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John Carroll University Can Cut Tenured Faculty During 'Financial Hardship'

An aerial view from the Goodyear Blimp over John Carroll University on Friday Sept. 27, 2019. [Phil Long / AP Images for Goodyear]
Aerial view from the Goodyear Blimp over John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.

John Carroll University will move forward with a decision to allow the university to remove certain tenure protections from the faculty handbook after the board of directors voted this week to reject a counter-proposal offered by faculty.

On March 1, the university’s board of directors voted in favor of a handbook amendment allowing for faculty to be fired without cause in the event the administration projects an annual budget deficit of 6 percent along with two additional years of budgetary “hardship.” Those terminated can’t appeal their firing. The board finalized the decision with a March 10 vote, over faculty protests.

“Faculty claim the budgetary hardship amendment eliminates tenure. This is not true. The budgetary hardship amendment continues to recognize and prioritize tenure and academic freedom as essential while also acknowledging current and future economic realities that impact everyone,” the board said in a statement after the vote. “There are strict limits on when and how the budgetary hardship amendment could be triggered, with detailed protections that prioritize tenured faculty, as they should be, given the important role tenured faculty play in academic excellence and supporting academic freedom in research, teaching, and service.”

The faculty counter-proposal voted down Wednesday, in part, “affirmed the importance of tenure and denied the right to fire tenured faculty members,” said Brent Brossman, a communications professor and chairman of John Carroll’s faculty council, in an email to ideastream.

The proposal offered various ways to cut costs during times of hardships, including cutting salaries and benefits, Brossman said, as well as would have put two faculty members on the 40-member board of directors.

The board’s decision will affect the university’s standing nationwide, Brossman said last week, adding that the decision to remove tenure protections will disincentivize new faculty from taking positions at the 135-year-old private Catholic university.

“If you are and do have opportunities to go elsewhere, why wouldn't you? I mean, I’d want to have my tenure protection. So it’s an absolute incentive for faculty to leave and it’s an absolute disincentive for new faculty to come in,” Brossman said after the initial vote. “Nationally, the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] reviewed this and said it's this combination of budgetary hardship and the ‘scalpel’ approach to tenure where they can remove individual faculty members from departments without cause. It's just unheard of. No one else is doing that. And it is a blight on our program right now.”

The American Historical Association, which represents working historians, submitted a letter criticizing the removal of tenure protections, and asking the board to reconsider – to no avail.

“The de facto elimination of tenure (via this low bar of “budgetary hardship”) identifies the university with employment practices that have no place in American higher education,” the letter read, in part. “Under this new amendment, the university administration will be in a position to terminate tenured faculty members without cause, without the criterion of financial exigency, and without appeal. This process stands in marked contrast to generally accepted ethical guidelines — an especially striking embarrassment for an institution notable for its well-deserved commitment to Jesuit values.”

In September, 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 at that time they were told the handbook amendments are needed to fix budget shortfalls related to the pandemic and declining student enrollment. According to its restructuring plan, John Carroll faces a $20 million dollar budget deficit.  The university eliminated its art history department in August.

The changes to the John Carroll University Faculty Handbook go into effect next fall.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”