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

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TOPEKA — An investigation into Emporia State University’s realignment plan, which included the firing of tenured professors, faults the university for “shifting and incoherent rationales” and concludes university administrators and Kansas Board of Regents members are “unfit to lead.”

The American Association of University Professors released its findings Monday following months of interviews and review of documentation. Investigators said the actions taken by ESU president Ken Hush with the blessing of KBOR amounts to an attack on academic freedom.

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

ESU fired 30 tenured and tenure-track professors in September 2022 under a temporary COVID-19 emergency policy that was put in place January 2021, before vaccines were widely available, and set to expire Dec. 31, 2022. The university cited “extreme financial pressure” when presenting its “framework” for campus realignment to KBOR, even though the university wasn’t facing financial exigency.

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

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

Meanwhile, the university last week announced restructuring plans, which include the merger and renaming of 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 & 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 a relatively new president comes on board and within a few months of becoming a permanent president, he applies to take advantage of this board policy that’s been sitting dormant for over a year and a half, for no reason,” DeCesare said. “And suddenly, 30 tenured and tenure track faculty members are out of jobs. The curriculum is being completely redefined. Now they’ve eliminated, quote unquote, middle management positions. But the stated rationale for any of these major changes, when stated at all, seems to shift constantly. If I were faculty over at Emporia State, my head would be spinning right now.”

KBOR and ESU communications staff didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

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

In a letter to AAUP, Hush emphasized that changes were the result of a campus-wide study that began in July 2021 and was completed in February 2022. Hush then formed a team of 12 individuals, “selected for their contributions to the university,” he wrote, “to evaluate, question and consider the operational, financial and marketplace value of all academic programs.”

Hush denied making any personnel decisions based on any person’s personal, professional or political views. He provided an accompanying letter by a history professor who noted his career had blossomed since Hush’s arrival even though the history professor identifies as an outspoken political conservative.

The AAUP report notes that “this faculty member appeared to overlook the possibility that these very characteristics protected him from the fate suffered by dozens of his tenured colleagues.”

AAUP formed an investigative committee in November. That team conducted interviews by video conference in December and January with 15 current and former faculty members, Kansas AAUP conference leaders, a former interim president of ESU and KBOR chairman Jon Rolph. The committee also reviewed “voluminous evidence” associated with appeals, policies, KBOR and faculty senate meetings, and news reports.

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

Lynnette Sievert, professor of biological sciences, asked the investigating committee: “How do you write an appeal letter when you don’t know why you’re being fired?”

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

At times, the AAUP report said, the university mispresented evidence during appeals and made “a mockery of basic due process rights.”

The university cited part of Sievert’s own appeal as a reason for why he should be fired. Sievert, the university noted, had written that it would have to replace him with “someone who can teach healthcare type classes[.]” The AAUP noted that the university deleted the rest of Sievert’s sentence: “which I am fully capable of doing.”

The report highlighted “shifting and incoherent rationales” for the university’s actions.

The “framework” presented to KBOR provides no financial or enrollment data. The university never explained how its financial pressures differ from hundreds of other colleges and universities that have overcome those challenges without resorting to such extreme measures. In stating its case to the regents, administration referenced “substantive changes in the educational marketplace.”

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

“In other words, while the administration pleaded financial hardship and warned of an impending crisis when submitting its framework for KBOR approval, its media messaging painted a different picture,” the report said. “While soft-pedaling budgetary motivations for the terminations, the administration consistently emphasized the programmatic reinvestments to come.”

It also wasn’t clear why the university needed to use the emergency policy offered by KBOR instead of following existing procedures for eliminating programs.

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

The report noted the effect the university’s actions would have on donations. H. Edward Flentje, a former interim president, told AAUP that he and his wife had asked the university to return money they gave to endow a scholarship in political science, a program that was discontinued.

In conclusion, the report said the willingness of KBOR members to approve a 2.5-page “framework” was so stunning it brings into question the qualification of board members.

“The unilateral termination of 30 tenured and tenure-track faculty appointments by the administration of Emporia State University is a signal event in American higher education,” the report said. “Remarkably, 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, least of all during a crisis.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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