Community Speaks Out Against Suspension of Tenure, Faculty Cuts

Kailene Nye and Isaac Glidewell

Members of the community are speaking out against the administration’s decisions on the suspension of tenure and recent cuts to faculty.

The faculty cuts were expected since the beginning of the fall 2020 semester when several staff members were laid off. Ten faculty received the same announcement in November.

David Rehm, Vice President of Academic Affairs, said the need to make faculty cuts was announced in June by then President Dr. Thomas Botzman during a Board of Trustees meeting, and after much discussion among members, the final decisions were made by Dr. Kathleen Owens, Interim President.

He said the primary reason was to adjust to declining student enrollment.

“Misericordia has 30 more faculty than it had five years ago and 450 fewer students. We have too many faculty for the student body that we have, unfortunately. Hires were made in the past few years on the assumption that enrollment would strengthen; unfortunately, it has not,” he said.

He said factors such as the number of faculty in each department, the number of credit hours taught within specific programs, student credit hours and full-time faculty history, the number of majors, and accreditation requirements were all considered when deciding which contracts would not be renewed for the 2021-22 academic year.

The news of the suspension of the awarding of tenure began to spread in September, and it caused immediate unrest.

The six faculty members who qualified for tenure in spring 2021 were notified that will no longer be the case.

Dr. Patrick Hamilton, Professor of English, said he was particularly disappointed in the decision because of the lack of discussion with faculty.

“The suspension of its being rewarded is incredibly disappointing, particularly as it seems to have been made intentionally without any input from the faculty,” he said.

He said while he and other faculty were aware of the cuts since the end of the spring 2020 semester, they did not see the suspension of tenure coming.

“I was not involved in any official discussions with the administration regarding the decision to suspend the awarding of tenure or faculty layoffs,” Hamilton said. “To my knowledge, any conversations faculty had–individually or collectively–with administration about the layoffs took place outside of any process the administration had for making these determinations.”

According to the American Association of University Professors, tenure is an appointment that protects faculty from being terminated except in the most extreme situations such as financial strains and program discontinuation.

It also plays a huge role in what the AAUP called “academic freedom,” something that is necessary for faculty who conduct research in a postsecondary educational setting. It protects them from losing their jobs because  of publications, research findings or speech, all of which help them fulfill their duty of sharing knowledge.

Rehm said the decision to suspend its rewarding was made by the Board of Trustees in response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the decrease in student enrollment at the university. He said the board decided it would “not be comfortable” awarding tenure in such uncertain circumstances.

He explained that if faculty who were up for tenure applied, they would have been denied due to the board’s “fiduciary responsibility” to the university as a whole.

“The Board did not want to subject good faculty members to termination. Therefore, by suspending tenure, these faculty do not need to apply for tenure, but they may apply for promotion, and they can remain with Misericordia University,” he said.

Hamilton said while he has not been as affected as someone who has tenure, he still feels the impact of both decisions.

“I find both decisions incredibly regrettable, short-sighted and ultimately damaging to the university. We will lose truly excellent faculty members as a result of these decisions, not only because of their direct impact on those they effect but also on what they indirectly signal to other faculty that were on the tenure track about their positions at this institution,” he said.

Faculty weren’t the only people who shared their opinions on these decisions. Community members created #NoMercyAtMis, a movement objecting to the suspension of tenure and the faculty and staff reduction, was formed not long after the news of tenure’s suspension got around and gained support from many students who wanted to show solidarity with faculty.

George Shea IV, Professor of Philosophy, puts flowers on the statue in honor of the faculty who have been cut during the faculty demonstration. This event was a part of the #NoMercyAtMis movement. (Isaac Glidewell)

Lauren Schuster, senior English major, is one of those students. She said she was saddened by the loss of professors but was not surprised at which departments suffered the most cuts.

“I wish I could say that I’m surprised that some departments took more of a hit than others, but I think there are times in higher education when certain fields are simply seen as less crucial than others,” she said.

She believes these cuts combined with the suspension of tenure will have a great impact on students.

“In so many ways, tenure ensures security for faculty and quality education for students,” Schuster said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost some brilliant professors this year, including some who would have been up for tenure, and it does affect the opportunities available for students at MU. It’s sad to think that future students may not have some of the same academic experiences available to them.”

Hamilton agreed, saying he believes these decisions may cause problems for students. This is because if more full-time faculty are cut as he thinks they will be students will have more trouble fulfilling their academic requirements.

“With such reductions in faculty, course offerings will be reduced, which could result in fewer sections of courses that students need and/or want to take, making it difficult for them to complete requirements in the proper order or at the proper time in their programs,” he said.

He said the English department is already experiencing this, as it will lose over a third of its full-time staff due to the layoffs in addition to faculty who are retiring.

He believes the decisions will greatly affect the overall morale at the university.

“Faculty and staff cuts alike have had and will continue to have a devastating effect on morale among the University’s employees,” Hamilton said. “It will also be hard for us as an institution to claim we believe in and practice the values of the institution–including the charisms of the Sisters of Mercy–given these actions and how they were taken.”

Rehm said that while no more cuts to faculty are being discussed at this time, further cuts are not ruled out as the university tries to increase enrollment amidst the pandemic. He also said there has been no discussion of bringing back laid-off staff and faculty.

He did, however, ensure there are plans to renew tenure once the university has adequately faced its challenges, which will allow the board and administration to make clearer decisions on how to reinstate tenure.

Rehm said he too is mourning the loss of faculty.

“There’s nothing like hearing from someone that you will lose your job,” Rehm said. “I have heard that from others, and I have had to say it to others. I feel awful. Nevertheless, the university as a whole must come first.”

Owens said she didn’t like having to lay off faculty, but feels she has made all the proper considerations when making the final decisions.

“I get no joy in executing my responsibility to send letters of non-renewal to valued colleagues. I feel the heavy weight of knowing that the decisions on non-renewal and suspension of tenure impact the lives of not only the ten colleagues but all members of our community. I also accept that I have the responsibility to tend to the needs of Misericordia University for both today and tomorrow and, in my judgment, I have considered both in executing my duties,” she said.

Schuster said she hopes better ways of making decisions like these are considered in the future.

“I just hope this isn’t setting a precedent for future decisions from the university. I’d love to see tenure brought back and I’d like to hear some confirmation from the administration that these decisions won’t put the future of our smaller departments and programs in jeopardy,” she said.

She is hopeful, though, in the strong messages of support she has seen from students.

“It’s hard not to be impressed by the solidarity the student body and the professors have shown each other through an incredibly challenging semester, first with the pandemic to consider and now this. The past few months have been a strain on them, too, so I hope that the students continue to make their support known and keep the amazing momentum they’ve had,” Schuster said.

Hamilton said that while he is trying to remain optimistic about the future, he is aware of the reality of the impact the suspension of tenure and faculty layoffs will have going forward.

“I would hope that we as an institution could thrive and continue to grow as a university, but that will likely not be possible any time soon, if it is at all. These decisions, to me, are a massive step backward for Misericordia University,” he said.