“I may be fired for writing this.”
That’s how professor Max McCoy opened his September op-ed in the Kansas Reflector titled, “Emporia State University is about to suspend tenure. Here’s why you should care.” In it, the ESU journalism professor criticized ESU for considering a policy under the Kansas Board of Regents’ workforce management guidelines that McCoy said “would effectively suspend tenure for the fall 2022 semester.”
Two days later, ESU did fire McCoy — under the very policy he criticized. And FIRE is concerned he won’t be the only one punished for speaking out. In fact, it may have happened already.
On Sept. 14, the Kansas Board of Regents approved a policy proposed by ESU, granting the university broad authority to fire any university employee — including tenured faculty — for almost any reason. The next day, ESU axed 33 faculty members.
McCoy was among the unlucky ones.
ESU’s new policy, dubbed the Framework for Workforce Management, gives administrators complete discretion to fire any university employee for vague and malleable reasons including, but not limited to, “low enrollment,” “cost of operations,” and “realignment of resources.”
Employees terminated under the policy receive 30 days’ notice and are not entitled to any further explanation of why they were let go. Worse, once the university makes its decision, terminated employees can only appeal the decision to the Kansas Board of Regents, saddling the employee with the burden of proving why they should not have been fired.
By contrast, ESU’s former policy looked like many tenure policies around the country: administrators could fire faculty only in the face of highly unusual situations like chronic underperformance and abandonment of duties, “program or unit discontinuance,” or “extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigency.” That policy also gave faculty a wider window of notice, ranging from 3-12 months, depending on their number of years of service. And, if a faculty member appealed their termination, administrators bore the burden of justifying the firing, a process that involved input from other faculty members.
On Oct. 31, FIRE wrote ESU urging administrators to revisit the policy change and subsequent firings. The drastic changes to dismissal procedures have stripped tenured faculty members of the job security typically associated with tenure and pose serious threats to their academic freedom.
At ESU, firing faculty is no longer a last resort limited to extreme circumstances, but instead, as we wrote in our letter:
ESU may now terminate a tenured faculty member for any number of reasons, such as being too outspoken, rigorous, or simply inconvenient to administrators and students, with such a dismissal justified by one of the policy’s vague reasons such as “realignment of resources” or “restructuring.” As was the case in McCoy’s firing, ESU may terminate a tenured faculty member for any of the factors listed, as well as others not specified, without being required to elaborate or justify the action. Administrators can too easily abuse the policy, targeting for dismissal faculty who cause controversy, or whom administrators simply dislike.
The AAUP also recently called on ESU to reverse course on the policy and firings, calling the developments a “direct assault on tenure and academic freedom, with grave implications for tenure and academic freedom, not only at Emporia State but throughout the Kansas system of public higher education.”
Universities have frequently used similarly vague rules as pretense for firing non-tenured faculty who cause controversy. With McCoy’s swift dismissal, the concern that even tenure will not insulate outspoken faculty is not abstract.
There are also problems beyond the policy’s obvious threat to professors’ ability to speak, teach, or research in line with their pedagogical goals, or their ability to comment on matters of public concern: its procedural changes abandon basic fairness. With the short notice period, faculty lack the time to prepare and meaningfully appeal these decisions. And without the typical input from other faculty on the drastic decision to fire a tenured faculty member, any appeal is sure to be an uphill battle against a standard of proof favoring administrators’ discretion.
Without tenure protections, faculty are left vulnerable to abuse of administrative power.
Peter Bonilla, FIRE’s vice president of programs, warned of the dangers of the policy when the Kansas Board of Regents first approved it last February as an interim measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving universities the option to implement its procedures as a cost-saving measure. FIRE is dismayed to see ESU move to permanently adopt the policy, effectively doing away with tenure at ESU.
Without tenure protections, faculty are left vulnerable to abuse of administrative power, and educational quality is sure to decline where the challenging, controversial, or unpopular professor fears firing at every turn. We urge ESU to listen to this criticism from all angles and, in particular, to respect faculty members’ concerns rather than silencing them through hasty employment decisions.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).