FHSU opts out of KBOR policy enabling COVID-related termination of university employees

BY AUSTIN RUFF

The Kansas Board of Regents met last month to discuss and ratify a “Temporary Policy Re Covid Related Reduction in Force” policy, which gives authority of the Chief Executive Offer in each regent school– Emporia State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Fort Hays State University, Pittsburg State University, Wichita State University– the ability to suspend, dismiss, or terminate the employment of any university employee, including tenured faculty. The Board cited “extreme financial pressures on state universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, decreased program and university enrollment, and state fiscal issues.” 

Fort Hays State University President Tisa Mason said in a statement that Fort Hays State University would not be implementing the measures ratified by the board of regents. During the February meeting of the Faculty Senate, senators discussed the possibility of introducing a “vote of no confidence” to the Kansas Board of Regents.

The policy, which was designed and implemented without the consent of any regent school, was enacted on January 21, 2021, giving each member school 45 days to present a “termination framework” to the Board of Regents for approval. If approved, the measure would stay in effect until as late as December 22, 2022. 

All regent schools, with the exception of the University of Kansas, have denounced the measure and have refused to implement it. KU has drawn harsh criticism for its failure to commit to the non-implementation of the policy. 

This puzzling measure handed down by the Kansas Board of Regents is actually a violation of the contract between the Board of Regents and Fort Hays State University Bargaining Unit (FHSU-AAUP), University Administration, and the Kansas Department of Administration. 

 In a statement from the Fort Hays State University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (FHSU-AAUP) to the Kansas Board of Regents, the FHSU-AAUP said, “The entire policy should be rescinded, because in addition to damaging the integrity of the university system in Kansas by destroying tenure, violating shared governance principles, and eroding academic freedom, it violates the signed contract between KBOR and FHSU-AAUP.”

The AAUP argues that the ruling is in violation of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Because the Board-of-Regent-approved COVID measure allows for regent universities to terminate tenured faculty without declaring “financial exigency,” which is defined as a “severe financial crisis that fundamentally compromises the academic integrity of the institution as a whole, and that cannot be alleviated by less drastic means,” it violates the standards set forth by the AAUP, which regards financial exigency as the only legal basis for the termination of tenured faculty members. Without a declaration of exigency, the AAUP would deem all terminations under the Board of Regents’ newly-adopted policy as “illegitimate.” 

According to AAUP standards, which are endorsed by 254 scholarly societies and other higher-education groups, faculty members must be informed of and play an integral part in the process of declaring financial exigency. Because the Board of Regents measure does not require a declaration of financial exigency in order to terminate a tenured faculty member, such considerations and consultations would not be mandated. 

Affected faculty members would also be denied a hearing, where they would be able to contest their dismissal. The Board of Regents policy specifically prohibits terminated faculty from accessing their university’s hearing procedures; however, it does allow them to file an appeal under the Office of Administrative Hearings. The regents’ COVID policy also lacks a provision for notice and severance, which could allow for a university’s termination framework to deny terminated faculty members of this right. 

Additionally, AAUP regulation stipulates that a university “make every effort” to find another “suitable position within the institution” before the termination of a tenured faculty member. Newly-adopted regents policy does not provide a framework for such efforts.

FHSU will not implement this new measure or develop any termination framework under the guidelines handed down by the Kansas Board of Regents and will take actions against the board for its violations of the contractual agreement between the university and the board. 

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