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New York court uses college faculty manual as basis of ruling for terminated tenured faculty

Gavel and scales

A New York state court recently held that the terminations of four tenured music professors from the College of Saint Rose unlawfully violated the institution’s faculty manual. The decision sends a message to educational institutions that they must uphold the promises they make in faculty handbooks and other written policies. 

The College of Saint Rose claimed that the professors were terminated as part of a cost-cutting plan based in part on proposals submitted by each department of the college, including the music department. However, the professors alleged that their terminations were based not on the music department’s proposal, but on a secret proposal submitted three weeks after the deadline by faculty members in the music-industry concentration.

This second, competing proposal called for the elimination of the entire music department except for the music-industry concentration and its faculty members. Notably, however, the terminated faculty were more senior than most of the music-industry faculty. By electing to implement the competing proposal, Saint Rose violated the faculty manual, which requires the college to give preference to faculty based first on tenure, then seniority, and then rank. 

Justice Peter A. Lynch of the Supreme Court for the County of Albany sided with the professors, finding that the decision to terminate them was contrary to policy and therefore arbitrary and capricious. In his words, “[Saint Rose’s] actions cannot stand!”

Unilaterally discarding promises made to faculty members weakens their employment security, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to violations of their academic freedom.

Intramural organizational disputes such as this are generally not within FIRE’s purview, but we have long explained that colleges are contractually bound by the promises they make in faculty and student handbooks. Institutions of higher education have great power over faculty and students, both of whom rely on the dependability of institutional policies — which are, in almost every case, non-negotiable — when they make important professional and educational decisions. Courts must therefore be willing to hold college officials accountable when they violate their promises. This is particularly important at private institutions like the College of Saint Rose, which are not bound by the First Amendment (or, in the case of disciplinary procedures, constitutional standards of due process) but which nevertheless often promise similar protections to members of their respective campus communities.

The ruling in this case comes less than a year after the American Association of University Professors released its special report, “COVID-19 and Academic Governance,” which included several instances of tenured faculty being fired and of faculty handbooks being either suspended or rewritten. As we wrote at the time, unilaterally discarding promises made to faculty members weakens their employment security, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to violations of their academic freedom. Rulings like this one remind colleges that their promises, including their promises of academic freedom, carry not just important philosophical weight, but legal weight as well.

Notably, this case was decided under Article 78 of New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules, which protects faculty and students at New York’s colleges and universities (including private institutions) from decisions that are “arbitrary and capricious” or “made in violation of lawful procedure.” As my colleague Katlyn Patton explained in April of last year, although New York courts have interpreted Article 78 to require some deference to college and university disciplinary decisions, they too often exhibit complete deference to institutional decisions, failing to afford students and faculty any meaningful protection under Article 78. 

At Fordham University, for example, a group of students seeking to start a campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine was denied recognition because administrators feared it would lead to “polarization” on campus. That decision was first struck down by a trial court, which noted that the risk of “polarization” was inherent in the university’s commitment to “freedom of inquiry,” but upheld by a state appellate court in December. Also at Fordham, a student who sued after being suspended for his Instagram posts had his case dismissed at the trial court level, where Fordham argued that, despite its “guarantee” of freedom of expression, it had the “prerogative” to punish student speech. Syracuse University, too, argued that it had a right to censor student speech after it suspended its chapter of the Theta Tau fraternity for performing a satirical skit. An appellate court ultimately decided the case against the students.

Fortunately, we saw two notable exceptions to this pattern in 2021. The first was a decision last March by the Supreme Court of New York, Onondaga County, which ruled that Syracuse had “no rational basis” to suspend the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity. On the faculty side, the Supreme Court for the County of Queens found in December that St. John’s University failed to follow its faculty discipline procedure in terminating adjunct professor Richard Taylor. The court reversed the termination and referred the matter back for proper administrative proceedings, meaning that St. John's can try to fire Richard Taylor again — though doing so would be an abandonment of its commitments to freedom of expression and academic freedom — but must do so by the book. The case in question here, decided against the College of Saint Rose under Article 78, makes for another exception, and we hope more will follow.

FIRE applauds the New York court’s decision for correctly holding that the College of Saint Rose must adhere to the policies it lays out in its faculty manual.

When schools wantonly disregard their written policies, they’re behaving in a manner that is “arbitrary and capricious” or “made in violation of lawful procedure,” as Article 78 describes, but they will continue to act in these ways so long as courts allow them to get away with it. More rulings like the three described in the paragraph above would protect faculty and student rights by holding private colleges and universities across New York to their own policy promises.

FIRE applauds the New York court’s decision for correctly holding that the College of Saint Rose must adhere to the policies it lays out in its faculty manual. This decision strengthens promises of academic freedom, which allow diverse views and pedagogy to flourish at private universities.

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