Friday, July 13, 2018

How secure is tenure? (Michael Simkovic)

Colleges and universities typically pay educated professionals a fraction of what similar individuals earn in the private sector (typically around 60 to 80 cents on the dollar) in return for greater job security and academic freedom.  In recent years, some law schools have effectively reneged on this bargain, slashing compensation, de-prioritizing research support and/or accepting outside funding that compromises academic freedom, and terminating even some tenured faculty members.

Recent reports suggest that Vermont Law School has taken this to the extreme.

According to the ABA Journal, Vermont Law School recently stripped tenure from 14 of its 19 tenured professors.  This was done without a formal declaration of financial exigency, and according to faculty members and the AAUP, apparently without the consent of faculty members typically required for such decisions. 

Professors were reportedly offered severance equal to 6 months salary and health benefits, but only if they agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement and full release of all legal claims.  This package is no more generous than severance pay routinely offered to long-serving (but untenured) employees of for-profit corporations. 

Private sector employees typically receive 3 to 4 weeks of pay for every year served, with managers typically offered 6 months to 1 year.  Universities typically attempt to categorize faculty members as managers.  Managerial status prevents faculty from joining labor unions.

Although Vermont law school has suffered declines in its credit rating, these draconian cuts are taking place as the law school is experiencing a surge in enrollments, according to its dean.  This suggests that the restructuring may not be justified on grounds of financial exigency.  

According to the AAUP, terminated faculty members should be offered at least 1 year of severance or notice.

If the reports are accurate, Vermont has essentially acted as if tenure does not exist. This could potentially raise questions about whether Vermont is in compliance with ABA standard 405, but it is unclear how assertive the ABA or site visit teams will be in enforcing those standards. 

The incident highlights the importance of faculty members joining organizations like the AAUP which protect tenure and academic freedom.  At many institutions, tenured faculty members are increasingly getting the worst of both worlds--private-sector level risks with public-sector level compensation.

Anecdotally, faculty members with marketable skills and experience are increasingly leaving for more attractive positions in the private sector.

In the short term, faculty members considering a lateral move or prospective faculty members considering entering the academy should check a university's credit rating and very carefully research how the university has handled financial difficulties in the past.  Except for those given an opportunity to work at a handful of elite, well-funded, and highly credit-worthy institutions with strong tenure protections, educated workers may increasingly conclude that giving up a lucrative career in the private sector is inadvisable until tenure protections are adequately strengthened or compensation is increased to offset greater risk.


Further reading:

Lee Gardner, Want to Kill Tenure? Be Careful What You Wish For, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 2018.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice | Permalink