Southern University Board to Consider Plan Authorizing Tenured Faculty Terminations

Southern University Baton Rouge Chancellor James LlorensSouthern University Baton Rouge Chancellor James Llorens

Friday, Dec. 16, is slated to be a pivotal day for Southern University Baton Rouge. The Southern System’s Board of Supervisors, which recently declared financial exigency for the institution, is scheduled to vote on a controversial reorganization plan that is expected to include termination of some tenured faculty.

SUBR Chancellor James Llorens also will merge some colleges and schools within the university, as outlined in drafts circulated last week.

“We have balanced the budget for this year through staff layoffs, furloughs, freezing vacant positions and all but critical expenditures,” Llorens told Diverse.  “We now have to make sure we’re operating at level consistent with projected revenues for 2012-13 academic year.”

But the prospect of dismissing tenured faculty has engendered further strife between faculty and administration amid ongoing struggles at the Baton Rouge campus.

“I believe the reorganization committee is a total farce in order to gut the tenured faculty. No votes were taken, no motions made,” said faculty senate president Dr. Sudhir Trivedi, who participated in the committee and is known for his colorful candor. “I call it the chancellor’s feel-good committee.”

Trivedi has maintained that financial exigency was unnecessary and could have been avoided. “Financial exigency is a direct result of incompetent and imprudent financial and administrative decisions consistently made by the administration and the board,” Trivedi wrote in one of his recent memos to faculty. “We must oppose and fight it at all costs.”

Trivedi told Diverse those board-approved decisions include hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to former administrators after they left their positions, recent hiring of a board member’s son as assistant vice chancellor of student affairs, and increasing subsidies to the athletics department from $1.2 million to $2.4 million.

Llorens adamantly disagreed with Trivedi’s assessment. “It’s not the picture he paints,” Llorens said, adding that his recommendations will include reduction of faculty, “but it will not be on the massive scale that he is referring to. There is no attempt to gut the faculty.” He declined to give details of the number of tenured faculty to be let go.

Llorens said 120 non-faculty positions were eliminated in the past three to four years, largely as a result of declining enrollment, which has slid from over 9,000 five years ago to 7,100 this semester. He also asked faculty to agree to take voluntary furloughs equivalent to a 10 percent salary cut, while administrators agreed to take a 10 percent reduction. But 90 percent of faculty were required to sign on to the plan in order to reach the stated goals and avoid declaring financial exigency, and fewer than 65 percent agreed, so the next step was seeking board of supervisors’ declaration of exigency, which allows for such measures.

The American Association of University Professors has issued a position on such policies, stating that it is “more than misleading to suggest that a 10 percent pay cut means the same thing to an administrator earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as it does to a contingent teacher or an assistant professor. Lower-paid employees should be exempted from any form of salary reduction.”

Mass communications graduate student Norman Dotson sees a different picture. The former student newspaper editor noted that the news staff researched financial exigency when it was used in the late 1980s to address a budget shortfall. “When it was done in 1988, cuts were made top-to-bottom, starting at the System president’s office and working their way down. It shouldn’t start at the bottom. We haven’t seen any visible cuts at the top.”

System President Ronald Mason pointed out that the Southern System had its own budget and the five campuses within it had separate budgets. “The emergency is on the Baton Rouge campus, not the System office or the System as a whole.” He also said he reined in spending at the system level. “In my first two months, we reduced System staff by 15 people and $1 million.” Mason was appointed Southern system president in 2010.

Dotson said faculty terminations and layoffs directly affected students. “When they fire faculty, students can’t take the classes they need to graduate, so they end up staying in school longer, waiting for their classes to be offered.”

Trivedi insisted that the measures were not legitimate because the declaration of financial exigency was not necessary. “Financial exigency has become a tool of convenience and an excuse for not following the rules,” Trivedi said.  He and the faculty senate have established a defense fund to hire legal counsel to contest terminations, if necessary. The AAUP recently made a $1,000 donation to the fund, according to Trivedi.

Dr. Kamran Abdollahi, a professor in agricultural science, supports the chancellor’s efforts and thinks the process has been fair. “He has provided the platform for participation and input,” Abdollahi told Diverse in an e-mail message.

“He has emphasized The ‘SU Board Policy,’ which in my opinion is the most critical component of the reorganization process.” Abdollahi, who said that he was a participant in the reorganization meetings, explained that the Board Policy emphasizes nine points: centrality, quality, demand, critical relationships to other programs, research implications, potential for external financial support, external considerations and alternative actions. “I’m sure when [those] items are adhered to we will strengthen the institution and we will pave the path for the future benefits.”

But Trivedi said, “The proposed plan of collapsing the whole academic enterprise into five is simply shortsighted. There are no deliberations. It is like, ‘This is what we must do. Now give me your input.’”

The issue of firing tenured faculty has arisen on other public university campuses in Louisiana and around the country as state governments have mandated deep budget cuts. Typically financial exigency must be declared in order to carry out the terminations. But in February another Louisiana college system in the state took a different route — Louisiana has four separate systems of higher education. Despite heated opposition from faculty leaders, the University of Louisiana system’s Board of Supervisors approved new rules shortening the period of notice tenured faculty must receive if their programs have been eliminated.

Those actions prompted the AAUP to issue a strongly worded statement last June saying, “These practices violate so many AAUP principles that it is hard to know where to begin. But we should probably start by remarking that if senior professors with tenure can be fired and then immediately offered employment as short-term instructors, then tenure is essentially meaningless in the University of Louisiana System.

In 2010 an arbitrator ruled that Florida State University violated its contract with the faculty union by firing tenured faculty members after eliminating their positions. The fired professors were re-instated.

At SUBR, grad student Dotson thinks that the real tragedy is the image presented to the public about the institution. “The infighting really makes us look bad in the newspaper and on TV, and it’s discouraging people from coming here,” he says. With legal action expected after Friday’s meeting, the notoriety is likely to continue.

Dotson said representatives from all sides “should have been able to sit down in-house and hash this out. That’s the major problem here, people not being willing to sit down with each other and work it out.”