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Professors union to investigate Keuka College

John Christensen
The Chronicle-Express

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has authorized an investigation of the crisis in academic governance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on seven institutions: Canisius College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Keuka College, Marian University, Wisc., Medaille College, National University, Calif., and Wittenberg University, Ohio. 

Keuka College has rescheduled events and closed the campus to outsiders.

“Since March, the AAUP has received numerous complaints from faculty members detailing unilateral actions taken by their governing boards and administrations to dictate how courses are taught, to suspend key institutional regulations, to reduce and close departments and majors, to compel faculty members to teach in person, and to lay off long-serving faculty members,” says Gregory Scholtz, director of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance. In most cases, the stated basis for the actions was the need to deal with pandemic-related financial shortfalls. 

The investigation report is to be released in early 2021, to declare if the colleges departed from AAUP-supported principles and standards of academic governance, as set forth in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. Other issues such as the effects of summary mass layoffs on academic freedom and tenure, the enrollment and financial challenges facing many institutions, and the impact of these especially for the humanities and liberal arts, may also be included in the report. 

The AAUP conducted a similar investigation of mass terminations in 2006 at five New Orleans universities following Hurricane Katrina. In 1956, the Association issued a celebrated report, “Academic Freedom and Tenure in the Quest for National Security,” reviewing the attacks on academic freedom that had occurred at 18 institutions during the McCarthy era. These investigations and reports, however, dealt with issues of academic freedom and tenure, not with issues of academic governance. 

Keuka responds

Keuka College answered the news of the investigation by stating it does not have an AAUP chapter, nor does it have a relationship with the organization.

“While Keuka College electively follows many AAUP guidelines with respect to continuous tenure and a host of other important issues, a projected $7 million (17%) pandemic-induced budgetary shortfall necessitated several difficult decisions in advance of the 2020–21 academic year. Among them: the Board of Trustees voted to suspend certain policies and procedures that align with AAUP guidelines, including the College’s typical process for closing academic programs and eliminating positions held by professors with continuous tenure.”

Board of Trustees Chair Aqua Y. Porter claims that Keuka could not afford to spend the nearly $1.3 million they say following AAUP guidelines would have cost the college, without jeopardizing its solvency.

“Our first and foremost obligation is to our students and the College community at large,” said Porter. “While the decisions to close undersubscribed programs were difficult, following AAUP guidelines during this unprecedented time would have stymied the College’s ability to respond to the financial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Keuka College President Amy Storey points to an “Inside Higher Ed” report dated Sept. 21, that an arbitrator recently found in favor of the University of Akron in a case brought against it by the Akron AAUP concerning the layoff of nearly 100 full-time, unionized professors regardless of rank or tenure.

“I do not believe that when the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities was authored and adopted by that organization in 1966–67, its authors could have foreseen a financial environment like the one in which modern-day institutions currently operate,” said Keuka College President Amy Storey.

“Faculty, particularly those with a long history of service, are certainly the heart and soul of an academic institution. Keuka College’s faculty are accomplished scholars who consider teaching their calling, and we are fortunate to have each one of them as part of our community,” Storey said. “Yet it would be the ultimate dereliction of duty for this administration to risk institutional closure and the devastating impact that action would have on its faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the surrounding community by exhausting our scant financial resources to strictly follow AAUP guidelines during these unprecedented times. Neither faculty nor the principles of shared governance are the problem. The problem is the immense financial challenges institutions across the country are facing because of the pandemic.”

Storey claims early indicators show Keuka College’s financial planning and the painful budget-reduction measures—including the closure of undersubscribed academic and athletic programs, an 8% salary reduction to all salaried employees, and planned furloughs—have positioned the College to navigate through the pandemic. To date, the College’s expenses and revenues are within a small margin of the reduced budget. Student tuition, rather than endowment, funds faculty and staff compensation at Keuka College — compensation that would include the remunerations outlined in AAUP guidelines.

According to Storey, each of the enacted budget-reduction measures were discussed during multiple town hall-style forums and appeared on a “Tough Choices” survey in which all employees were invited to anonymously participate. Of note is that “reduce the number of faculty via closure of undersubscribed academic programs” was the most popular budget-reduction choice among faculty respondents.

Bill Brown, former Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Keuka, penned a recent letter to the editor saying, “This news came as a shock to faculty members who were not included in discontinuation decisions, a clear violation of the shared governance model the college follows. The faculty handbook, which is contractual, states that the decision to formally discontinue a program or department of instruction is primarily made by the faculty as a whole.

“Although not publicly announced, the administration further demonstrated its lack of reverence for agreed-upon operating procedures by internally revealing that 12–15 faculty members, most of them tenured, had also been discontinued—fired, that is—without cause.”

The AAUP’s investigating committee is charged with independently determining the relevant facts and the positions of the principal parties before reaching its findings. The committee’s draft report, if approved for publication by the Standing Committee, will be sent to the Keuka’s administration and the local faculty organization for comment and correction of facts, which are taken into account in preparing the final report.

Keuka reports that only two professors at the college hold AAUP memberships and Storey says the College would need to consider whether participating in the AAUP investigation would be a good use of its limited resources.

“We would need to seriously discuss whether participating in this investigation by the AAUP, a third-party organization that has no formal relationship with Keuka College, would be a mission-driven use of institutional time and resources,” says Storey.