Universities that fire tenured faculty without due process are setting a dangerous precedent (opinion)
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Universities that fire tenured faculty without due process are setting a dangerous precedent (opinion)

In a recent article, Asheesh Kapur Siddique, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, asks, “What is the left to do about the corporate capture of the modern university?”

While we can answer this singular question in multiple ways, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that a key goal of today’s corporate university is to attack and even destroy tenure. This goal has been playing out in many nonprofit higher education institutions all across the United States, from small private colleges to large public universities. The modern university, led by boards of corporate-minded trustees and presidents who are profit-driven and disconnected from faculty and the fundamental mission of higher education -- along with deans and provosts who serve at the pleasure of the president -- is headed in the wrong direction.

Most recently, higher education institutions have denied tenure to prominent intellectuals like Cornel West at Harvard University and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking "1619 Project," at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of the people who raised objections to her was UNC megadonor Walter E. Hussman Jr., after whom the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media is named.

Even worse, we’ve witnessed a number of abrupt sackings of tenured faculty members. That includes the dismissal of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, which occurred in the middle of a Zoom meeting at Linfield University without him being granted any hearing or due process.

We’ve also seen the firings of two faculty members at Collin College for criticizing their administration about their COVID-19 reopening plans, as well as the dismissal of Garrett Felber, a celebrated professor in the history department at the University of Mississippi, for calling out powerful, racist donors. At Pacific University, another tenured faculty member, Richard J. Paxton, was suspended without appropriate due process. Paxton has just sued Pacific University for $1.3 million. Meanwhile, the American Association of University Professors, the national organization that has been defending tenure and academic freedom since 1915, is formally investigating Linfield University and Collin College and has sent Pacific University a letter in response to its actions.

Sacked While Zooming: A New Reality

Full disclosure: Daniel Pollack-Pelzner was my colleague in the English department at Linfield for the past 10 years and also served as an affiliate faculty member in the gender studies program that I co-coordinate. His office was located close to mine. I was also a member of the search committee that hired him in 2010.

Many of us who are faculty members at Linfield were proud to have Pollack-Pelzner as our colleague and faculty trustee, who worked to protect our students and faculty when they complained about sexual misconduct perpetuated by powerful men on our board. We were angry when the chair of our board censored Pollack-Pelzner’s May 2020 report to our trustees by redacting parts of it that detailed multiple sexual misconduct allegations.

We also thought Pollack-Pelzner was brave when, on March 29, 2021, he tweeted about his struggles with the board when he attempted to bring matters pertaining to sexual misconduct and anti-Semitism to their attention. His 23 linked tweets that day outlined in detail the harassments he experienced from the university’s board chair and president for exposing the perpetrators of sexual misconduct and anti-Semitism. That day, Pollack-Pelzner became a whistle-blower.

Around 1 p.m. on April 27, about a month after he tweeted, Pollack-Pelzner received an email from Linfield University’s human resources director that his previously scheduled mandatory meeting at 4 p.m. that day, concerning his “employment,” had been canceled. An hour later, while he was in a middle of a work-related Zoom conference, his screen froze. Then his laptop shut down. When he tried to restart his laptop, the screen said that his access had been denied. He attempted to send an email from his personal address to his university email address and received an auto-response that read, “Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is no longer an employee of Linfield University.” He had been fired.

At 5:06 p.m. that day, the entire campus community received an email from the provost with a subject headline “Extraordinary step.” In that email, the provost announced,

The university today took the extraordinary step of terminating the employment of a member of our faculty for serious breaches of the individual’s duty to the institution. As a matter of policy and privacy, personnel matters are confidential, but maintaining that is not always possible -- particularly when the precipitating events involve false public accusations that have, sadly, harmed the university.

False public accusations? Harming the university? Serious breaches of the individual’s duty to the institution? Those were grave accusations.

In Oregon, whistle-blowers are protected “so that employees can more easily report mismanagement, waste, fraud and abuse.” But our board, president and other top administrators did not care about protecting a whistle-blower. Instead, they fired him and then declared in a memo that the whistle-blower was harming the university.

If anything, a whistle-blower should be honored, because they have shown true institutional courage. If anything, firing a tenured faculty member for blowing the whistle and without giving him any due process harms the fundamental mission of the university that is built on the pursuit of critical inquiry, truth, justice and academic freedom. No matter how egregious the reasons may be, a tenured faculty member has the right to a hearing before being fired. Tenure, by definition, is an indefinite academic appointment, and tenured faculty can only be dismissed under extraordinary circumstances like financial exigency or program discontinuation.

A couple weeks after the firing, campus security guards escorted Pollack-Pelzner off the campus after he packed up his office. Or, more aptly, packed up the professional life that he built for the last decade doing what most of us love to do: teach. The scene of him in his office in the presence of security guards seemed like a page of out of Kafka’s novel The Trial.

After his dismissal, Pollack-Pelzner told The Oregonian, “The truth is speaking up about abuses of power doesn’t harm Linfield. Abuses of power harm Linfield, and retaliation against the people who report abuse harm Linfield.”

The AAUP announced in a letter to President Miles K. Davis it would be investigating Linfield University for the firing of Pollack-Pelzner. Linfield’s administration, however is not cooperating with the AAUP’s investigation. The university’s spokesperson Scott Nelson commented that “while we respect the AAUP, this matter is not suitable for resolution through an ad hoc committee of a private, outside organization.” Nevertheless, AAUP has already appointed an investigative committee and is moving forward with a full formal investigation that will commence at the end of June, with a final report to be published in November or early December.

Meanwhile, faculty members within Linfield University and around the country have been baffled as to what constituted such “serious breaches” as to justify a tenured faculty member being sacked immediately. In fact, if any serious breaches occurred, they’ve been committed not by Pollack-Pelzner but by the board in its negligence of their fiduciary responsibilities to keep a campus safe.

Far Broader Implications

Terminations like those of Pollack-Pelzner and Garrett Felber, and tenure denials like those of Nikole Hannah-Jones, have also revealed another reality: in the corporate university, tenure has no meaning, whistle-blowers can be fired, rich and influential donors determine who is granted tenure or not, and faculty have become at-will employees. And just like any at-will employee, faculty members can also be sacked anytime and without cause. In the corporate university, every employee is disposable and replaceable. In fact, the Linfield president defended the firing of a tenured professor, stating, “I did not know there were rules for firing tenured faculty.”

As shocking as this revelation may be, it calls for some questioning of the limits of presidential powers and the function of the board in a corporate university:

  • Why did the board hire a president who cares so little about the rules that govern tenure?
  • If a university president does not know or understand the rules of tenure or for firing a tenured faculty member, especially a whistle-blower, should they continue to be a university president?
  • Can boards not see how suspensions and dismissals of tenured faculty by not granting them their due process rights inadvertently puts institution at great risks for lawsuits, loss of accreditation, loss of federal funding, possible investigation and censuring by AAUP, and loss of reputation?
  • Should donors intervene in any academic decisions pertaining to hiring, tenure and termination of faculty in any institution?
  • If indeed universities are run like corporations, then at what point does a misfiring by a CEO of an employee become so costly that the CEO must step down to save the corporation?
  • If indeed universities are run like corporations -- and the corporation risks its public image and reputation, and donors begin to divest -- then should the CEO continue to lead?

Pollack-Pelzner’s firing reveals a final reality: if indeed many universities are run like corporations, then they are being run by highly incompetent CEOs, boards and administrators resulting in highly dysfunctional corporations. These dysfunctions are sometimes expressed by faculty no-confidence votes. At Linfield, such votes have been cast not once but twice within a span of two years.

But unfortunately, no-confidence votes against presidents and boards are not just routinely ignored but also sometimes retaliated against. Right after the first no-confidence vote at Linfield in 2019, the Faculty Assembly was abolished. Right after the second vote, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People investigation of six faculty members was launched, followed by the abrupt firing of Pollack-Pelzner.

It also has become routine that presidents aren’t fired unless and until pressures from outside the university force the board to act. And even in the most scandalous cases, the board usually asks the president to resign, even though terminating them would be much more appropriate. Then it sends the president away with a golden parachute.

In Oregon, that’s happened twice within the last three years. First, Portland State University’s president Rahmat Shoureshi announced he would step down in December 2019. He had been accused of excessive spending, mistreating employees and destroying email records. The board offered him a large “severance package to convince him to go,” The Oregonian reported. His contract specified that he would receive $800,000 if fired “without cause.”

Then, this past March, just eight months into his presidency, Oregon State University’s president F. King Alexander resigned after a report was released to the public criticizing his handling of sexual misconduct charges when he was president of Louisiana State University. According to The Oregonian, the trustees “approved a legal settlement. The deal calls for Alexander to be paid about $670,000 in a lump sum as well as medical benefits for a year.”

“Once appointed,” as Benjamin Ginsberg wrote in The Fall of Faculty: The Rise of the Administrative University and Why it Matters, “presidents serve at the pleasure of the trustees and can only be removed by them … Every school employs a great many administrators whom the faculty regard as foolish or incompetent. But so long as these individuals retain the support of their administrative superiors, the faculty is usually powerless to remove them.”

It is precisely this powerlessness that faculty members at Linfield University are feeling right now. Pollack-Pelzner’s firing has had a chilling effect on tenure and academic freedom, and we all feel like a target. His firing has signaled the rise of an authoritarian university where dissent is actively suppressed, surveillance of social media has promoted a culture of fear and the faculty Listserv has been disabled.

It has also made local and national headlines and has provoked national outrage among faculty members. It has prompted a press release from PEN America and an urgent letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calling the firing “reckless conduct.”

Pollack-Pelzner’s dismissal, like the other firings I’ve mentioned, constitutes an assault on the principles of tenure and academic freedom. They have caused both fear and deep sadness far beyond their institutions. They are test cases to watch. If universities can indeed get away with firing tenured faculty without giving them any due process, it will set a national precedent -- one that could ultimately be a death sentence for the profession.

Yet all is not lost.

At least, one longtime trustee and donor to the arts and humanities has stood up against this egregious firing of a tenured faculty member and has resigned. Her name is Ronni Lacroute, and she has refused to be complacent. Higher education needs more trustees like Lacroute (after whom Pollack-Pelzner's endowed chair was named).

At least, hundreds of alumni have loudly spoken for “the safety and well-being of its faculty and students” and have even started a legal fund to help them. Higher education needs more alumni like them.

At least, the town’s local newspaper, the News-Register, in a poignant editorial said, “You can’t lead a university without the support of its faculty any more than you can command an army without the support of its troops. Lose the men and women charged with carrying out your mission, and you’re in deep trouble.” Higher education needs more truth tellers like that.

No one really knows where the trend toward the corporatization of the university -- if not curbed by more trustees, alumni, journalists and others speaking out -- will lead. But for now, one thing is clear: college and university presidents should not behave like Donald J. Trump and fire tenured faculty like contestants on The Apprentice. Universities are not corporations, and they are definitely not game shows.



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