The Emporia State University’s plan to restructure, using the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) recently adopted emergency policy for addressing COVID-19 issues at Kansas universities, has brought immediate and distressing change to the campus community.
ESU faculty and students were presented with the Framework plan on Sept. 7, with a required response by the morning of Sept. 12. The ESU plan was approved by KBOR at its meeting on Sept. 14-15. That approval was immediately followed by termination of numerous faculty members.
We call into question the motivation of KBOR as well as the actions of the ESU administration establishing a plan without input from the university community — although the university culture for decades engaged faculty, students, alumni, and community members in its governance.
Recent conversations with several retired ESU faculty members revealed that the concept of “shared governance” was brought to this university by John Visser, who was appointed president in 1967. Now, shared governance, which has served the University and community well for decades, has been shoved aside and replaced by autocracy.
The Board of Regents discarded that tradition of shared governance when the current ESU president, Ken Hush, was appointed. For the first time in memory, a search committee involving the campus and Emporia communities was not engaged in the search for a new president. Without a search process, Mr. Hush, who had been appointed by KBOR as the interim president, was announced as the president earlier this summer.
Another break with history is the background of the new president. Unlike his predecessors, he has no advanced degrees, no teaching experience in higher education, and no university administrative experience beyond volunteer work. The new president’s leadership experience is from the business world — Koch Industries.
Under Mr. Hush’s leadership, KBOR’s new policy for reshaping Kansas universities was applied to a university plan that involved only campus administrators with no faculty, staff, student or community input. In the process of restructuring, faculty members with tenure are at risk despite the guarantees that status offers, due to the KBOR Framework Workforce Management Plan’s response to “market considerations, enrollment, revenue, and employee conduct.”
The Framework goes on to say, “no existing university policy hearing procedures shall apply to such decisions.” Under the guise of an emergency, the ESU administration now has the tools to eliminate tenure, while at the same time, paring back the university’s offerings. Amazingly, under the section titled, “Rationale for why the Framework must be implemented,” the administration states, “While the University is not facing financial exigency,” yet goes on to list the factors to be used for termination of “any university employee” as though such exigency exists.
While the Framework does provide an appeal process, it puts the onus on the employee to prove the decision to terminate was inconsistent with the Framework, a result of illegal discrimination, or was “otherwise unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious.” Appeal decisions, made through the KBOR, are final.
Tenure is often derided as protecting professors who no longer perform. Nothing could be further from the truth. Low performance documented over time justifies terminating tenured professors after due process. The same standard applies to anyone accused of misdeeds in our country. What tenure protects is free speech on campus. It allows professors to challenge their students’ long-held views with new evidence and new perspectives. It protects them from being terminated without cause because they advocate for students who might not be viewed as mainstream, such as minorities or those in the LGBTQ community.
It is fair to point out that despite the fact that the KBOR provides financial exigency relief for all Regents universities, ESU is the only one using the Framework to take such extreme actions.
Our city and state benefit from robust ESU curricula providing undergraduate and graduate programs in a variety of areas, as well as graduating professionals who understand not just the business world, but science, mathematics, literature, and the arts. In addition, we all benefit from graduates in education, library and information management, and other professions. We need these professionals to value all citizens, not just those who bring additional profits to their companies.
Shared governance is significant as a research-supported management approach. The most successful leaders engage members of their communities in decision-making. And a democracy requires community engagement in planning, assessment, decision making, and curriculum development. The result is creative, relevant, vibrant, resilient university programs and campus culture.
The long-standing campus culture of shared governance is now a part of ESU history, thanks to the Kansas Board of Regents and the university president they selected.
Jim Calvert is a retired English teacher and Bob Grover is Professor Emeritus, Emporia State University.