which censured LSU years ago, was in the process of looking to lift it but issued a supplementary censure, only the seventh in its hundred-year history, on the latest firing. Their investigative report thoroughly debunks LSU’s case. LSU’s unique distinction is to be the only major university in this category. AAUP says: “If a major public research university like LSU can so brazenly ignore its own policies and impose on its faculty members a de facto but ill-defined code of expression, no faculty anywhere will be safe from similar action. “ AAUP is seen within US academia as having enunciated and now the defender of the principles of academic freedom that underlie the strength of US universities. Attacking it, not correcting its own errors, may play in some local circles but will only bring further opprobrium on our university, affecting current and future faculty, our students, and our mission.

The state of our ship should indeed be of grave concern to all, students, staff, and faculty. It does not befit an educational institution, leave alone of higher learning, and leave alone a Flagship.

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