BY HANK REICHMAN
Last week I reported on the layoff of five tenured professors at Mills College in Oakland, California. Although Mills’ action has failed to receive coverage in either the higher education press or the local media, as of this writing my post has been viewed more than 36,000 times. Yet Mills may not even be the most troubling current case in which an institution summarily dismisses tenured faculty members with minimal or no due process, using the justification of financial difficulty.
On June 12, the College of New Rochelle (CNR) in New York laid off ten tenured professors, did not reappoint ten non-tenured faculty members, and dismissed two staff members, effective June 30 or August 31, depending on the unit. “We have taken this painful step only after exhausting all other options,” the college said in a statement on its website. “Payroll and benefits are the College’s largest area of expense, yet it’s the most difficult to reduce because it involves the lives of individuals who devote their time and energy to our students and campus. Regrettably, we are left with no choice if we are to achieve financial stability.”
Those dismissed say they received no prior notice, severance, opportunity for a hearing, and were not offered other positions at the college. According to a June 27 letter from AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede to interim college president Dorothy Escribano, “affected faculty members have advised the AAUP that access to their e-mail accounts and their offices was immediately curtailed. They have further advised us of the difficulties they have faced in recovering their personal effects, e-mail messages, and electronic documents as well as in completing tasks related to the past semester, such as calculating and submitting grades.”
This was the second round of layoffs that the private Catholic college has made since it revealed details in late October about $31.2 million in previously undisclosed debts and faked budgets. About three dozen staff members were let go in November and another dozen or so retired without being replaced earlier in the academic year. At that time seven faculty leaders wrote in a statement, “The College has not followed the American Association of University of Professors (AAUP) procedures for dealing with financial exigencies as contained in the CNR faculty handbooks.”
Citing the absence of a declaration of financial exigency, the faculty reportedly declined several times to participate in determining which of their colleagues would be laid off. “Governance heads together with the faculty attorney have repeatedly insisted that because the college chose NOT to follow the CNR Faculty Handbooks we would not participate in or be party to what we believe to be the college’s illegal actions,” the statement said.
In February Eugene Eisner, an attorney representing New Rochelle faculty members, wrote the school’s lawyer that the college had not “complied with financial exigency” and offered four arguments as to why faculty layoffs could be unnecessary
- The college board of trustees “signed off on the fraudulent internal controls” of the school’s external auditor, KMPG Inc., and former Comptroller Keith Borge.
- There are “significant questions regarding the size of any settlement that the College is negotiating, or has negotiated, with KPMG.”
- The recent announcement of three new athletic teams brings into question “that the College’s financial situation is as dire as has been represented.”
- “It is unconscionable that the administration is planning faculty layoffs while high-level administrative-officer retention bonuses totaling approximately $400,000 are being distributed among themselves.”
After the June layoffs Eisner said faculty members plan to file a lawsuit and will ask the court to reverse the terminations as a breach of contract. Eisner also said the college hired an outside consultant at his request to help it negotiate the financial crisis. Eisner said the consultant issued an opinion in May that the college could have avoided layoffs if it dipped into its reserve fund, although the college has denied such funds exist.
In his letter to president Escribano, Tiede wrote: “Since the administration has not claimed that it terminated these ten tenured appointments for cause, for bona fide educational reasons, or, evidently, for financial exigency, the terminations appear to have been effected in flagrant disregard of Association-supported procedural standards,” Tiede wrote.
The letter continued: “The decision not to declare financial exigency before terminating tenured appointments could therefore be construed as having been made in order to avoid following the AAUP-recommended standards embodied in the faculty handbook.”
According to Tiede,
On October 24, Dr. Betty J. Roberts, vice president for finance and administration, wrote to inform Professor Timothy Ebsworth, chair of the senate finance committee, of “an imminent financial crisis . . . warranting the start of the process for determining whether to issue a declaration of financial exigency.” Although Dr. Roberts’s letter acknowledged that the college might not be able to adhere to “the timeline and procedures outlined in the Faculty Handbook for a declaration of financial exigency,” it did not suggest that no declaration would be issued. Nevertheless, we understand that less than one week later, on November 1, Ms. Gwen Adolph, chair of the board of trustees, announced that a declaration of financial exigency was no longer being pursued. We also understand that the faculty and a financial consultant retained by the faculty contested the claim that the college’s financial crisis could not be alleviated by less drastic means than terminating appointments.
In a statement on the college’s website, “updated” today, board chair Adolph wrote:
The College’s decisions were not carried out arbitrarily or capriciously. Every effort was made to pursue viable alternatives to layoffs and to limit their numbers. Extensive consideration was given over many months to ensuring that CNR will be able to continue providing the quality education and support services expected by our students. Ultimately, the Board determined that this was only possible if tenured faculty shared in the pain of layoffs so that the burden was not disproportionately borne by non-tenured faculty and staff.
The Board and senior leadership respect and support the academic freedom to express all viewpoints and understand that this ideal serves as the foundation of an educational institution. However, the sudden and unforeseen financial crisis that faced CNR had nothing to do with academic views or freedoms of expression – the crisis threatened the existence of the College.
The College of New Rochelle, like Mills College, does appear to face genuine financial challenges, albeit in CNR’s case challenges created largely, it would appear, through mismanagement. However, less clear is whether these challenges constitute a state of bona fide financial exigency and could not be addressed by less drastic means than layoffs of tenured and non-tenured faculty. It is also less clear, should such layoffs be proven necessary, whether either college is incapable of offering appropriate notice, faculty hearings, or, if necessary, suitable severance packages in accordance with AAUP guidelines and, in CNR’s case, policies enshrined in the school’s faculty handbook. It is not too late for them to do so.