A journalism professor ominously suggests that restructuring and layoffs at Emporia State University may be “a political maneuver to end tenure,” and that “I may be fired for writing this.”
Nonsense, says the university. It’s simply cutting some class and degree offerings, and expanding others, to accommodate a changing market – while also adjusting to a staggering 24% enrollment decline since 2017.
Changes have already come to programs in music, art, computer science and cybersecurity, nursing, and diversity, equity and inclusion, says ESU Media Relations Director Gwen Larson. More additions and subtractions in other academic departments are being rolled out, she says, but no more than the 33 announced layoffs are coming.
And while journalism professor Max McCoy writes of “the firing of faculty members with only a 30-day notice,” Larson says faculty members – who comprise the vast majority of those who are being laid off – actually have nearly a year’s notice: They’ll finish the academic year in May, then receive three months’ severance.
Moreover, she says, all current students in affected programs will be allowed to complete their majors.
McCoy’s op-ed in the online Kansas Reflector was headlined, “Emporia State University is about to suspend tenure. Here’s why you should care.” The Heartlander asked Larson if that assertion is in any way true.
“No,” Larson said simply, adding that tenured faculty in unaffected academic areas will retain their tenure and, indeed, some new positions being offered in the university’s workforce management program will actually be new tenure-track jobs.
There’s a misperception among many outside of academia, and perhaps inside, that tenure is a guarantee of a job for life, when in fact it’s only a pledge of academic freedom and protection against arbitrary firing.
“If you are working at any other job in the state that is not a tenured professorship, you can walk in on any given day and be terminated. And I think that’s the perspective that many in the general public have,” Larson says.
The American Association of University Professors defines tenure as “an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.” The latter two circumstances – finances and program termination – would appear to apply to ESU’s actions.
Pressed again about McCoy’s claim that ESU is suspending tenure, Larson said, “What I would say is that that was an opinion piece. If that’s what he believes, he can write that.”
Yet, the perception that Emporia State is suspending tenure has seeped through the Emporia community and education circles statewide and beyond.
The initial community response was passionate, if misguided.
“In my opinion, there was a lot of emotion involved when the first announcements came out,” Larson said. “Nobody wants to think that their neighbor, their friend, is losing a job. After we started sharing some of what our future plans are, I have not heard much negativity in the local community.”
During COVID-19, the Kansas Board of Regents officially sanctioned such workplace management plans in all of the state’s six regent universities, and extended that authorization until the end of 2022. Emporia State University is the only one so far that has done so.
Some states’ colleges and universities are more insulated from market forces – such as Georgia’s, where lottery dollars provide nearly half of tuition for qualified students. Kansas’ institutions don’t have that degree of luxury, and Larson says state funding has indeed receded in the past decade or so.
Larson points to a changing job landscape – and differing student approaches to education – to buttress the argument for updating ESU’s academic offerings.
“My generation went to college to get a degree, and then would figure out what to do with it. Students [now] are coming to us saying, ‘This is the career I want. What do you have that I can take that will get me there?’ So they already come in with a specific career in mind. And we need to have programs that are designed to get them into that career.”
Despite exceptions for financial and programmatic decisions in its definition of tenure, the American Association of University Professors has launched an investigation into the Emporia State restructuring, calling it an “extraordinary summary dismissal of thirty-three faculty members, most of them long-serving professors with tenure.
“The process by which these termination decisions were made – without any meaningful faculty participation and without affording the affected faculty members academic due process – appears illegitimate and the terminations themselves appear to involve severe violations of widely accepted principles of academic freedom and tenure,” the AAUP wrote in a statement Oct. 19.
Larson counters that the university’s workforce management plan has been thoughtfully done over time and over discussions with many stakeholders.
“This entire restructuring has been a months-long process with a number of people on campus, primarily from the academic side, that has been looking at every single thing we do on campus, particularly the programs we offer. They have looked at some of what you would assume would be typical indicators – enrollments. We’ve also looked, though, at the future. We’ve studied labor statistics: What are the next jobs that are going to be developed in fields that we’re not really even teaching yet?
“So, for instance, one of our reorganizations that we’ve already shared is cybersecurity. We’re building up our program in that, because that’s a hot field that needs trained people in it.
“This has been a long-term process looking at everything, looking at it from many different angles. And what Emporia State did was come up with a plan for the academic programs that our students and other data tell us will be relevant going forward.”
Media reports have somehow tried to tie the Emporia State restructuring to new university President Ken Hush’s past work for Koch Industries, a frequent bogeyman to the political left.
“The libertarian Koch brothers, of course, kicked off the current culture war during the Obama years with their support of the Tea Party,” McCoy even writes.
Hush left Koch Industries nearly 10 years ago, Larson notes.
“Koch Industries had nothing to do with the work that we did, the study that we did, the reorganization we did,” she says. “What is true is that our president’s background is business-oriented. He had a highly successful career in international business, and he brought all of the components of his business background that he understands so well and helped us apply it to Emporia State University – which is, in and of itself, a large business for the Emporia community.”
Though McCoy suggests he might be fired for speaking out, when asked about any repercussions – or even university discussions with him about the assertions in his article – Larson said there would be none.
“Free expression is a core tenet of what Emporia State University believes in,” she said.