Emporia State University Kansas Board of Regents members ‘unfit to lead,’ investigation finds

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Emporia State University Kansas Board of Regents members ‘unfit to lead,’ investigation finds

TOPEKA — An investigation into Emporia State University’s restructuring plan, which included the firing of tenured professors, accuses the university of “variable and inconsistent rationales” and concludes that university administrators and members of the Kansas Board of Regents are “unfit to lead.”

The American Association of University Professors released its findings Monday after months of interviews and document review. Investigators said the actions taken by ESU President Ken Hush with the blessing of KBOR constituted an attack on academic freedom.

“It doesn’t reflect well on the university,” said Michael DeCesare, senior program officer for the AAUP and professor of sociology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. “If I were a prospective faculty member reading this report and reading your report on what’s been going on since the fall, I would have serious reservations about even considering a position at Emporia State.”

ESU laid off 30 full and tenured professors in September 2022 under an interim COVID-19 emergency policy that was put in place in January 2021 before vaccines were widely available and was set to expire on December 31, 2022. The university cited “extreme financial pressures” when presenting its “framework” for reconfiguring the KBOR campus, even though the university faces no financial need.

The university subsequently reinvested in new programs, handed out secret “performance bonuses,” offered to rehire fired professors as adjuncts, and sought to hire new professors with the same qualifications as those who were fired.

Last week, an appeals officer for the state Office of Administrative Hearings reinstated Michael Behrens, associate professor of English. He is the third fired faculty member to get his job back through the appeals process, with 10 more pending decisions. All three were reinstated for the same reason: The university declined to say why they were fired.

Meanwhile, the university last week announced restructuring plans that include merging and renaming various departments or programs and a stated desire to eliminate middle management. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was moved into the new School of Science and Mathematics, prompting some professors to joke that they now teach “S&M.”

“When you just look at the big picture from a distance, what it appears to be is that a relatively new president comes on board and within a few months of becoming permanent president, he applies to take advantage of this board policy that has been dormant for more than a year and a half, for no reason,” DeCesare said. “And suddenly 30 tenured and tenured faculty members are out of a job. The curriculum has been completely redefined. Now they have eliminated, quote I don’t quote, middle management positions. But the stated rationale for each of these major changes, when stated at all, seems to be constantly changing. If I were a faculty member at Emporia State, my head would be spinning right now.

KBOR and ESU communications staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Hush took over as ESU’s interim president in November 2021. The KBOR, after a secret hiring process, named Hush president on June 22, 2022.

In a letter to the AAUP, Hush emphasized that the changes were the result of a campus-wide study that began in July 2021 and ended in February 2022. Hush then formed a team of 12 people “selected for their contributions to the university,” he said it says, “to assess, question and examine the operational, financial and market value of all academic programmes”.

Hush denied making personnel decisions based on any individual’s personal, professional or political views. He provided a cover letter from a history professor who noted that his career had flourished since Hush’s arrival, even though the history professor identified himself as an outspoken political conservative.

The AAUP report noted that “this faculty member appears to ignore the possibility that these very characteristics may have protected him from the fate suffered by dozens of his tenured colleagues.”

The AAUP formed a commission of inquiry in November. This team conducted videoconference interviews in December and January with 15 current and former faculty members, AAUP Kansas Conference Chairs, ESU Past President Interim, and KBOR Chair John Rolfe. The committee also reviewed “voluminous evidence” related to appeals, policies, KBOR and Faculty Senate meetings and news reports.

The report found that the appeals process, in which faculty members were not allowed to gather evidence or call witnesses, was “shockingly inadequate.” They were given a bulleted list of nine possible reasons for their dismissal, copied from the “framework” policy approved by the KBOR.

Lynette Sievert, a professor of biological sciences, asked the investigating committee, “How do you write an appeal letter when you don’t know why you were fired?”

During appeals hearings, the administration “proceeded to punish faculty members for failing to understand the precise reasons for their selection,” the AAUP report said. The report also said the administration was “breathtaking in its feigned incredulity.”

Sometimes, according to the AAUP report, the university misrepresents evidence during appeals and makes “a mockery of fundamental due process rights.”

The university cited part of Sievert’s complaint as the reason why he should be fired. Sievert, the university noted, wrote that it would have to replace him with “someone who can teach health care courses[.]The AAUP noted that the university had deleted the rest of Sievert’s sentence: “which I am fully capable of doing.”

The report highlighted “variable and inconsistent justifications” for the university’s actions.

The “framework” presented to KBOR does not provide financial or enrollment data. The university never explained how its financial pressures differ from hundreds of other colleges and universities that have overcome these challenges without resorting to such extreme measures. In making its case to the regents, the administration cited “significant changes in the educational marketplace.”

The rationale was further clouded, the report said, by public statements by ESU that faculty were fired as part of a “strategic alignment.”

“In other words, while the administration cited financial difficulties and warned of an impending crisis when presenting its framework for KBOR approval, its media releases painted a different picture,” the report said. “While playing down the budgetary rationale for the termination, the administration has consistently emphasized upcoming programmatic reinvestments.”

It was also unclear why the university had to use the emergency policy offered by KBOR instead of following existing procedures for removing programs.

“A critical question arises: If KBOR and the administration could take such extreme measures once on such flimsy grounds, what would prevent them from doing so again?” the report said.

The report notes the effect the university’s actions would have on endowments. H. Edward Flentje, former interim president, told the AAUP that he and his wife have asked the university to return the money they gave to endow the political science fellowship, a program that has been discontinued.

The report concludes that the willingness of KBOR members to approve a 2.5-page “framework” is so staggering that it calls into question the board members’ qualifications.

“The unilateral termination of 30 faculty appointments and appointments by the administration of Emporia State University is a signal event in American higher education,” the report said. “Notably, the Kansas Board of Regents and the ESU administration have insisted that they support tenure and academic freedom. If we take them at their word, we must conclude that they are unfit to lead, at least in times of crisis.

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