Sunday, March 21, 2010

Signs of the apocalypse, part 2

In a long overdue post, I'll describe another sign of the pending apocalypse in higher education.  In my earlier post, I described how the State of California is letting its once-vaunted public higher education system die a slow death.  This time I turn to Florida, another state that has been battered by the recession and whose higher education system has also taken a beating.

Florida cut its funding for higher education by almost 10 percent this year compared to fiscal year 2009, about three times the size of the average reduction across the nation.  The public colleges and universities in the state responded in different ways to the cuts, including gaining the authority from the legislature to raise tuition at a higher rate than they had in the past.

Florida State University announced last month that it was laying off 36 tenure-line faculty, 21 of whom already hold tenure.  Traditionally, universities have not laid off tenured faculty without declaring a state of financial exigency, defined by the American Association of University Professors as, "an imminent financial crisis that threatens the survival of the institution as a whole and that cannot be alleviated by less drastic means."  While the cuts endured by Florida State are unarguably large, it is hard to make the argument that they threaten the "survival of the institution as a whole."

In discussing the procedures for laying off tenured faculty, the AAUP says, "As a first step, there should be a faculty body that participates in the decision that a condition of financial exigency exists or is imminent, and that all feasible alternatives to termination of appointments have been pursued."  The decisions at FSU evidently came from the top down, with very little (if any) faculty input.

Florida State is not the first major university to layoff tenured faculty.  Following Hurricane Katrina, Tulane laid off 230 faculty members, 65 of whom were tenured, when it eliminated four of its six engineering departments.  But in the wake of the hurricane, which shut the campus for an entire semester, Tulane did declare a financial exigency. The leadership of the university consulted an advisory panel of faculty members in making the decision to eliminate the positions.  Even under these circumstances, however, Tulane was criticized by the AAUP and others for going too far.

Florida State, like any other university, is not obligated to adhere to AAUP principles.  But AAUP documents such as the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure have long been considered "common law" in American higher education.  It is likely that other universities will use the current financial situation as an excuse to abandon these principles.  Yet it is even more important in times like these that faculty involvement in critical decisions be reaffirmed and valued.