Why Emporia State laid off 33 employees

Around 1:00 p.m. last Thursday, Dan Colson’s phone rang. The tenured professor of English at Emporia State University answered the call and was asked to report to an off-campus building owned by the university at 2 p.m. Little information was provided about the meeting.

With threats of job cuts in the air, Colson already sensed what was coming. When he arrived, Colson said, Emporia State administrators reading a script fired him. Suddenly, after 11 years at ESU, Colson was no longer a tenured professor, even though he and others will remain on the payroll and in the classroom until the end of the academic year.

Across campus, other Emporia State employees awaited a similar fate.

At 2 p.m., Max McCoy’s phone rang. The tenured journalism professor was asked to report to the same off-campus building at 3:00 p.m. McCoy’s experience mirrored Colson’s: He was fired by administrators reading a script with no explanation beyond a series of bullet points related to a workforce management. strategy.

This process played out repeatedly last Thursday and Friday as the depth of the recently approved workforce management strategy became apparent to employees who opposed the policy, who some say killed tenure in Kansas public higher education.

“A lot of teachers were crying. There were tears; there were expressions of sympathy and loss,” McCoy said. “It was a bit like attending a funeral in the department.”

But for struggling Emporia State, administrators see the cuts — 33 in all — as a path to viability. With enrollment declining and finances shrinking, officials believe the cuts will allow them to reinvest the cost savings back into the university, though details of those specific efforts have yet to be released.

The workforce management plan

The cuts at Emporia State have been a long time coming. In January, a university leadership team began thinking about how to address the financial and enrollment challenges facing the university. Then, in May, the Kansas Board of Regents extended a workforce management policy it had introduced during the coronavirus pandemic to allow cash-strapped state institutions to quickly lay off workers. employees. Suddenly, ESU leadership had a new mechanism to cut jobs, pending approval from the Kansas Board of Regents, which approved the plan on Sept. 14.

(The Kansas Board of Regents did not respond to a list of questions sent by Inside Higher Education.)

The workforce management policy initially had an implementation deadline of July 2021, which the regents scrapped in May. The policy, which is due to expire in December, states that “any employee of a state university, including a tenured faculty member, may be suspended, terminated, or terminated by their respective university.” The policy requires approval from the Kansas Board of Regents, which Emporia State received last week.

But Emporia State employees said Inside Higher Education that they had little notice of what was to come and had almost no time to comment before the plan was approved. ESU officials announced their intention to use the policy to eliminate an undetermined number of positions on September 7, with feedback from employees expected the morning of September 12.

“We held an emergency meeting of the Faculty Senate on [Sept. 9]; we passed a resolution reaffirming our beliefs in tenure and shared governance. This framework is an affront to both,” Colson said. “In addition, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee drafted a longer document addressing several issues related to both the process and the document itself. If I understand correctly, based on these comments, only one point has been removed from the scope. »

Critics also find fault with an appeals process, which lacks an element of discovery and which they consider rushed and inadequate. While terminated professors will stay on until the end of the academic year and receive a three-month severance package, they also note a stipulation that allows the university to put them on administrative leave or terminate them early, which they believe could be abused by officials.

The framework, as it currently stands, lists nine bullet points that can be used to terminate any ESU employee between September 14, when the Regents approved the use of the policy at ESU, and September 31. December, when it expires.

According to a copy of the framework provided by Emporia State, employees can be suspended or terminated based on a number of factors, such as “low enrollment; cost of operations; reduced revenue from specific departments or schools; current or future market considerations as to the need for a program or service; the restructuring of a program, department or school deemed necessary by the university; resource realignment; performance evaluations; teaching and research productivity; low service productivity.

Colson says the plan didn’t really change based on employee feedback.

“The comments from the professors were, I guess, a hoop that they thought they had to jump through before ending more than two dozen tenure lines and tenured professors,” Colson said.

Brent Thomas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a member of the leadership team that moved the framework forward, notes that concessions have been made: A bullet point on employee conduct was removed following comments teachers.

But that change isn’t enough to appease faculty who see the implementation of the Workforce Management Policy as a mechanism to end tenure in Kansas’ public higher education.

“I know the university says they are not suspending the term. But hey, that’s what this plan does when you can summarily fire a tenured faculty member without having to go through any process other than saying, “Hey, you’re fired.” It effectively suspends tenure and academic freedom,” said McCoy, who has worked at Emporia State for 16 years.

The ESU leadership disputed the idea that they ended their term. Officials are more concerned about why the workforce management policy was even needed.

“The university has been experiencing declining enrollment, particularly in our on-campus population, for a number of years. Our financial situation has been deteriorating for several years. In the past, the university has chosen not to make difficult strategic choices and has chosen to move forward. And as a result of these past decisions, time is running out,” Thomas said. “We have very serious financial challenges in our future and in the not so distant future.”

The current cuts, according to Thomas, will avoid deeper cuts in the years to come.

“We had to do some things that we would have preferred not to do in a way that we would have preferred not to do due to the financial realities ahead,” Thomas said. “If we don’t act quickly and decisively, we risk wiping out many more people in the very near future.”

Employees also questioned whether the cuts were necessary, arguing that there are better ways to manage a workforce that give them more of a voice in the process.

Gary Wyatt, associate provost, dean of ESU’s honors college and member of the leadership team that advanced workforce management policy, said he understands the criticisms of faculty at respect to the cuts but maintains that the time to collaborate on an alternative solution has passed.

“I think [these cuts] could have been avoided two or three years ago, if political decisions had been made then about vacancies that had become vacant, decisions to shift resources to strengthen some programs and not others. So the faculty, from my perspective, are right, but these decisions should have been made at least two or three years ago,” Wyatt said.

Although employees have strongly criticized the short window for feedback, officials say the timing has been chosen to help those who lose their jobs get started on a new job search as soon as possible.

“The university labor market has a certain cycle, and the labor market is not always good, especially now. Any delay in making these decisions and notifying affected employees would have been notified later. And the later we leave, the less time they have to research and apply for other opportunities,” Thomas said. “So we really felt that in many ways moving quickly allowed our faculty to be as informed as possible in a tough job market where they would have the maximum amount of time possible to find work. other job opportunities.”

The future of post-cuts

The concerns cited by officials are not unique to ESU. Many other regional public universities face some of the same challenges with declining enrollment and shrinking finances.

While officials aren’t yet willing to share specifics, they say the deep cuts at Emporia State have a purpose, and they promise to reinvest the savings in a way that improves long-term institutional sustainability.

Critics are not convinced.

Colson said the plan reflected “right-wing fantasies about what higher education should be,” with cuts to liberal arts and sciences, which are often questioned by conservatives.

“I don’t believe it’s an economic solution, I believe it’s an ideological reorganization,” he said. “I think the people fired were a combination of things our current administration doesn’t like and people who challenged our administration. If you look at the list of those fired, it includes most outspoken people on campus, including just about every faculty member who has been quoted in local media recently about the executive.

Colson and others have also questioned the qualifications of ESU President Ken Hush — he is the only Kansas public college president without an advanced degree — and his ties to the corporate world, where he worked for Koch Industries, owned by Charles and David Koch, which contributed extensively to conservative and libertarian causes (David Koch died in 2019).

ESU officials said the idea emerged from a leadership team facilitated by Hush, but described it as a long-standing group effort. The cuts have run their course, they say, and now Emporia State can expect a reinvestment of resources, with details to be released soon.

“It’s perhaps understandable that people see this as just a cutting exercise, but it’s different from what we’ve done in the past. Because in the past we’ve made cuts to balance the checkbook, so we don’t overspend the dollars that we actually have,” Thomas said. “But when we make those cuts, the money is gone. What we’re doing now is different in that we’re being proactive in trying to make some of those tough decisions and then reinvesting the savings in a more strategic way that will help the university to be more sustainable and a better institution.

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