A University Softens a Plan to Cut Tenured Faculty, but Professors Remain Wary

January 27, 2016 / Phil Lesch

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Sarah Brown
January 27, 2016

Susan Czechowski has spent 15 years on the faculty at Western Illinois University. Ms. Czechowski, a tenured professor of art, said she has been an active member of the campus community and a key contributor to her department’s recruitment and retention efforts. "My classes are full," she said.

So last month, when she was called into a meeting by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and told that she would be laid off, she was taken aback. More than 40 other faculty members — including a dozen with tenure — received similar news.

Western Illinois has for years struggled with declining enrollment and reduced state support, a predicament compounded by the fact that Illinois has yet to pass a budget for the fiscal year that started last July. That’s left public colleges without state money for the past seven months.

The institution had already combined some departments and curbed other spending, said Kathleen Neumann, interim provost and academic vice president, leaving no choice but to look at layoffs. Campus officials said they had turned to enrollment numbers to determine which departments should be scaled back and which faculty positions should be cut.

That had been the plan, at least. This week, Western Illinois’s president, Jack Thomas, changed course, announcing that while faculty cuts were still needed, tenured professors would be spared.
But for how long? Ms. Czechowski asked. And why did she end up on a layoff list at all? She and other tenured faculty members say they weren’t given much of an explanation. Moreover, 30 of their colleagues — including 10 assistant professors — remain on the verge of losing their jobs.

‘Nothing Can Be Confirmed’

Those are among several concerns that have made for a tense and confusing situation at Western Illinois.

And a meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees on Monday, during which the board voted to authorize faculty cuts, left many professors on the layoff list uncertain about where they stood.
Ms. Neumann said that President Thomas had announced the removal of all tenured professors from the layoff list during the board meeting. She attributed that to Mr. Thomas’s prepared remarks, in which he said that "my leadership team and I are still willing to remove tenured faculty as of today, January 25, 2016, from consideration for layoffs at this time." But that statement came in the context of comments about failed negotiations between administrators and the employee union.

When several tenured faculty members on the layoff list were asked in interviews on Tuesday whether they had been told that they were no longer being laid off, they said they had not. After speaking with The Chronicle around noon, Ms. Czechowski said she had called the president’s office and the provost’s office to ask about the status of the tenured professors. "I was told that nothing can be confirmed," she said.

Later on Tuesday, Mr. Thomas told the Faculty Senate that no faculty members with tenure would be affected by the current round of layoffs. Still, many professors fear that the uncertainty isn’t over: A faculty advisory committee has convened to examine academic-program cuts, and Ms. Neumann said additional faculty layoffs were not out of the question.

Humanities Hard-Hit

Western Illinois officials are looking for about $10 million in savings across the campus, Ms. Neumann said. Enrollment at the university has dropped by one-fourth since the fall of 2011, she said, while the number of professors has decreased by just 12 percent.

"It became obvious that we really needed to work more aggressively to get our staffing levels in line," she said.

To do that, Ms. Neumann said, the university’s academic leaders divided up each college into programs — some departments, like art and history, included several such programs — and evaluated each of them on the number of majors, graduates, student credit hours, and faculty members.

Then they sent informal layoff notices to professors with the least seniority in each program marked as having a low enrollment, starting with non-tenured faculty members and followed by those with tenure. That’s how someone like Ms. Czechowski could have ended up on the list, Ms. Neumann said.

Originally, four layoffs were scheduled in art, including three professors with tenure and one on the tenure track. That initial list also hit the history faculty with four layoffs. History is a fundamental part of the general-education curriculum, Ms. Neumann said, but the department has lost nearly half of its majors since the fall of 2011.

"The same metrics were applied to all of the programs," she said. "We’re simply trying to get current staffing in line with where the student demand is."

Some faculty members raised concerns that the humanities were bearing the brunt of the layoffs, suggesting a broader shift in the university toward a more vocational mission. William Thompson, president of the employee-union chapter at Western Illinois and a professor in the libraries division, provided The Chronicle with a breakdown of which colleges and departments were designated to see layoffs, and more than half of the positions on the original list were in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Among them were two of the African-American-studies department’s four tenured professors, not including the department chair. One of them, Jo-Ann Morgan, said she felt that Western Illinois officials were "taking advantage of the budget problem to reshape the university."

Ms. Neumann said the university had "no intentions" of eliminating all courses in African-American and women’s studies. What’s undecided, she said, is whether to offer those programs as majors.
That question is under consideration by the faculty committee reviewing the possible program cuts, she said. The group is also considering whether to recommend eliminating the philosophy, religious studies, and public-health majors, among others, she added.

‘Everybody Comes Off This List’

The furor over the layoffs grew in large part, professors said, because the employee union’s contract stipulates that only the university’s board has the authority to make employee layoffs. Western Illinois leaders said they had sent informal notices, which were not final, before the board’s vote to give faculty members more time to find other jobs.

As the union’s leaders expressed outrage over what they saw as a lack of due process, the board in December postponed a vote on authorizing the layoffs. The union then entered into negotiations with senior administrators, hoping to prevent the cuts by arguing that university leaders had not upheld the contract’s terms.

"Our basic premise is, everybody comes off this list," said Mr. Thompson.

Throughout the negotiations, Mr. Thompson said he and other faculty leaders proposed solutions for cutting costs without resorting to layoffs, including various combinations of postponed salary increases, pay givebacks, and retirement incentives. Administrators rejected all of their proposals, he said.

But Robert J. Hironimus-Wendt, a professor of sociology, said he didn’t think the union had done enough to find viable solutions. Mr. Hironimus-Wendt said he was pushing the union’s leaders to allow a vote on tenured faculty members' taking a small pay cut, which he said he and a number of his colleagues were willing to do.

At the very least, the union should give up the 1-percent raise slated to take effect in July, he said. "The idea that I would not give up a $50 per month pay increase so that my friend could save their job — to me, that’s just wrong," he said.

For now, tenured faculty members at Western Illinois appear to be safe, though that’s not what Sherry Lindquist, an assistant professor of art history, heard at Monday’s board meeting.
Ms. Lindquist, who is on the layoff list, believes President Thomas’s willingness to take tenured-faculty cuts off the table for now reassured the board into voting for the resolution. But Mr. Thomas wouldn’t promise, she said, "that they won’t lay them off the next day."

That lack of clarity has left Ms. Czechowski wary. "The communication throughout this process has been nonsensical," she said.

Several assistant professors, meanwhile, continue to face the reality that they could soon receive official notices that they have lost their jobs. Ms. Lindquist said her removal would leave the university with one art historian — and no one who specializes in non-Western art.

Holly Stovall, an assistant professor of women’s studies, said she recently completed her tenure-application file and felt confident she met all the criteria. Ms. Stovall had expected to get tenure within the next couple of months, and still believes she should. But now that she’s on the layoff list, it might not matter anymore, she said.

"It’s doing all this work for five years," she said, "and having the door slammed in my face."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.

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