Education

University faculty alarmed by Kentucky budget language that guts tenure protections

University of Kentucky faculty members listened to Eli Capilouto, who at the time had been chosen as the sole finalist for the presidency of UK, as he spoke during a faculty forum held in the Worsham Theater on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, Ky., Monday, May 2, 2011.
University of Kentucky faculty members listened to Eli Capilouto, who at the time had been chosen as the sole finalist for the presidency of UK, as he spoke during a faculty forum held in the Worsham Theater on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, Ky., Monday, May 2, 2011. cbertram@herald-leader.com

University faculty around the state are raising red flags over proposed legislative language that appears to let administrators ignore tenure protections as they downsize because of financial cutbacks.

The Senate version of Kentucky’s budget bill contains language that says university leaders may reduce tenured faculty when programs are modified or eliminated because of budgetary issues. What really alarms them is the last line: “The provisions of this section supersede any and all policies governing the faculty employment approved by a Board of Regents or Board of Trustees.”

“This goes right to the heart of academic freedom, but it should concern every single person in the commonwealth,” said Patti Minter, a Western Kentucky University history professor and former faculty regent who’s running for the House of Representatives. “Regardless of politics and ideology, it’s a grave threat to the free exchange of ideas that goes to the heart of what American universities are and what they should be.”

The language is timely because most state universities are in the process of cutting programs after nearly a decade of state budget cuts. The Senate’s version of the next budget also endorses Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposal to cut the state’s allocation to universities another 6.25 percent in the next biennium.

Eastern Kentucky University, for example, announced Thursday that it plans to cut $25 million by eliminating 200 positions, closing its Danville campus, suspending academic programs and slashing athletics spending by 20 percent.

So far, the school is following internal policies that respect tenure, said Matthew Winslow, chairman of the EKU faculty senate.

“What a disaster it would be if EKU followed that language and basically destroyed tenure,” he said. “We might as well close our doors if that happened.”

Bevin, a Republican, included similar language in his budget proposal made earlier this year, but the Senate’s version more explicitly allows schools to ignore their own rules. It’s not clear who requested the language or what its fate will be as leaders of the House and Senate negotiate a final budget bill in coming days.

Tenure grants job protections to faculty who have undergone a rigorous academic process, including book publication, teaching and service. In other words, it allows faculty to research or teach free of political pressure, especially at public institutions funded by state governments. Tenured faculty can lose their jobs after poor performance reviews or for other cause, but it’s a lengthy and complicated process.

Tenure, though, has been greatly eroded in the U.S. in recent years, both by administrators looking to contain costs and by Republican lawmakers who see the employment security and academic freedom as a threat, said Anita Levy, a senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors. In 2016, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker successfully passed similar laws that eliminated tenure protections in state law and allowed the state university system to ignore tenure in the case of financial cutbacks.

“This is very far reaching and over-reaching on the part of the Kentucky Senate,” Levy said. “It’s obviously very disturbing in that it completely supplants the role of faculty governance, and supersedes all governing policies.”

It’s not clear that university boards, who are appointed by the governor, would invoke the language without support from university administrators.

For example, Morehead State University is also facing financial pressures, and recently announced it would accept voluntary buyouts. But President Jay Morgan said the Senate language — which requires only 10 days notice to affected faculty — might cause problems with accreditation standards, which require enough faculty to “teach-out” a program so that current students can finish their program of study.

“So, it is crucial, in my opinion, that if a university decision affects a tenured faculty member that they be given ample professional notice and that some faculty are retained during the course of the teach-out provision to serve the students,” Morgan said. “At this point in time, Morehead State is concentrating on lowering our administrative overhead.”

University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said UK’s governing regulations outline a process for the removal of tenured and non-tenured faculty in a way that ensures constitutional due process. “Our intent is to continue to abide by that regulatory framework,” he said.

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