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Q&A: John Carroll Faculty Say Proposed Handbook Revisions Threaten Tenure

John Carroll University is proposing changes to its faculty handbook. [Ida Lieszkovszky / ideastream]
John Carroll University campus in University Heights, Ohio

John Carroll University is in the process of updating its faculty handbook, but what seems like a routine piece of university business has caused an uproar among the faculty. ideastream's Ida Lieszkovszky spoke with Morning Edition host Amy Eddings about the proposed changes and concerns. 

What's going on at John Carroll University with the proposed faculty handbook? 

Last week, faculty at John Carroll were notified about some changes the board of directors wanted to make to the faculty handbook, which operates as a de facto contract between the faculty and the university. One of those revisions would give the board the ability to declare that the university is in a “budgetary hardship.” It’s a bit loosely defined, but basically the university has to experience or forecast two years of a budget shortfall, and if that were to happen, they could cut departments and fire professors – even those with tenure. 

Jeff Johansen, a biology professor and the chair of the faculty handbook committee told ideastream the faculty believe this puts tenure at risk. 

“Say the words, ‘Oh we’re facing a budgetary hardship,’ you have the authority to terminate faculty, that means you’ve terminated tenure… And there’s no appeal? Yeah, that sounds like a termination of tenure," Johansen said. 

What’s the significance of preserving tenure for the faculty? 

Tenure means job protection and academic freedom, so professors can research and write articles without fear of retaliation. 

Currently, tenured professors can be fired if the university is in what’s called financial exigency. It’s a much higher threshold of financial trouble. It’s kind of a last-resort measure. But Johansen said it seems like this new budgetary hardship status is a way to lower that threshold. 

“It’s a very low threshold," he said. "I mean, we’re a nonprofit, of course we’re almost always cutting it near the line. We’re a nonprofit! So, they don’t make a profit every year and so you can move some money, and say ‘We’re going to renovate a dorm, oh, now we are in a position of budgetary hardship we’re going to have to fire some faculty.’” 

And what does the university have to say about all this? 

The university declined ideastream’s interview request but sent the following statement: “John Carroll University is complying with the process outlined in the Faculty Handbook related to the three proposed amendments. We are committed to a collaborative process and open communication with our faculty on this matter.”

Earlier this month, William Donnelly, chairman of the board of directors, wrote a letter to faculty saying “it is critical that the institution and its leaders have the tools necessary to address financial challenges in a timely and thoughtful manner. The tools currently available to the institution are insufficient."

Faculty said they were told this new handbook is needed to fix budget shortfalls related to the pandemic and declining student enrollment.  According to its restructuring plan, the university is looking at a $20 million budget deficit. John Carroll has already eliminated the art history department but it’s also interested in opening some new departments. 

Many colleges and universities are seeing similar budget shortfalls across the country. How are they dealing with all of this? 

Well, many of them are dealing with it in similar ways. This summer, the University of Akron laid off 178 people, and many of them were tenured professors. I spoke to Sara Kilpatrick, the executive director of the Ohio chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She said nationwide, universities have been changing their handbooks and laying off tenured professors. 

“The pandemic should have been an opportunity to really trim the fat, not eliminate the core mission of the institutions," Kilpatrick said. "It should have been a time to really look, what are we spending on athletics, is the return on investment worth it? What are we spending on administration, what are we spending on buildings, and construction? Faculty are the only revenue generators for our institutions.”

Kilpatrick said she believes these universities are using the pandemic as an excuse to hack away at tenure. 

What are the next steps at John Carroll University? 

There are some meetings with the board coming up, so that faculty can make their concerns known, and then the faculty will vote on the proposed changes to the handbook. Most faculty members said they doubt the proposal will pass, but even if it doesn’t, the board has the right to institute the changes anyway.

One professor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the faculty understands the university has a budget shortfall and wants to come up with a solution, but he said this “budgetary hardship” proposal feels like a gun is being pointed at their heads. The faculty is also still upset that two tenured art history professors were fired a few weeks ago. There’s even a new Instagram account with a handful of posts opposing university management. So, we’ll see what happens over the next few weeks. 

Ida Lieszkovszky is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. She covers an array of topics, including politics, education, and the environment. You can find her on Twitter @Ida_in_Cle.