Emporia State University faculty leaders wait for answers after rapid firing of tenured professors

Students hold vigil. President gets ride from police. Author laments ‘self-sabotage.’ Future of programs unknown.

by Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

Editor’s note: Sherman Smith is a 2004 graduate of Emporia State University with a degree in English and a minor in journalism. He took classes from English professor Mel Storm.

Emporia — Faculty leaders at Emporia State University are alarmed by their administration’s lack of clear direction following the sudden layoffs of 33 professors and staff members last week.

Professors have unanswered questions about which programs will exist beyond the current school year, and what to tell current and prospective students.

“Please wait for more information,” faculty senate president Shawn Keough told colleagues at a meeting Tuesday. “That’s what’s being pushed down at this point.”

The Kansas Board of Regents granted permission to ESU president Ken Hush to rapidly fire tenured professors in a cost-saving move permitted by a temporary COVID-19 policy that expires at the end of December. No other state university has taken the controversial option.

Most faculty members were allowed to remain through the end of the school year in May. Others were immediately dismissed.

Students responded with protests and a candlelight vigil. Hush’s office is now guarded by a chain, and the student newspaper, the ESU Bulletin, photographed him being driven off campus by police. Some faculty members were weighing legal assistance from the American Association of University Professors and rushing to secure intellectual property from university servers.

The author Joyce Carol Oates questioned the university’s actions through her Twitter account.

“If a university abolishes tenure, how can it expect to hire instructors who could get tenure-track jobs elsewhere?” Oates wrote. “In both the short & the long run, this is self-sabotage to a university.”

Some of the faculty senate members at Tuesday’s meeting were among those who were laid off, and remained silent. Others had questions that Keough, the senate president and a business administration professor, couldn’t answer.

Howard Pitler, an associate professor of school leadership, said his department chair had been told to clear out his desk when he was laid off. Pitler wondered about the future of the department. Keough stifled a nervous laugh.

“I just chuckled because that’s a lot better than you seeing tears streaming down my face,” Keough said.

Juan Chavarria, an assistant professor of accounting, information systems and finance, said his experience in the corporate world was that layoffs were immediately followed by a talk from leadership about what the organization’s roadmap will be.

“Why can’t we get that roadmap?” Chavarria asked during the faculty senate meeting.

The lack of certainty creates an unhealthy environment, he added.

“It’s not healthy for anybody — not for those who are leaving, not for those who are staying,” Chavarria said.

Mallory Koci, director of the Ethnic and Gender Studies program and the only faculty member in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, raised concerns about the university’s big “Black and Gold” recruitment event for prospective students, which takes place on campus Saturday.

Campus leadership needs to release information about the university’s plans so that “we are not unduly recruiting students or making promises for programs that will no longer exist,” Koci said.

In an interview, Koci said she wants alumni and community members to know that “despite the turmoil, there are people who are committed to this institution.”

“We can be both critical of the changes in how they’re happening, but also be hopeful that there is a path forward where we can be successful and work collaboratively,” Koci said. “Even though I’ve gone through a whole range of emotions this past week, I am hopeful that there is a future that we can create and live into if we care enough.”

Mel Storm, an English professor who started teaching at the university in 1971, was among those who were laid off last week.

Storm said he was targeted because he teaches literature. The English department is gone, he said.

“I don’t think individual merit was looked at, or individual dignity, personal concerns,” Storm said. “Obviously at my age, I’d be retiring one of these days. My plan was to teach as long as my health allowed, because I really enjoy what I do.”

One by one, Storm and the others were called into a “mandatory meeting” at a deserted off-campus building. They were told to come alone and arrive no more than five minutes early, Storm said. A woman let him in the door, and two individuals were present for the meeting: An HR person and an administrator who read a statement about the university’s plans to save money by firing employees.

In the past week, former students have sent emails to the professor to let him know his teaching meant a lot. The remembrances go back to the early 1980s.

“I do seem to have given some direction to a few lives along the way,” Storm said.

“It’s certainly gratifying,” he added. “I suppose in some respects, it makes it harder because I think I’m still affecting people’s lives, and will be until the 16th of May.”

Two days later, he will turn 80.

“I did hope to leave on my own terms when the time came,” Storm said. “It’s kind of a personal affront.”

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2022/09/22/emporia-state-university-faculty-leaders-wait-for-answers-after-rapid-firing-of-tenured-professors/

Kansas Board of Regents extends deadline for university action on employee dismissal policy

Policy applies to all working at KU, KSU and four other public universities

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — The Kansas Board of Regents modified a controversial workforce-management policy to give public university officials additional time to submit a framework for justifying dismissal of employees, including tenured faculty, without adhering to standard campus procedures.

The original policy creating an alternative pathway to terminating employees was adopted by the Board of Regents in January 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, flat-to-lower enrollment trends, pressure to hold down tuition and fees, and historically marginal state funding. Under the two-year policy, a university wouldn’t be required to declare a financial emergency or adhere to certain personnel rules when downsizing its workforce.

Despite a large increase in state appropriations to Kansas higher education in 2022, the Board of Regents voted in May to move the deadline for universities to gain board approval of a framework for implementing the policy to Dec. 31. The board originally adopted a July 1, 2021, deadline for advancing those framework proposals, but none of the six universities in the system presented an action plan.

The policy was revised so campus administrators could propose operational frameworks and make use of the extraordinary process until the end of 2022. Individual appeals of personnel actions wouldn’t need to be completed by Dec. 31.

“The board wants to give presidents and the chancellor every tool they need to make sure they have a healthy budget,” said Blake Flanders, president and chief executive officer of the nine-member Board of Regents.

He said officials at Emporia State University were examining the possibility of implementing the policy to address operational challenges. On Wednesday, the Board of Regents appointed Ken Hush president of ESU.

“They’re going to look at every option,” Flanders said.

A memorandum circulated among ESU faculty indicated the university’s leaders were “considering this policy, among other options, to further the restructuring process.” Officials at ESU didn’t respond to a request for comment.

University of Kansas faculty protested development of the policy in February 2021 because they opposed lowering the bar for removal of tenured professors. Initially, KU officials said they couldn’t rule out reliance on the policy.

KU chancellor Doug Girod subsequently said in June 2021 and again last month that he wasn’t contemplating deployment of the policy to thin the university’s payroll.

“KU has not used the policy, and we will not use it before it expires,” Girod said in a message to university employees. “KU’s ability to manage the financial challenges of the pandemic without using the regents policy is due to the great work so many of you have done during the past two years.”

He said changes to university business practices, development of a transparent budget process that incentivized teaching and research, and stable student enrollment made it unnecessary to turn to the policy on workforce management set to expire at the end of 2022. It could be extended by the Board of Regents.

“KU still faces financial challenges, and we must continue making difficult decisions to ensure we are positioned for the future. The good news is we now have a clearer picture of these challenges — and opportunities — than we did two years ago,” Girod said.

Flanders said he didn’t believe Wichita State University or Kansas State University would rely on the Board of Regents’ employee policy. If enacted at Pittsburg State University or Fort Hays State University, he said, existing collective bargaining agreements would come into play.

In April 2021, the Board of Regents adjusted the policy to increase faculty, staff and student involvement in developing a university’s framework for applying the workforce policy.

Julene Miller, general counsel to the Board of Regents, said elected representatives from faculty, staff and student governance groups were guaranteed a “timely opportunity to provide input, comments and recommendations on the draft framework.”

The board also mandated university leaders communicate with employees a rationale for why it was necessary to adopt the policy rather than rely on standard suspension, dismissal or termination policies, she said.

Under the policy created by the Board of Regents, officials of a university could base employment decisions on performance evaluations, teaching and research productivity, student enrollment, operational costs or reductions in revenue for specific departments or schools.

A university employee must be provided a 30-day written notice of suspension or dismissal as well as written reasons for the personnel action. Appeals filed with the Board of Regents within 30 days would be handled by the Office of Administrative Hearings. The only grounds for reversing a university’s decision would be evidence the action was inconsistent with the university’s framework, based on unlawful bias or discrimination, or otherwise unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious.

The policy placed the burden of proof in appeals on the employee, who has no right in these proceedings to evidence discovery. Appeals under the policy don’t halt a suspension or termination. Employees who prevail on appeal under the policy would be entitled to reinstatement, back pay and restoration of benefits.

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2022/06/23/kansas-board-of-regents-extends-deadline-for-university-action-on-employee-dismissal-policy/

Final Kansas budget locks in public university tuition freeze, but fee hikes are still on table

Kelly: $37.5 million budget hike sufficient to hold line on student tuition

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Lawrence — Kansas public university students uneasy about the cost of their education dodged a tuition hike this fall, but won’t know until mid-June whether they’ll be dinged with higher campus fees.

Maneuvering by the Legislature and governor on tuition added complexity to the task of pulling together university budgets for the fiscal year starting July 1. The Kansas Board of Regents are preparing to vote on what campus fees get elevated at the system’s six universities.

The $37.5 million allocated by the Legislature to universities governed by the Board of Regents, and Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a budget provision that would have allowed tuition increases, mean students wouldn’t pay more in tuition during the 2022-2023 school year. It would be the fourth consecutive year without a tuition rate adjustment at the University of Kansas following the 2.8% boost in 2019. The five other universities in the system have each adopted tuition increases twice in the past five years.

Cheryl Harrison-Lee, chairwoman of the Board of Regents, said affordability of higher education was a center piece on the system’s priority list. Status quo tuition rates and more need-based student financial aid will combine to improve student access to education, she said.

In January, Kelly and the Board of Regents requested a $45.7 million increase from the Legislature. The justification was a desire to restore funding cut in the past, acknowledge a projected inflation rate of 1.9% and initiate a 2% budget increase to put off higher tuition rates.

The budget adopted by the House and Senate was $8 million less than sought by the Board of Regents. To cover the gap, university administrators in Lawrence, Manhattan, Wichita, Emporia, Pittsburg and Hays drafted proposals for tuition increases ranging from 1.07% at KU to 3.07% at Fort Hays State University, which has the system’s lowest tuition. Officials at the other state universities in Kansas set their sights on tuition increases of 1% to 1.3%.

Those plans were withdrawn after Kelly line-item vetoed the budget proviso opening the door to higher tuition. Kelly said higher education in Kansas was on solid footing because the universities could expect to receive $1 billion in the new fiscal year.

“I believe that the regents institutions will be able to continue to hold tuition flat, making college more affordable for Kansans of all backgrounds. This is especially important if we, as a state, are going to provide the workforce needed to fully actualize the benefits and opportunities of our recent economic growth,” Kelly said.

KU chancellor Doug Girod said the governor’s rejection of the tuition-increase option left university officials no choice but to embrace a tuition freeze, but wouldn’t necessarily block changes to campus or academic fees.

He said Board of Regents universities were grateful for nearly securing their full budget request to the 2022 Legislature.

“It played out as well as we could have hoped,” Girod said. “We certainly are most grateful to the governor and the Legislature for the support they have passed our way.”

Ken Hush, interim president at Emporia State University, said the university had concluded after the legislative session ended that a 3% tuition increase would have been appropriate. That idea was trimmed to 1% before abandoned in response to the veto. A 1% increase in ESU tuition would equate to $221,000 in new revenue.

“We felt it was a good investment,” Hush said. “We embrace what’s happened.”

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2022/06/01/final-kansas-budget-locks-in-public-university-tuition-freeze-fee-hikes-still-on-table/