College and university faculty should long remember February 6, 2009 as a day of infamy. On that day, Clark-Atlanta University (CAU) fired 54 faculty, 14 of them tenured, well into the spring semester, with no notice, on the pretext of an “enrollment emergency.” This week, a jury ruled that CAU acted in bad faith and in breach of contract. If CAU had won this case, academic tenure would have lost most of its traditional meaning, and faculty rights would have required life support.
My very first post on this blog told the story of my wife’s experience; she never imagined that as a tenured associate professor with a current NSF grant, in her 20th year of service to CAU, she would be fired mid-semester with no notice, asked to surrender her keys the same day, and her lab, her class, and her NSF-funded research unceremoniously shut down. She was given 4 weeks severance pay, not a full year as specified in the faculty handbook for faculty terminated for fiscal exigency, and not even the rest of her academic year contract.
She and the other tenured faculty who were terminated were stunned. CAU provided no explanation of how they were chosen, nor any chance to appeal (CAU would not abide by its own grievance procedures). The fired faculty were left struggling for explanations amid trying to salvage their careers, their families, and their health. After four years of investigations by the AAUP and the EEOC, pre-trial discovery and trial testimony, we can now recount a fuller story.
Carlton Brown, the CAU President behind the mass layoffs, was brought in by the CAU Board of Trustees, chaired by Juanita Baranco, in July 2008. By December 2008, Brown had made plans to drastically cut the faculty. He and Jeffrey Phillips, interim provost, hatched a plan to declare an “enrollment emergency.” The faculty handbook lays out procedures for firing either non-tenured or tenured faculty in the case of a “fiscal exigency” or for the closure of academic programs, in accordance with AAUP policies. Tenured faculty would be given a year’s notice, and given preference in any re-hiring. However, the faculty handbook says nothing specific about the case of an “enrollment emergency.” Brown and Phillips wanted to fire tenured faculty right away and pay them only a minimum of severance (a few weeks).
Phillips then created a “faculty productivity framework” document, and asked department chairs to complete this form for all their faculty over a weekend in early January, in secrecy. The chairs have testified that they completed these forms with no awareness of how they would be used. In my wife’s case, this form was completed by a new chair who had arrived on campus just weeks earlier. These evaluations were then supposedly used as the basis to determine who would be fired. CAU has a system of annual faculty performance evaluations, reviewed and discussed with the faculty. But they were not used. Only the faculty productivity framework, of which the faculty had no knowledge and had no chance to review for accuracy, was supposedly used. I say supposedly because at least one list of proposed faculty terminations preceded the results of the faculty productivity framework.
Once Brown and Phillips had decided on a list of people to fire, they then had to declare an enrollment emergency. They had reported to the Board of Trustees that they projected a spring 2009 enrollment of 3400 students (down sharply from 4068 in Fall 2008), and faculty layoffs would be needed to meet the anticipated budget shortfall. But the VP of Student Services, Darrin Rankin, reported to Brown that spring enrollment was exceeding projections, with 3700 students already “financially enrolled” and others still in the pipeline (Rankin affidavit, Jan 27, 2010) with over a week left in the enrolment period. To Rankin’s great surprise, Brown was displeased and said he thought everyone understood that enrollment would be capped at 3400, and ordered Rankin to immediately cease further enrollment. Rankin testified that there was no “enrollment emergency.” Nevertheless, the the mass layoffs of faculty and staff occurred on February 6, 2009, and Rankin resigned.
In a nutshell, Brown and CAU manufactured a fake “enrollment emergency” as a pretext to fire large numbers of faculty and staff without notice. Brown and CAU then used a newly created, secret evaluation process, where the primary evaluators were unaware of its intended use, and the evaluated were completely unaware of its existence, to determine who would be fired. Finally, they chose to execute the firings well after the start of the semester, disrupting academic schedules for both faculty and students, in violation of the terms of the annual appointment letter faculty sign confirming their rank, duties and pay for the next academic year.
During the trial, CAU could not mount a credible defense of their actions, and the jury found unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs, for breach of contract, negligence, and attorneys’ fees. We academic faculty can breathe a little easier for the moment, that colleges and universities cannot fire faculty without justification and without due process.
We owe a debt of thanks to the brave former CAU faculty plaintiffs for enduring four years of pain and hardship to bring this case to trial. Their names are Johnny Wilson, Lonzy Lewis, Frank Sisya, Henry Neal, and Lisa Nealy.