Podcast Transcript: John Carroll University – Interview with Colleen Flaherty

Mortarboard podcast host Daniel Barwick examines a never-before-used threat to tenure at John Carroll University, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed faculty reporter Colleen Flaherty. This transcript, which has been edited for readability, does not include a separate part of the podcast related to free community college.

Dan: Now let’s turn to the subject of today’s podcast: tenure – the brass ring that so many academics center their professional lives around for the first three to seven years they’re at an institution. For faculty on tenure track lines, nearly everything they do is done either directly or indirectly with tenure in mind, whether it is work they do voluntarily or work that’s assigned, but the tenure landscape is changing, and the pandemic seems to have accelerated that change. It’s changing from the perspective of institutions who see tenure as an arrangement that for the most part has no relevance in today’s faster-paced world of hiring and downsizing. It’s changing for faculty too. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Tenure’s Broken Promise” puts it this way: “As COVID-19 worsens the financial picture for many already vulnerable institutions, and as public sentiment against tenure grows, the possibility of losing it unceremoniously is looming larger and more frequently. Professors who have tenure, lost it, or never had it are looking with growing skepticism at this peculiar arrangement between the faculty and institutions, asking what it really means if it can’t offer security, if it is worth the cost, and if it is still serving the larger good.” Tenure is pretty unusual, often described as permanent lifetime employment – often inaccurately described that way. It is unusual in that the stakes are still high. Generally speaking, the tenure decision is permanent, and interestingly enough, it’s fairly unequally distributed across institutions across disciplines, and certainly across types of teachers. It’s also getting rare, or rarer. Nearly 60% of academics in the 1970s were tenured or on their way to tenure, and today it’s about 30%. What’s driven that? Well, primarily it’s because higher education has come to depend to a much larger extent on part-time instruction, non-tenure-track instruction, or adjunct instruction.

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The rise of tenure in the United States roughly coincides with the rise of the status of American higher education. Partly perhaps as a result of the tenure system, American higher education is the envy of the world, but times are changing. John Thielen, a leading historian of the higher education sector and a professor at the University of Kentucky, wrote in his book, A History of American Higher Education, “For a generation of new faculty members who enjoyed being hired under such circumstances, it was not difficult to imagine that such conditions were the norm.” He later wrote, “Economic abundance, however, provided little insight as to the political and legal protections professors would face in the future” There’s no question that tenure has strengthened the American educational enterprise. The National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that tenure, ultimately through the longevity that it creates, perpetuates the permanence and stability of the American education system. Today, that permanence is often seen as the mere cultivation of conformity. Outside of higher education, tenure has become increasingly criticized. It creates a certain amount of inflexibility at institutions, both financially and programmatically, and paralleling criticisms levied at the tenure system in K-12, appears to occasionally preserve the employment of bad teachers. Full disclosure: I’ve been a tenured faculty member myself, and I’ve benefited from that system for quite a few years. I’m no longer a full-time faculty member, and as an administrator, I serve at the pleasure of the university. But for the first six years of my professional life, much of what I did was driven by the demands of the tenure evaluation process. In my role as the host of this podcast, I talk to a lot of faculty and administrators, and I’m not sure that I’ve talked to any about the tenure issue in the last six months that didn’t include some concern that the tenure goalposts are shifting – shifting rapidly. For example, the most common complaint I hear are faculty who are expected, say, to present at conferences, but conferences aren’t being held and they’ve received no guidance from their institution about how the tenure process will reflect that pause in that activity. That is a consequence of the pandemic. At any rate, you only need to read national publications, whether focused on academia or not, to see stories about changes in tenure. To help make sense of this, I contacted Colleen Flaherty, the faculty reporter for Inside Higher Ed. I asked Colleen to talk to me about a recently-reported, rather extreme-seeming example of changes to tenure at John Carroll University, as well as the tenure landscape in general. Colleen, welcome to the podcast.

Colleen: Thanks for having me.

Dan: The sub-headline of your article suggested that John Carroll University fundamentally altered tenure. Now, can you explain the “fundamental” part?

Colleen: John Carroll University, a small Jesuit institution in Ohio, delivered terminal contracts to two tenured professors of art history and cut the department altogether earlier this year without declaring financial exigency. And that has not actually been unusual during the pandemic, but what is unusual and what turns out to be fundamentally different is that it is going farther than cutting that, and it is essentially introducing a new category of financial hardship into its policies that makes it easier to fire tenured faculty members than financial exigency. Now many, if not most, institutions still by their own policies need to declare financial exigency to lay off tenured faculty members for things other than cause or changes to the curriculum that faculty members have approved. But this is a really involved process, as financial exigency involving layoffs usually means that an entire department of tenured faculty members are going to be laid off. It involves institutional promises typically to try to transfer as many faculty members as possible to another department or to retrain them, and sometimes opening up the books to the faculty. It’s not an easy process and it’s one that institutions do not undertake often. So again, whereas financial exigency means a budget crisis that threatens an institution’s survival – the lights are still on, but they might not be soon enough – John Carroll now says it can fire individual tenured faculty members without cause in cases of this new concept of budgetary hardship. And they’re defining this not again as something that threatens the future of the institution, but as a projected – not final – annual budget deficit of 6%, plus two more years of not guaranteed challenges, but foreseen financial challenges. At the same time, John Carroll is denying faculty members the right to appeal these terminations, which is something different than financial exigency as well; usually there are certain layers of appeal that faculty members have in financial exigency policies and processes. Faculty members, ironically though, at John Carroll still do have certain protections under the more dire concept of financial exigency, which John Carroll is retaining alongside this new concept of budgetary hardship. The key difference for faculty members essentially is that in addition to making it possible to fire tenured faculty members for a less serious – even projected – financial crisis, budgetary hardship means that they can go in and fire one or two or three or four faculty members, versus a bunch of them in different departments that may be eliminated. And so to them that opens up the potential for administrative abuse and politically-motivated personnel actions which challenges, for them, the whole concept of tenure.

Dan: I’d like to return to that issue of the right to appeal. Your article says that John Carroll is denying faculty members the right to appeal these terminations, and if I understood your previous response correctly, there are situations in which they can appeal it, but they’re narrow. My question is, I don’t quite understand the process by which they can make this change. Is there a faculty union where the appeals process was, say, part of a contract? Does the right to appeal exist only within the university or are you also incorporating something that goes beyond just this faculty handbook? I’m trying to understand the scope of the faculty’s rights at John Carroll.

Colleen: There is no faculty union at John Carroll. Most private institutions do not have faculty unions, especially for tenured and tenure-track faculty members. And along with this new financial hardship policy the stipulation that faculty members can’t appeal was written into the John Carroll faculty handbook. So the faculty handbook is kind of like a contract; it’s not necessarily legally considered a contract, but the institution will follow what is written in the handbook policy if and when it ever draws on this new financial hardship policy to get rid of individual faculty members.

Dan: I’m just curious, do you know if the faculty had any input into the rewriting of that handbook statute before it happened or before it was released?

Colleen: They had no real input whatsoever. In fact, they tried to have input – they suggested a few different things like making it easier for the university to temporarily lower their pay, to deal with temporary financial hardship of the kind that is posed by things like COVID, but the university turned them down after a few kinds of similar proposals, and eventually the governing board approved this administration-driven policy to incorporate this new term “financial hardship” into its policies and procedures as codified in the faculty handbook.

Dan: Where did that change originate from? Within the university; the board, the administration? Were you able to understand the process that resulted in this change?

Colleen: I think the faculty members consider it to be a little bit of a mystery. Essentially, and I think it’s sort of confirmed, the board and the administration supported it.

Dan: John Carroll told you that their new approach was modeled after other institutions. Did they give you examples of this? Were you able to confirm that?

Colleen: I believe at the time that I asked for examples because the spokesperson had referenced to me that they were following models seen elsewhere, and all the information that I got was that there were 12 other institutions that were doing similar things. No specific named institutions. John Carroll also said that a number of institutions – nine, in fact, they said – are considering making similar changes. I certainly haven’t heard of this before, and the American Association of University Professors did an audit of a bunch of different faculty handbooks in responding to the university’s changes on behalf of the faculty there. They said that “in our analysis of hundreds of faculty handbooks, this is the first time we have encountered this category.”

Dan: That might actually suggest the answer to my next question. I’m going to ask you to perhaps editorialize a little bit – Brent Brossman, Professor of Communication and the faculty council president there, said the board’s explanation was “mind-boggling” and said that quote tenure is effectively done there. Is he right?

Colleen: Before I answer that, let me go back to something else that the AAUP said in its response to John Carroll. It said “a declaration of budgetary hardship would confer upon JCU, its board and administration sweeping unilateral powers to close academic programs and-or terminate tenured faculty appointments within those programs. Under AAUP supported standards and widely recognized academic norms, these are powers that may be exercised on financial grounds only through joint action with the faculty under conditions of bonified financial exigency.” And so, you know, the AAUP is essentially saying here that what JCU is proposing is and has adopted at this point is unprecedented. So I think in that sense, it’s mind boggling. And in the case of Brent Brossman, it’s personal to him. I was a bit sad, actually, talking to him because he said that he was a longtime professor who has volunteered for this, that, and the other for years for John Carroll, and he actually sent his own four children there as well. So he was kind of a cheerleader for the institution. That this is happening to his beloved college is mind-boggling to him, and I do believe him when he says that. So more generally, I think that many people would agree with him when he says that tenure is effectively done. Because essentially the point of this new measure is that again, whereas financial exigency is a big formal process that tends to target or essentially facilitate layoffs of many faculty members – sometimes let’s say within the closure of an entire department – John Carroll is actually promoting this new mechanism that it has as a “scalpel”-like tool that essentially can target one or two faculty members. So it leaves the potential for administrators to target faculty members that they don’t like, who have been critical of the administration, or who do controversial research, essentially all of those things that tenure was really invented for. I talked to another professor of philosophy who, in some of her classes, discusses gender and the philosophy of sex. That’s in accordance with John Carroll’s mandate to teach the whole person, mind and soul. So she’s not trying to be controversial – she sees it as part of her particular job at John Carroll. She said that doing this kind of work is going to be really challenging now because she could potentially be targeted for saying something that a student finds controversial and reports her for. Nowadays, not just at John Carroll, do think it’s on faculty members’ minds, that they are one or two student complaints potentially away from unemployment. The environment for teaching is extremely political right now.

Dan: The statement from AAUP that you quoted also seemed to draw a critical distinction in that financial exigency is a joint action or decision between the faculty and the administration. And that seems to be absent here.

Colleen: Right. Exactly. Financial exigency has these strict financial parameters for what actually constitutes it, and it is supposed to involve the faculty. Sometimes, often actually, in cases of financial exigency policies say that faculty members are supposed to be shown the books so they can understand and judge the financial precarity for themselves, and then any curricular reform that results from these layoffs or restructuring, their faculty members are supposed to be leading that. But at John Carroll, what triggers this new mechanism is a 6% projected budget deficit, plus two more years of thinking that things are going to be bad. And you can go in and you can target not an entire department for program reasons, low enrollments or something like that – you could potentially, without stating your reason at all, eliminate one, two or three faculty members. So in that faculty members see the door for administrative abuse or political personnel actions.

Dan: You’re the faculty reporter, so you must talk to faculty at many institutions. You cover many institution issues. What are you seeing elsewhere with regard to tenure?

Colleen: Yeah, I’m seeing a lot. There’s a lot on this; kind of sub-beat right now. John Carroll is the only place I’ve seen come up with this new codified policy for laying off faculty members in cases other than financial exigency – literally making up a new category – but we have seen during COVID dozens of other institutions laying off even tenured faculty members, saying that COVID is the reason, but without declaring financial exigency. I think outside of COVID, that would be a lot harder for institutions to do. The AAUP is actually currently investigating a half-dozen or so of these institutions, and it has been warning of the potential for this since March 2020. It says something similar happened during hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area, with institutions, in AAUP’s view, playing fast and loose with tenure and using the natural disaster of Katrina to deal with not immediate financial issues caused by the hurricane, but more longstanding financial festering.

Dan: That foreshadows my final question for you. It appears to me that there’s significantly more discussion of tenure during the pandemic. I’m curious, how much do you attribute to the consequences of the pandemic? I see discussions where some are individual institutions discussing tenure. Others are more general, where people are talking about how to ensure the survival of their institution or of their sector, and they bring up tenure as something that stands in its way. Others are members of the public, many of whom have lost their jobs, and the idea of that sort of security of employment the tenure represents kind of gets under their skin. I’m curious what you’ve seen as the pandemic has unfolded?

Colleen: I would say that discussions about tenure or the decline of tenure in particular were happening well before COVID, but COVID is definitely an accelerant. For example, many places instituted hiring freezes last year, so we’re going to have fewer professors come on board this year, and potentially next. Who knows when, or if those lines will be restored in many places. The main administrative argument against tenure that I hear is that it prevents the university from being nimble and responding to the kind of financial challenges that we saw during COVID. So what I would say is that what I am not hearing a lot about right now, but that may potentially come up in future conversations about this is potentially restoring some faculty lines amid this uncertainty in the form of full-time contracts for faculty members on a multi-year basis and written into it are strong assurances of academic freedom. And then one other thing that I would say is that just what makes all of this so difficult is that all of these conversations about the decline of tenure are so especially painful right now, because this is coming after a year of professors doing the hardest work of their lives. I think the faculty members I could hear in their voices a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning of the pandemic fatigue, certainly about enthusiasm for getting their students through the semester. And as the pandemic has lagged on faculty members are of course tired, but I think there’s something else ,kind of working in and it’s that they see in so many places their valiant efforts are being rewarded with the continued decline of tenure, sometimes on their campuses, the accelerated decline of tenure. It’s just another layer to this very, very difficult position that academia is in right now with respect to tenure.

Dan: Just as a follow-up question, you know, when I talk to people about tenure, there are many people who acknowledge that it has its shortcomings, and I’ve noticed that the conversation often goes in a particular direction. People who acknowledge its shortcomings even faculty will say ultimately, however, that, because it’s so widespread, without tenure you can’t be competitive from a hiring standpoint.

Colleen: Right. I hear that as well. I mean, whenever there are cuts to tenure lines or a faculty layoffs, faculty members will always say that, how is this supposed to protect the institution when it’s going to significantly undercut our ability to attract the best talent?

Dan: Colleen Flaherty, Faculty Reporter for Inside Higher Education. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Colleen: Thank you so much for having me. These are important issues. Thanks.