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Report Condemns Terminations of Tenured Faculty Appointments at Southern University, Baton Rouge

A new investigative report released by the American Association of University Professors concludes that administrators at Southern University, Baton Rouge (SUBR), used a declaration of financial exigency to terminate the appointments of tenured professors and sidestep the faculty’s participation in decisions to restructure the university’s academic programs. In doing so, the board ignored existing AAUP-recommended procedures for financial exigency that it had adopted in 1987 as a condition of its removal from the AAUP’s list of censured administrations.

The AAUP authorized the investigation, conducted last September by a committee chaired by Professor Edward F. Sherman (Tulane University), after receiving complaints from SUBR faculty members that the administration had laid off tenured professors with no provision for the hearing before a faculty committee called for by the Association’s widely accepted academic standards and with as little as thirty days’ notice. The tenure terminations followed a 10 percent furlough mandated for all faculty members after the board of supervisors declared financial exigency on the basis of a $1.5 million budgetary shortfall in October 2011. The faculty senate had asserted that the budgetary shortfall stemmed in significant part from the administration’s decision to shift money from the academic budget to the athletics program and the laboratory school. Immediately after voting to declare financial exigency, the board adopted new procedures for implementing exigency that were not vetted by the faculty. In November, the provost instructed department chairs to submit, within a period of days, recommendations of department colleagues to be targeted for layoff. At the same time, a reorganization of the university’s nine colleges into five moved forward for board approval without the faculty’s knowledge.

The administration issued notice to nineteen tenured professors between February and May 2012. In some cases, department chairs were unaware that members of their department had been selected for layoff. Professors who received notice had seven business days to file an appeal with the chancellor. All appeals to him were denied, except for one from an appellant who had been notified erroneously.

Under AAUP standards, terminations of tenured faculty appointments on grounds of financial exigency may take place only after a determination by the faculty that a demonstrably bona fide financial crisis exists that threatens the institution as a whole and that all feasible alternatives to faculty layoffs have been exhausted. The faculty bears responsibility for identifying the criteria for terminating appointments and the appropriate group or individual to determine which appointments to terminate. Any faculty member so identified has the right to a hearing before a faculty committee before a final decision is made.

The investigating committee found “the administration’s ex post facto changes to the faculty handbook, adopted on the day the board declared financial exigency, to be an apparent attempt to avoid the existing standards of the board and handbook.” The report concludes that the SUBR administration, in declaring financial exigency, restructuring academic programs without consulting the faculty, and terminating the nineteen tenured faculty appointments, disregarded fundamental AAUP principles, thereby weakening the climate for academic freedom that tenure is designed to protect. Of particular concern to the committee was the administration’s virtual exclusion of the university’s faculty from decision making where the faculty’s involvement is crucially important. Equally troubling was the administration’s decision to release senior professors on such short notice: a mere four months in the first round of layoffs and then, in the second wave, a woefully scant four weeks at best.

“By laying off nineteen senior professors on short notice, while simultaneously deducting 10 percent from the salaries of all faculty members through mandatory furloughs, the SUBR administration managed to combine the worst of two worlds,” says AAUP Associate General Secretary Jordan E. Kurland.

Southern University, Baton Rouge, is the flagship campus in the Southern University system, a public, historically black, land-grant university system with five campuses in Louisiana. With an enrollment of approximately seven thousand students, SUBR is one of the country’s top ten producers of baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans. Publication of the investigating committee’s report was approved by the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which at its June meeting will formulate a statement on the SUBR cases that may recommend censure to the 2013 annual meeting of the Association in mid-June.