In a rare legal victory for tenured faculty members, the state Supreme Court returned their posts to four professors – a decision that professors say is a victory for the sanctity of tenure.
The College of Saint Rose, in Albany, NY, told professors – all longtime members of the music department – in December 2020 that they would be fired a year later, along with about 30 other full faculty members, in part of a cost-cutting plan that included the elimination of 25 academic programs and $ 5.97 million in academic spending. These cuts were partly determined on the basis of the budget reduction proposals submitted by each department of the college.
We see the news. We are not the only college where this has happened.
But by firing Yvonne Chavez Hansbrough, Robert S. Hansbrough, Bruce C. Roter and Sherwood W. Wise, Saint Rose violated his own faculty textbook, Judge Peter A. Lynch of the Albany County Supreme Court found in a decision the last month. The college had kept intact the jobs of less experienced faculty members in what the courts called a “selective, narrow and misleading interpretation” of the faculty textbook, apparently “by design”.
Wise, the president of the music department, had offered more than $ 500,000 in cuts, according to documents filed in the lawsuit. But a joint task force of professors and administrators reviewing the budget cuts proposals ultimately passed a different set of cuts – those influenced, according to the lawsuit, by a secret counter-proposal that Wise and the other plaintiffs knew nothing about.
The secret proposal, which was submitted several weeks after the deadline, came from a group of faculty members who were teaching in the Saint Rose music industry concentration. (Not an official program or major, the concentration focuses on commercial music production and management, while other offerings in the department are dedicated to performance and music education.) According to the lawsuit, the plan of Music industry faculty members planned the entire music program to be phased out except for their concentration and its faculty members – lawsuit plaintiffs are not among them.
That the counter-proposal was allowed to be submitted was “patently unfair,” Roter said. The Chronicle, and “corrupted the whole dismissal process”. Indeed, the lawsuit says that Wise, as president, was not given the opportunity to respond to this proposal. With one exception, none of the music industry professors selected had the same seniority level as any of the licensed faculty members; the lawsuit argues that this violated the Saint Rose faculty manual, which requires the college to give preference to faculty members based first on tenure, then seniority, then rank.
There had long been friction between faculty members in the music industry and the music department at large, wrote Marshal Margaret T. McLane in an affidavit. “The three eliminated music programs have been criticized by some current and former members of our college community as being ‘too white’,” wrote McLane. “That is, the three eliminated music programs tend to focus on classical music, while the music industry program focuses on more contemporary and diverse genres of music. “
The prosecuting professors dispute these statements, in particular associated with the statistical discrepancies that they highlighted in the trial. Some of the enrollment and financial data on which the cuts were based was inaccurate or out of date, they argued, and the music education program that was designated to be phased out was more profitable than the music industry’s concentration. music. “You would think the administration was not only confusing an economic downsizing process, but also had certain programmatic agendas in mind,” Roter said.
For these and other reasons, including the lack of due process, the complainants and several colleagues appealed their dismissals to an internal review board, which ruled in their favor and recommended their reinstatement. But Marcia J. White, then interim president of the college, dismissed the appeal, prompting the four professors to take their case to court.
Obtaining a legal remedy in cases of revocation of mandate is often an uphill battle, as the attorney of the professors, Meredith Moriarty admitted. “The standards are pretty high,” said Moriarty, of New York law firm Smith Hoke PLLC. The Chronicle. “A college has a lot of freedom to conduct its business. However, he does not have complete freedom, and he must follow the faculty manual.
The court agreed with this view, with Judge Lynch writing that the college had not followed the order of preference in its faculty textbook and that its “actions could not stand!” “
The four professors plan to return to teaching this spring, but their long-term future is uncertain. White, now president, said in a message to the campus community that Saint Rose would appeal the court’s decision, writing that “until the case can be heard by the appeals court, the college will will comply with the court ruling in this employment matter. Citing the appeal, White declined an interview with The Chronicle.
“Good for all full teachers”
Saint Rose has already dismissed full professors. In 2015, it cut 14 permanent appointments and 27 college programs, which led to the American Association of University Teachers investigating and censoring the college in 2016.
Shortly after the four professors received their advice, they retained Moriarty’s cabinet. They also contacted the AAUP, whose power to intervene was limited. “When an institution is on our censorship list, we have basically shot our biggest weapon, so to speak,” said Gregory F. Scholtz, director of the academic freedom, tenure and governance department of AAUP. Scholtz and the association sent a letter to the college expressing their concern. Saint Rose had acted against the widely adopted AAUP Policy Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Scholtz wrote, by not declaring a financial requirement before firing tenured faculty members. (To do so, the McLane affidavit read, “would be counterproductive and would likely result in further decline in enrollment and other negative impacts for the College.)
And while the Saint Rose faculty manual allows the college to fire permanent faculty members due to “anticipated program cuts,” Scholtz wrote in the letter that “AAUP does not consider the mere anticipation of program cuts as a legitimate basis ”for dismissing tenured professors. . For this reason, the association – but not the court – viewed the dismissals as “completely illegitimate from the start,” Scholtz said.
Whether the court ruling affirmed the contractual nature of the Saint Rose faculty textbook is significant, Scholtz said. “It was heartwarming for us to see that the New York Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, teachers’ manuals are important and they should be followed not only by teachers, but also by administration. “”
The statement bodes well for the state of academic freedom and tenure at large, said Scholtz and the reinstated music teachers.
“We see the news. We’re not the only college where this has happened, ”said Chavez Hansbrough. “I’ve always thought, ‘Well, we’re doing this for ourselves, for our students, for all of our colleagues who have been fired, but also for all the full professors across the country. “
“If we win and win to the end, I think it’s good for all the full professors. “