Developments Relating to Association Censure

The Association’s staff has prepared the following brief accounts of significant developments during the past year at institutions that appear on the AAUP’s list of administrations censured for serious departures from AAUP-supported standards of academic freedom and tenure. No significant developments this past year can be reported regarding institutions on the AAUP’s list of institutions sanctioned for infringing AAUP-supported governance standards. Information about the current status of other institutions on our sanction and censure lists is available from the Association’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance. 

Lawrence Technological University (Michigan), 1998 

The investigating committee found that not even minimal safeguards of academic due process were afforded a tenured professor whose appointment was terminated when his program was eliminated. The case was settled after he initiated litigation, and two additional cases the following year were resolved through out-of-court settlements. 

As noted in last year’s “Developments,” an additional case of Association concern arising in fall 2011 was resolved in January 2013. In June 2013 the Michigan AAUP conference contacted the Association’s staff regarding a first-year assistant professor whom the administration sought to dismiss for cause after she had been reappointed for the 2013–14 academic year. The stated ground was her alleged failure to disclose, during the search process that led to her initial appointment, a personal relationship with one of her referees. Under AAUP-recommended standards, probationary faculty members subject to dismissal prior to the termination of their appointments should be afforded the opportunity for an adjudicative hearing before an elected faculty body. In such a hearing, the burden of demonstrating adequate cause rests with the administration. As the AAUP’s staff had repeatedly noted in its communications with the Lawrence Tech administration regarding censure removal, the university’s faculty handbook lacks a provision that accords with that standard. As a result, the procedures that administrative officers proposed to follow in effecting the professor’s dismissal fell far short of Association-recommended standards, prompting the staff to communicate the AAUP’s concerns to the president by letter of June 21. After questioning whether the charge against her was so grave as to warrant dismissal, the staff’s letter stated that “nearly all reputable colleges and universities have adopted dismissal procedures that . . . afford the same due-process protections to tenure-track faculty members being dismissed before the expiration of their appointments as they do to tenured faculty members whose dismissal is being sought.” The letter also noted that the handbook’s deficiency in this respect was among several that the administration and faculty would need to address as a step toward censure removal. As an immediate step, staff urged the administration to confirm the professor’s appointment for 2013–14 and, if it insisted on going forward with dismissal proceedings, to follow the above-described procedures. The letter closed by expressing the hope that as the previous case had been resolved in a manner comporting with AAUP-recommended standards, so too might this one. 

In August, the professor informed the AAUP’s staff that with the assistance of the faculty senate she had reached an agreement with the administration that she found acceptable. The chief remaining obstacles to removing censure at Lawrence Technological University are deficiencies in the university’s official regulations on academic freedom and tenure. 

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 2012 

The 2012 annual meeting’s placement of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, on the censure list was based on action by the administration concerning two cases that differed regarding the administrative officers involved and the matters under dispute but that were alike in testing core issues of academic freedom. 

The first case, affecting a nontenured associate professor of engineering denied retention after seventeen years of full-time service, tested freedom regarding research and publication and regarding extramural utterances in a politically charged atmosphere. The professor’s work in coastal erosion and in hurricane- and flood-related issues had brought him prominence and favorable evaluations. Hurricane Katrina’s August 2005 onslaught placed him in a national spotlight that the LSU authorities were initially happy to share. Their support of him ceased, however, after he found that a main cause of the flooding in the New Orleans area was the structural failure of the levees overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Anticipating cooperation from the corps in coastal restoration projects, the LSU administrators expressed resentment over having been linked in the media with the professor’s findings. They took steps to restrain his public activities, to distance LSU from those activities, and subsequently to deny him further appointment. 

The AAUP investigating committee concluded that the administration denied the professor the academic due process called for under AAUP-recommended standards and violated his academic freedom in several ways: by terminating his services largely in retaliation for his dissent from the LSU position on the levees and the flooding; by restricting the nature of his research; and by penalizing him for exercising his citizen’s rights to speak out extramurally. 

The second case, affecting a tenured full professor of biological sciences in her thirty-first year of full-time faculty service, tested the freedom of a classroom teacher to assign student grades as she saw fit. She had repeatedly been commended for teaching excellence, with praise for her “rigorous approach” and “demanding coursework” in her upper-level courses. In spring 2010, she agreed to “pitch in” by teaching a section of an introductory course for the first time in fifteen years. Her midterm grades were strongly skewed to D and F, leading the college dean, without having consulted with her, to remove her immediately from teaching the course. She asked the dean to hear her explanation for the grades and reconsider, and he replied that he was willing to discuss the matter but his decision stood. LSU’s Faculty Grievance Committee found unanimously in her favor, whereupon the administrators assured the committee that the senate was working on “an improved policy” on student grading. The dean apologized to the professor for failing to meet with her personally to tell her he was removing her from the course, but he did not apologize for failing to consult with her before he acted. 

The AAUP investigating committee concluded that the LSU administration violated the professor’s rights to assign grades and, in peremptorily removing her from an ongoing course, violated her academic freedom to teach. It concluded further that the administration’s subjecting her to the severe sanction of suspension, without opportunity for a faculty hearing, denied her the protections of academic due process. 

As reported in last year’s “Developments,” the engineering professor filed suit in federal district court. Late in 2012, after extensive discovery proceedings, he reached a financial settlement with the university. The biology professor received an apology for the actions against her; by that time, the administrators responsible for the actions had moved on. Remaining to be resolved for potential censure removal were deficiencies in applicable official LSU policies. 

The year 2012 witnessed the departures of the president of the Louisiana State University system in April and of the chancellor of the system’s flagship Baton Rouge institution in August. A former LSU president served as interim president-chancellor, the two positions henceforth to be combined, pending the selection of a successor. After a stormy selection process, with faculty groups complaining of being shut out of it, Dr. F. King Alexander was appointed to the combined office in spring 2013. 

Writing in March 2014, Dr. Alexander informed the Association of his interest in having the censure removed. He remarked that in the two years since the publication of AAUP’s investigative report “a number of factors have changed internally,” and he noted that, in the cases the report cites, “every administrative position involved in those cases, except one, is now held by a person different than when the cases occurred.” The AAUP staff immediately assured Dr. Alexander that his interest was welcome. Sharing his letter with current and former officers of the AAUP chapter and the faculty senate, the staff invited their comment on what else, beyond recommended changes in official policies, may need to be done before the censure is removed. Discussions with a designated LSU administrative officer are in process, and Committee A will receive an updated account of developments when it convenes prior to the AAUP’s 2014 annual meeting in June. 

Southeastern Louisiana University, 2012 

The components of the nine-member University of Louisiana system include three institutions that are currently on the AAUP censure list: Nicholls State University since 2009 and Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University, both since 2012. The 2012 censures resulted from an AAUP investigation of program discontinuances and the ensuing termination of faculty appointments in the University of Louisiana system. Developments that can be reported this year are confined to cases at Southeastern Louisiana University. 

At Southeastern, the administration discontinued the major programs in French and French education and terminated the appointments of the three tenured professors who were affiliated with the programs. Their competence was never questioned, yet they were the only tenured Southeastern professors to suffer termination of appointment. As the investigating committee noted, all too evident from the outset was the irony that French and French education majors were being discontinued at a public university located in a state and a parish that recognized French as an official language. French courses continued to be offered, more than enough to provide a full workload to the two professors who had any interest in remaining, yet the administration was willing to offer only one of them retention for a one-year appointment in an instructor position that carried a sharply reduced salary and was renewable at the will of the administration. The president claimed full authority for making all the relevant decisions and immunity from having to provide reasons for deciding as he did. The investigating committee concluded that the administration acted in disregard of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and derivative documents by proceeding unilaterally to define what constitutes an academic program for the purposes of tenure and to insist on terminating the appointments of the three tenured French professors. The committee concluded further that the Southeastern faculty was excluded from any role in the decision that a financial crisis existed and was so grave as to require the release of tenured faculty members. The committee noted that the Southeastern president, after being pressed to explain why he had selected only the French majors for elimination, replied with a single word, “cost.” It concluded that the financial savings achieved through the three French appointment terminations “were grossly offset by the cost to Southeastern Louisiana University’s reputation.” 

A new president of the University of Louisiana system took office in January 2013. She visited the Association’s Washington office in March to learn what needed to be done to bring the censure to closure. The AAUP staff talked to her about the three French professors, who had initiated litigation in Louisiana district court, advising her to seek out-of-court settlements with them as a significant initial step in resolving the censure situation. The staff reiterated this advice in communications and discussions during the summer and the fall. Meanwhile, the AAUP Foundation’s Academic Freedom Fund provided a grant to assist with legal expenses, and the AAUP’s Louisiana conference provided a matching grant, the two serving as the basis for a fundraising drive throughout Louisiana. 

The system moved to dismiss the litigation by summary judgment, and a hearing before the trial judge was held on December 16. The judge dismissed one of the cases, on grounds that the professor had voluntarily surrendered her tenure rights by announcing her intention to retire before threatened steps to infringe on those rights were actually taken. He rejected the dismissal motions in the other two cases, however, with explanations that the professors and their attorneys found more positive than they had hoped regarding the merits of their case. He stated in his remarks that he did not see himself softening his position in a trial that was scheduled to begin on March 12. Between now and then, he suggested, the parties should consider discussing their differences with an eye toward resolving them. 

As the March 12 date approached, the AAUP staff once again urged the administration to have its lawyers seek a settlement. On March 11, a financial settlement satisfactory to the professors was reached. In the words of Alvin Burstein, the past president of the AAUP Louisiana conference, “Kudos to the gallant three who fought this battle for all of us, and to all who found the means to stand with them.”

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