Clark-Atlanta University’s assault on tenure and faculty rights

This is my wife’s story, so I’m biased. On the other hand, I have a ring-side view and can relate these events from almost personal knowledge. I will try not to inject my outrage; the plain facts are shocking enough.

Dr. Deborah Cook, Associate Professor of Biology at Clark-Atlanta University, was called into the department chair’s office Friday afternoon, February 6th, and asked to surrender her keys to her office and her laboratory. Whatever personal items she could not remove that day, she could make an appointment with the Dean of the Collge of Arts and Sciences to return and retrieve. While she was in the chair’s office, receiving this stunning news, a young man came into Deborah’s office and turned off her computer, permanently cutting off  access to CAU’s network, and to her CAU email account. All over the CAU campus, similar actions were taking place. In all, CAU dismissed 70 faculty that day, nearly 1/3 of the faculty body.

Deborah, and two of her colleagues in the Biology department that were also dismissed, was tenured. She also had an active NSF Career Advancement grant, and was supporting one graduate student and an undergraduate research student. She was completing her 20th year as a CAU faculty member, and had been nominated this year for the Aldridge-McMillan Faculty Achievement award, given to a CAU faculty member for outstanding achievement.

As a result of the termination, she could not finish her research. Her graduate student is left without direction, because no other faculty at CAU has the requisite expertise. Deborah may not even be able to serve on the student’s committee, because she now has no faculty appointment. Finally, the summer salary she was due on her grant is now inaccessible. CAU has proposed that one of the recently hired Assistant Professors take over Deborah’s Career Advancement grant. Yes, CAU terminated tenured faculty while retaining untenured junior faculty in the same department.

This mass faculty termination occurred four weeks into the semester. Some classes taught by the terminated faculty were canceled and students transferred to other classes. Not different sections of the same course, but different courses. Students in Deborah’s Plant Physiology course, with laboratory, were transferred to Human Physiology. Remaining faculty had to pick up additional teaching assignments mid-course.

What kind of severance package did CAU offer Deborah for nearly 20 years of service, and abrogating her tenure? Four weeks of pay. She could receive an additional 8 weeks of severance pay, but only if she signed a pledge to neither pursue internal grievance procedures nor file suit, nor criticize CAU in public. Furthermore, no member of her immediate family would be allowed to criticize CAU in public. Deborah chose to forgo the additional 8 weeks of severance pay.

No doubt you have many questions, if you are at all familiar with academia. Questions such as, how could CAU fire tenured faculty? What notice were faculty given? What procedures were used to determine who would be terminated? We do not have complete answers to these questions at this time. I can only provide CAU’s official communications to the CAU community and to the public.

A week before the mass terminations, the President circulated a letter (https://www.cau.edu/CMFiles/Docs/PresidentsLettertoCAUFamily.pdf) warning of declining student enrollments and adverse effects on university finances.

“Therefore, while no definitive decisions have been made, we now know that personnel reductions among CAU faculty and staff, as well as several additional cost-saving measures, will have to occur soon. All personnel decisions will honor due process rights and will be completed with the utmost care and respect afforded to the affected employees and their families.”

On February 5, the day before the mass terminations, CAU issued a 4-page official statement announcing the terminations (https://www.cau.edu/CMFiles/Docs/StatementOnCAURestructuring.pdf). Regarding the faculty layoffs, it said:

“Faculty and staff have been assured the workforce reduction will be conducted within University policies and procedures. All personnel decisions will be completed with care, humanity and respect.”

This statement also specifically and categorically denied that academic programs would be closed, and also denied that the university was in current financial difficulty. “CLARK ATLANTA UNIVERSITY IS NOT DECLARING FINANCIAL EXIGENCY.” (Capitalization in the original document). The significance of these statements is that closure of programs and declaration of financial exigency are the two contingencies that allow the university to terminate tenured faculty, as outlined in the CAU Faculty Handbook and by AAUP (American Association of University Professors) guidelines. However, CAU specifically denied those two conditions.

Even in cases of financial exigency, according to the CAU Faculty Handbook, tenured faculty must be given one year’s notice. Deborah and the 69 other faculty were given a few hours.

Surely Deborah had been made aware of her precarious situation through the “due process” of review with her chair? Deborah, and none of the other fired faculty, were aware of any such evaluation process. In fact, none of the departmental chairs in the College of Arts and Sciences were apparently consulted, and did not know until the fateful day, which of their faculty would be fired.

This story is ongoing, with many unresolved issues. Deborah has filed an internal grievance, and has consulted an attorney. The CAU Faculty Assembly is organizing a response to the administration, and a legal defense fund. Since all the faculty are given a contract each year specifying their salary for the academic year, with a start date and an end date, these terminations without cause raise questions of breach of contract, even for the non-tenured faculty who were terminated.

Stay tuned. All of us in academia have a stake in this. If left unchallenged, CAU’s actions threaten the whole concept of tenure, faculty rights and privileges, and the principle of faculty governance. CAU’s actions reduce the status of faculty to that of day-laborers. Should such a precedent be allowed to stand?

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About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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13 Responses to Clark-Atlanta University’s assault on tenure and faculty rights

  1. Lock Rogers says:

    Jung, what a mess… I’m really sorry to hear about your wife’s situation. On the other hand, it seems like a slamdunk legal case. Best, Lock

  2. Robin Heyden says:

    This is a chilling story, Jung. And so hard to fathom! I hope that you’ll keep us posted on what happens with your wife’s situation (and those other 69 faculty members. Very scary.

  3. stephanie pandolfi says:

    Wow, Jung – absolutely incredible. I’m so sorry to hear about this; hard to believe and very sobering. Best of luck to your wife and the rest of the <> faculty.

  4. RConnolly says:

    Jung,
    This is indeed a sobering story. I am sitting in my office this evening preparing for a meeting tomorrow afternoon, and we have been hearing similar reports from our colleagues across the country. Hopefully, these faculty will be able to get thier contracts honored. Good luck and keep us posted.

    • John Merrill says:

      Jung:
      Sheesh. Disturbing. I hope you find some redress, but it doesn’t sound like an institution she would want to work for any more. Keep us informed.

      • jchoigt says:

        At this point, Deborah would not accept her old job back if CAU offered it. Nor would many of the others who were fired; there’s a limit to the crap people can take from an employer, and CAU has exceeded it, in spades.

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  7. Kimberly says:

    Jung,

    My heart goes out to your wife as well as the rest of your family. However, in the mist of this recession not only HBCU’s are being hit with layoffs majority institutions as well. There is no proper way to terminate a person without hard feelings.
    I too am a little biased as an alumni of Clark. Knowing this is may have been handled differently but knowing this is all a reflection of the selfish society we live in .As a person that has worked in corporate America for over twenty years this is the type of BS that goes on all the time not that it makes it right..

    Much continued success to your wife.

    • jchoigt says:

      Thank you for your comment, Kimberly. University faculty have different expectations than corporate employees – especially tenured faculty. One of the reasons we chose to become university faculty and bust our guts to get tenure is the promise of lifetime employment and academic freedom. We accept significantly lower salaries in exchange for these rights and freedoms. CAU’s action are a violation of this long-standing status and role of faculty in academia, and hence my title for the blog.

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