Leaders of the state's community college system do not have the authority to eliminate tenure for newly hired faculty, according to an opinion issued by Attorney General Jack Conway.
He opined on Monday that a March 13 decision by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System Board of Regents to eliminate tenure for anyone hired after June 30 contradicted state law, which says new faculty at KCTCS "shall earn tenure," a type of job security that academics can generally pursue.
"Although the Board has been given 'exclusive authority' to govern KCTCS, such authority cannot be over and against that of the General Assembly," the opinion says. "While the KCTCS Board of Regents has the authority to enact procedures and standards for how faculty are to earn tenure in the future, it is not free to eliminate tenure entirely."
KCTCS spokeswoman Terri Giltner said it was too early to comment on the opinion because the agency's lawyers had not yet reviewed the decision. The full Board of Regents meets in Lexington later this week but is not expected to take up the matter, Giltner said.
The advisory opinion does not require any action by the board but could leave KCTCS vulnerable to a legal challenge if they ignore Conway's advice, said Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for Conway.
Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, requested the opinion.
"What the Board of Regents did wasn't the right thing to do to those people," said Nelson, who is also working on legislation to affirm tenure at KCTCS. "A lot of those board members have been snowed, and they've got to formulate opinions on their own."
In the past, system officials have said the new policy will give community colleges more flexibility during tough economic times.
But faculty members maintain that individual community college presidents already have the flexibility to hire new people in either tenured or non-tenured tracks.
Roy Silver, a professor at Southeast Community and Technical College, said many faculty members were pleased by the decision but remain worried that KCTCS would not take action. Faculty would then have to pursue the matter in court, he said.
"Where do faculty with limited resources get the money to have a fair hearing in court?" Silver asked.
Of the system's 16 colleges, faculty at 15 had votes of no-confidence in the Board of Regents after it eliminated tenure for new faculty, Silver said.
Although the decision doesn't directly affect Silver or other faculty who already have tenure, he said the move raises concerns about academic freedom.
KCTCS employs 5,000 faculty members, of which 890 are tenured and 168 more are on track for tenure.