University Presidents Deserve Due Process, Too

June 8, 2010

FIRE seldom has occasion to stand up for the rights or academic freedom of a university president (although former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers comes to mind). More often, we are praising or blaming a university’s president for either upholding or denying the free speech rights of others on campus. Today, however, I draw attention to Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) because of the way in which its president, Cheryl Norton, was fired.

According to The Hartford Courant, the chairs of the state legislature’s higher education committee have gotten involved in the case, asking Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

to render an opinion about whether the chancellor and the board [of the state university system] violated state law when they changed personnel policies to enable the dismissal or non-continuation of a university president without the approval of the full board of trustees.

Handley and Willis asked specifically for an opinion about whether state law was violated by the “the failure to provide the Board of Trustees with the opportunity to vote on the intended non-continuation of President Norton.”

The changed personnel policy—which allows the chancellor to dismiss a university president without a vote of the full board—was the subject of a heated hearing last week before the higher education committee.

If I understand this story correctly, the chancellor and the Board of Trustees changed the rules specifically for the purpose of firing the president, presumably out of concern that a vote by the full board might end up with the president not being fired. Whether that’s against the law or not, it’s a questionable move, and probably immoral.

Suppose you were a student facing charges that would lead to expulsion. Shortly before the hearing, you find out that the disciplinary processes promised in the student handbook have been changed in order to make it easier for the college to expel students—and specifically to expel you. How would you feel? The change might also be a violation of the university’s contractual obligations to you as a student under the handbook.

I don’t know what the chancellor and these particular board members have against Cheryl Norton, but monkeying around with the procedure does not inspire confidence in the Connecticut State University System.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. SCSU isn’t in our speech code database, but Central Connecticut State University is—and it has an unconstitutional speech code and even a policy that threatens freedom of conscience (PDF). Maybe it is time to take a closer look at the state of free speech and due process at all of the universities in the state system.