Threats to Faculty Positions (and Tenure) at Linfield College

Posted by  Ashley Bromley   in       Apr 10, 2019     158 Views     Leave your thoughts  

by Sharon Bailey Glasco, President Linfield AAUP, and Amy J. Orr, Vice President, Linfield AAUP

On Saturday, December 8, 2018, faculty members at Linfield College received an email message from the chair of our Faculty Executive Council (FEC). It summarized a discussion that took place the previous day between three members of the FEC, the dean of faculty, the president, the provost, the VP of finance and administration, and college legal counsel. The key points of the message were as follows:

  • As of December, we have a remaining projected budget deficit of approximately $3 million for 2019-2020.
  • To help to fill the budget gap, 20-25 faculty positions would be eliminated (the president was “open to closing whole departments or cutting individual faculty from departments”).
  • The burden of the deficit was being placed on the faculty because other groups had taken several cuts over the past three years. [NOTE: On several occasions, the campus community was told that this would be the first time that faculty members would be affected by budget cuts. Further information about this inaccurate claim is provided below.]
  • Decisions about cuts would need to be made by December 15.
  • Faculty were asked to answer two primary questions: “1. Do the faculty want to participate in choosing the 20-25 positions to be eliminated? 2. Do the faculty want an extension on helping make these decisions until January?” With regard to the latter, the members of the FEC were given until 5pm on December 7 to make a decision.

The FEC chose not to extend the deadline, and made it clear that they could not engage in any processes/decisions that would violate our Faculty Handbook. The Linfield College Faculty Handbook clearly articulates conditions under which faculty members can be terminated (linking directly to the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure), and contains the Bylaws of the Faculty Assembly (a delineation of how the Faculty Assembly is to carry out the responsibilities assigned to it by the Board of Trustees through the Bylaws of Linfield College). After conveying this decision to the president, the FEC was informed that the deadline would, in fact, be extended. The FEC was also informed that “a call to populate a committee to evaluate departmental data would be made in the upcoming week.”

Toward the end of the email message, faculty members were presented with the following somber note:

That is where we now stand. The deadline has been extended, but the parameters of the discussion remain the same.  We now have a choice if we want to populate the committee, participate in the process, and thereby violate our own handbook…or simply refuse to participate until further budgetary options have been considered. It is clear that if faculty do not participate in this process, decisions on cuts will be made unilaterally by the administration.  FEC is continuing to implore the administration to consider some of the viable alternatives that we have presented them.

What has happened since December 8?
Several things have happened since the email was sent on December 8:

Sunday, December 9: The president sent the following email message to the members of the faculty: “Yesterday, the FEC chair sent a message with what could be considered inaccurate, incomplete and misleading information. Rather than engaging in unproductive email volleying, I am scheduling an open meeting of the College Cabinet. All faculty are invited to attend, and the meeting will be recorded for those who cannot be present. Tentatively, the meeting will be set for Wednesday, December 12. Details will follow as we sort them out.”

Wednesday, December 12 (2pm): While the faculty was under the impression that the “open meeting of the College Cabinet” would be between the cabinet and the faculty, it was opened to the whole campus community. It was very clear from the outset that the president was using this meeting to discredit the email that our FEC chair had sent out the previous Saturday, to marginalize the FEC chair, to shame student protestors, and to paint the faculty in a negative and incorrect light within the contexts of the ongoing budget issues at the College. A recording of the meeting can be found here.

Wednesday, December 12 (3pm): A faculty forum was convened following the college cabinet meeting (this had been scheduled back in November). At this forum, those faculty members who attended the December 7 meeting confirmed that the summary sent by the FEC chair was accurate (including the intent to cut 20-25 faculty). Numerous issues were discussed, and straw polls indicated that faculty members (1) were disinclined to participate in a retrenchment committee (12 in favor of participating, 67 opposed, and 9 abstentions), and (2) believed that it was essential that the faculty follow our Faculty Handbook as we seek collaborative solutions to our financial issues (84 in favor, 0 opposed, and 2 abstentions). The president was informed of the outcomes of this forum on December 14.

Friday, December 14: The president participated in a podcast during which he was interviewed by two students (a recording of the podcast can be found here). While he mainly reiterated points made during the open cabinet meeting, his views on higher education were more clearly articulated. These views will be discussed further below.

Monday, December 17: A meeting was held between the FEC chair, the faculty trustee (who also serves on the FEC), the chair of the Board of Trustees, the president, the provost, and the VP of finance and administration. The provost and the FEC chair co-authored a summary of the meeting that was sent to members of the faculty on December 19. They highlighted points of agreement, and also noted a list of key events that would be occurring in the upcoming weeks (for example, the deadline for acceptance of retirement offers, and a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees). The summary ended with the following statement: “FEC representatives pledge to work with the Provost to identify ways that the faculty can be mobilized to confront the short and long-term challenges before us in ways that are consistent with the established norms, bylaws, and procedures provided in the Faculty Handbook, the Common Chapter, and the Linfield ByLaws.”

Tuesday, December 18: The dean of faculty sent an email to all faculty members. In it, among other things, he countered the claim that faculty members were being affected by budget cuts for the first time, noted his support for following the Faculty Handbook, and stated his support for AAUP policies (he is a current member of the AAUP).

Thursday, December 19: The president held a “fireside chat” (via Facebook) that lasted 16 minutes.

Saturday, January 5: The FEC chair sent an email update to the members of the faculty. Several meetings are planned in the weeks ahead. At this time, no decisions have been made.

Has Linfield College declared financial exigency?
No, Linfield College has not declared financial exigency. In fact, the college is on sound financial footing. According to the 2017-2018 President’s Report (2018), the endowment reached an “all-time high” last year, donor gifts to the college were the highest that they have been since 2011, and gifts to the Linfield Fund were higher than they have been in 20 years. The 2017-2018 Financial Report paints an equally optimistic picture about the financial state of the college. (Both documents are available on the Linfield College website.) In addition, the college recently purchased, without taking on new debt, a new 20-acre campus in Portland for $14.5 million.

At the same time, we do face a significant enrollment problem. According to our November 2018 Key Indicators report, total fall enrollment (financial FTE) at the college has dropped 16% since 2014. This has, of course, strained our budget for the last few years. To date, several steps have been taken to address revenue shortfalls, and we are expecting another revenue shortage as we prepare the 2019-2020 budget. On the enrollment front, we already see positive trends for next year, and, according to information presented by the college president during our Faculty Assembly meeting in November, the “[n]ew Portland campus will allow for 2,000 (plus) on-campus students –500 in Portland and 1,500+ in McMinnville.”

As mentioned earlier, the president has noted on a number of occasions that this will be the first time that faculty members will be affected by budget cuts. This is not true. For one, faculty staffing levels, while fairly stable, do change (and have been changing over the past several years). When faculty members retire or decide to leave Linfield, their positions are not automatically replaced. Even when replacement positions are approved, they do not always move forward. For example, in the 2018-2019 contingency budget proposal that was distributed on May 29, 2018 (and shortly thereafter endorsed by the Budget Working Group), 6.5 FTE faculty positions were to be held vacant, and the adjunct faculty budget was to be decreased by 25%.

In addition, like others at the college, faculty members have faced significant cuts to their benefits (health care and retirement). This year, for example, the college’s contribution to retirement was cut by 25%. Also, while forty percent of faculty members have received step increases for the past two years, sixty percent have not.

Another area in which faculty members have been affected is with regard to professional development. Over the past several years, faculty members have lost their $600 professional development fund, faced significant cuts to the Dean’s Travel Fund (which helps to cover participation in conferences), and experienced regular cuts to academic department operating budgets (meaning a reduction in travel and professional development funds for many faculty members).

Is this really about the budget?
One thing that has become clear over the past several weeks is that we are not simply dealing with a budget deficit. The issues are much deeper, and many surfaced with the hiring of a new president.

A new college president took office on July 1, 2018. Before arriving at Linfield College, he served as the dean of the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business at Shenandoah University. During the presidential search, a presentation that he gave in 2014 about tenure surfaced, in which he made it clear that he finds tenure to be, among other things, outdated and inflexible (presentation can be found here). He was chosen for the position despite serious concerns raised by members of the Linfield AAUP chapter.

The president’s views on tenure are not surprising given that he views higher education through a corporate lens (evident in his statements at the open cabinet meeting and during the podcast; links to both are above). At a couple of points during the podcast, he clearly acknowledges that the issue is not simply “budget cuts”; he would like to see a full restructuring of the “organization.” He envisions an organization that is “nimble” and “flexible.” As he made clear in his 2014 presentation, ending tenure is a step toward “institutional agility” (tenure is “outdated” and “limits deployment of faculty to subjects better suited to needs (students’ and employer’s)”).

Given the above information, and reports from various faculty leaders that offers to balance the budget by means such as freezing salaries/steps have been met with resistance, we are left with what appears to be a fairly clear message: While the budget deficit is real and the enrollment issues must be addressed, these factors may not be the primary drivers for decisions to cut 20-25 faculty positions. An alternative reading of the events at Linfield is that the deficit is being utilized as a convenient (albeit extremely problematic) excuse to dismantle the tenure system.

Where do we go from here?
As noted above, no formal decisions have been made at this time, and the FEC has pledged to keep us informed. In the meantime, the Linfield AAUP chapter will continue to actively help to address the spread of misinformation, educate about the importance of academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance, and support our faculty leaders.

We have appreciated the outpouring of support from our colleagues at all levels (local, state, and national). In the words of our FEC chair, “Unity remains critical to our endeavor.”

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