Lawsuit against Ashland University will define value of tenure

Ashland University recently announced that it granted tenure to three faculty members.

I worked with two of the faculty who received tenure prior to leaving for Fairfield University in Connecticut last year. While I am incredibly happy that the hard work these faculty have done has been recognized, I worry that the reward of tenure is meaningless at AU.

In August 2015, several tenured faculty — the university has never actually said how many — were told their jobs were being eliminated. As of January 2017, they are no longer employed by AU. This move on the administration’s part is the primary reason I left AU. I no longer felt the tenure I was granted in 2014 meant anything.

Fortunately, seven faculty members whose jobs were eliminated have filed a lawsuit against the university claiming administrators violated the rules and regulations that govern the university when it comes to this type of act. (You can read the entire complaint by clicking here.)

This is an incredibly important lawsuit, not just for Ashland University, but for universities in general. It boils down to what the definition of the word restructure is, and it has the potential to destroy tenure, the staple of academic freedom that has made American universities the great institutions they are.

The university’s rules and regulations contain wording that allows the administration to eliminate tenured faculty members. The first reason is because the university is on the verge of financial collapse. Here, the Board of Trustees would have to declare something called “financial exigency.” Once a board declares that, it’s open season on tenured faculty, all in the effort to save the university.

It’s no secret that AU has not done well when it comes to managing money over the last decade. However, the trustees have not declared financial exigency.

Other than dire financial straits, according to the rules and regulations, the university can remove tenured faculty members because of the “formal discontinuance of a program or department,” or the “formal restructuring of a program or department of instruction.”

The seven faculty members claim, according to their lawsuit, that the university has not restructured anything. No departments have been eliminated. Curriculum has remained virtually the same. The classes these faculty taught are still being offered to students, albeit taught by significantly lower-paid, part-time faculty.

The university, on the other hand, has claimed that a prioritization process conducted in 2014-15 identified departments that could possibly be restructured, and that was in essence a restructuring. I know this because I heard it many times when faculty questioned the administration about the firings before I left AU.

Basically, AU is arguing that simply saying the university should restructure is an act of restructuring.

Why is this important?

If the university prevails in this lawsuit, then tenure is dead at Ashland University. It would mean that any time the university felt the need to get rid of a faculty member, for any reason at all, they could simply say “We’re restructuring. You’re fired.”

This is chilling. In higher education, faculty need to be able to question the moves administrators make, and vice versa. Universities depend on shared governance, where the faculty and the administration make decisions together for the betterment of the institution.

Why do I care about this? I’m an alumnus, and I care about AU. This is something all alumni should care about, because if the administration prevails, AU will no longer be able to attract the type of faculty who made us who we are today.

It won’t be the AU that we know and love. It probably already isn’t.

Sincerely,

Matt Tullis, ‘98

Sandy Hook, CT