John Carroll University weakens tenure — and academic freedom with it

March 9, 2021

I recently wrote about how in Kansas, in response to declining tuition revenues and weak public finances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kansas Board of Regents approved a temporary policy that will allow state universities to remove tenured faculty without first needing to formally declare financial exigency. Given the economic climate facing higher education on the whole due to the pandemic, I figured I’d have the opportunity to revisit the issue sooner or later. And here we are.

This time, the institution in question is Ohio’s John Carroll University, a Catholic university, which is charting a strikingly similar path to the one taken in Kansas. Here’s how Inside Higher Ed describes the dramatic policy shift:

Whereas financial exigency means a budget crisis that threatens an institution’s survival, John Carroll now says it can fire individual tenured faculty members without cause in cases of “budgetary hardship.” This is defined as a projected — not final — annual budget deficit of 6 percent, plus two more years of foreseen challenges.

At the same time, John Carroll is denying faculty members the right to appeal these terminations. Faculty members still have certain protections under the more dire concept of financial exigency.

An advisory letter from the American Association of University Professors’ Mark Criley puts in perspective how significant this is, writing of the “budgetary hardship” provision that “[i]n our analysis of hundreds of faculty handbooks, this is the first time we have encountered this category[,]” which is not to be understood as “simply financial exigency under another name” (emphasis in original), but as a distinct category of hardship that is much less exacting than financial exigency, when an institution on the whole faces insolvency. Criley also points out that the new policy gives JCU the ability to target individual departments or programs for cutting; indeed, Inside Higher Ed notes that JCU has already cut its art history department and laid off two tenured faculty members. 

JCU’s Board of Directors is at pains to pronounce its commitment to academic freedom and even to spin this change as something that will serve academic freedom going forward. A statement the university provided to News 5 Cleveland argued: 

The Board believes that one of the most effective ways to preserve tenure and academic freedom and to attract outstanding faculty is to continuously strengthen the University’s academic offerings and overall student experience. This requires the ability to effectively steward the University’s resources for the long term. These amendments, along with many other activities underway, will help accomplish that objective[.]”

The “making it easier to remove tenured faculty through a process they can’t appeal in order to safeguard academic freedom” line doesn’t seem to be cutting it with JCU faculty. One recently tenured professor tells News 5 Cleveland:

“Many people are trying to leave. We’ve had one professor that’s resigned already,” said Marcus Gallo, an associate professor of history.

[…]

“I got tenured in August of 2020 and my tenure is basically meaningless. I’m tenured in name only,” said Gallo. “Any excellent institution of higher learning is going to have tenure at the core of what you’re doing as a professor.”

And longtime professor Brent Brossman, chair of JCU’s faculty council, spoke at length to The Carroll News, JCU’s student newspaper, about how reduced tenure protections could chill academic expression:

Eliminating tenure, according to Brossmann, “would fundamentally change the way faculty are willing to interact with students. It will certainly fundamentally change the way that we interact and challenge our students.”

“It will be very difficult for us to be encouraging our students to ‘go forth and set the world on fire’ because those things require students to understand the transformative role that they have in society, and to help them have a transformative role, we [the faculty] have to challenge your current assumptions. And now it’s going to be incredibly risky to do that. Our jobs are on the line if we challenge your assumptions.”

And they have a point. If the status of tenured faculty is altered to the point where any professor could be removed on the malleable basis of “budgetary hardship,” which they would not have any way of appealing, then we’ve watered tenure down a long way from what made it desirable for faculty to seek in the first place. This is why, under AAUP standards, “financial exigency” is agreed upon jointly by the administration and faculty before dismissals of tenured professors can take place: It precludes less dire financial situations from being used as an excuse to fire politically inconvenient professors. And while JCU says it’s not its intent to use this new power as a way to rid itself of controversial faculty, the fact that this new “budgetary hardship” exception just happens to dodge an appeals process that would force JCU to defend its reasoning makes the risk to dissenting professors even more obvious.

Tenure isn’t specifically an institutional concern of FIRE’s, but there’s a reason we keep issuing warnings — including recently regarding a bill in Iowa that would ban tenure in public universities in the state — about the risks to academic freedom that come with weakening or eliminating it. As Joe Cohn noted then, “our archives are filled with cases where we successfully fought on behalf of tenured faculty, any number of whom could have faced swift and unjust termination if they hadn’t been protected by tenure.”

JCU, like a lot of universities, may be in a difficult (though apparently not exigent) financial position, from which there aren’t easy solutions. Already, the Carroll News notes, faculty and staff have taken pay reductions to try and make up for some of JCU’s projected shortfall. We don’t envy the university’s position. But nor can we refrain from comment when its current solution involves risking academic freedom — an institution that the modern university is built upon.